Saturday, February 08, 2014

Development veteran Weisbrod named Chair of City Planning Commission; real estate industry said to be pleased

Yesterday, Mayor Bill de Blasio made what many considered the safest choice, choosing city development veteran Carl Weisbrod to chair the City Planning Commissioner, rather than Commissioner Anna Hayes Levin or academic Vicki Been. 

While Weisbrod will push for more affordable housing, how much he will push back on the real estate industry remains in question, given that, according to some reports, some of the mayor's supporters were not thrilled.

One question is whether and how much Atlantic Yards will receive a boost, either speeding the subsidized housing or allowing a configuration with more, family-sized apartments, as Forest City originally promised. 

From the New York Times, De Blasio’s Pick for Planning Puts Focus on Housing:
From its perch as overseer of New York City’s growth, the City Planning Commission has helped mayors put their own stamp on the landscape, whether with luxury Midtown towers or a revitalized waterfront. But Mayor Bill de Blasio mostly sees the realm of zoning and land use as another means to address economic inequality.
On Friday, the mayor turned to a seasoned government and development expert, Carl Weisbrod, to lead the City Planning Commission. But Mr. de Blasio said Mr. Weisbrod, whose public service dates back to the Lindsay administration, would take a novel approach: one that looks beyond aesthetics to use the planning process to create housing and jobs and to help solve what Mr. de Blasio calls the city’s crisis of affordability.
Mr. de Blasio said he expected city planners to help him fulfill his ambitious goal of preserving or building 200,000 affordable homes over the next 10 years.
“Aesthetics are important,” Mr. de Blasio said. “But we see the City Planning Commission as a central piece of a strategy to change this city’s reality, to make sure that people who are left out have more opportunity.”
(Emphasis added)

Are they kidding. City Planning in the Bloomberg administration was about rezonings, many of which increased the value of the land significantly--and more recently (though not early on) offering bonuses for affordable housing.

But it is true that many urban planners believe that the Department of City Planning and City Planning Commission should be about much more than zoning.

The Times added:
Mr. de Blasio wants to increase affordable housing through changes in zoning and land use. He said every city neighborhood would be assessed for its potential to add housing that is affordable to low- and middle-income residents.
The administration, he said, would also look “with fresh eyes” at proposals that can be modified to extract more public benefit, like the rezoning of a 73-block area on the east side of Manhattan to add new office towers.
Representatives of the real estate industry have made the rezoning a priority and on Friday praised Mr. Weisbrod’s appointment.
Steve Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, called Mr. Weisbrod, whom he has known for 35 years, “fair” and “exceptionally bright.”
Housing advocates said the appointment bodes well for increasing affordable units. “We need a creative and thoughtful leader like Carl Weisbrod to make this a reality, while balancing the various needs of neighborhoods in a community-focused approach,” said Sydelle Knepper, the chief executive of SKA Marin, a firm that builds affordable units.
Mr. de Blasio said he picked Mr. Weisbrod — most recently a partner in the real estate consulting firm HR & A Advisors, where he managed the rezoning of Manhattan’s Hudson Square area — for his experience in revitalizing neighborhoods and his success in getting deals done.
“This is a man who can drive a hard bargain,” the mayor said.
I don't know if that means everybody loves Weisbrod. Shouldn't the praise from REBNY be a bit of a red flag?

More coverage
Capital reported, For planning, de Blasio picks a pro-development liberal
"He led the effort to secure the 99-year lease with the United States Tennis Association for the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, one of the most financially beneficial agreements the City of New York has ever struck with a private entity, in fact one of the best sports deals struck by any municipality in the history of this country, further proof that this is a man who can drive a hard bargain," said de Blasio, at an introductory press conference today.
The U.S.T.A. actually leases its more than 46-acres of cordoned-off parkland from the city for "about $440,000 in annual rent and an additional 1 percent of gross revenues above $25 million, which last year amounted to $2.5 million," according to the New York Times.
All of that money goes to the city's general fund, not to the beleaguered park in which the complex resides, something that became an issue last summer when the U.S.T.A. was seeking to expand its footprint even farther.
In fact, even then-candidate de Blasio argued that the city should renegotiate its contract with both the Mets and the U.S.T.A. so as to secure more money for the park in which their stadiums reside.
"The era of giving away prime land to commercial interests at bargain basement prices must come to an end," he said in a statement from July.

("It was one of the best deals the city’s ever struck," emailed de Blasio spokesman Wiley Norvell this afternoon. "But that doesn’t mean we can’t reach higher, especially given how much has changed in this city over 20 years.)
Will there be change?
Many of the initiatives Burden supported, like Atlantic Yards, de Blasio supported too.
Today, de Blasio promised a "very different approach at City Planning."
A reporter asked de Blasio if he had any plans to roll back and Bloomberg rezonings or initiatives.
"We're going to take an entirely different approach is the simple answer," said de Blasio. "We're looking at the soccer stadium with fresh eyes. We're looking at Midtown East with fresh eyes and a whole different set of goals than the previous administration had. We are looking at the notion of what city planning is with fresh eyes.
"And I have a lot of respect for Amanda Burden. She had a very different strategic understanding of what city planning is and what it means than Carl Weisbrod does. Carl and I feel...that this is about using the planning process to achieve a bigger set of strategic goals. That includes the creation of affordable housing, that includes facilitating job development, that includes trying to address inequality."
Politicker reported on the press conference:
Asked today whether Mr. Weisbrod had any role in his own appointment, Mr. de Blasio balked.
“Mr. Weisbrod had absolutely, positively no role in submitting his own name. He was slightly aghast when I forcibly submitted his own name,” he said. “There just was no one comparable in all of New York, I would say bluntly no one in all the United States comparable for this role.”
“So even though it wasn’t in his plan, it was in my plan,” he added smiling. “A little persuasion. I didn’t get physical, it was all high very high road.”
With a little more spin

From the Wall Street Journal, New York Mayor Names Urban Planning Leader: De Blasio Appoints Weisbrod to City Planning, Pleasing Real-Estate Industry:
The choice of Carl Weisbrod, an elder statesmen of the city's development community, to lead the City Planning Commission and the City Planning Department unsettled some of the mayor's liberal supporters and reassured the real-estate industry.
The appointment signaled that the mayor was serious about his pledges to approve dense developments near transit facilities, with high percentages of affordable housing, industry officials said.
...Messrs. de Blasio and Weisbrod said the department would be less focused on aesthetics than under the Bloomberg administration and more on working with other agencies to deliver on the administration's goals.
Mr. Weisbrod said the new administration would take a different approach to promoting development.
"The goal is to produce affordable housing now, not just housing," he said. "Some affordable housing has been produced, but we want to produce a lot more."
Some de Blasio supporters said the choice was disappointing because Mr. Weisbrod has close ties to the real-estate community and doesn't represent a clean break from the past as Mr. de Blasio promised.
But Lisa Gomez, executive vice president of the New York State Association for Affordable Housing, said Mr. Weisbrod would help drive the mayor's affordable-housing agenda. "He has a blend of being a visionary and being a convener and those two are not necessarily traits that are found in one person," she said.
Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, a trade group for the city's developers, signaled that the appointment pleased his group.
Yes, AY is included:
Mr. de Blasio's development agenda faces challenges, given that the Bloomberg administration rezoned about a third of the city, leaving less ground untilled. The planning department will have to ensure that many projects—including Hunter's Point South, Hudson Yards, Willets Point and Atlantic Yards—reach their full potential.
Of particular interest for the city’s transportation and housing future will be how vigorously Weisbrod pursues reform of NYC’s parking minimums, which Amanda Burden, the previous planning commissioner, barely touched.
...While EDC has developed a well-earned reputation for patronage and parking subsidies, especially in parts of town outside the Manhattan core, Weisbrod built his career mainly in places where the walking environment couldn’t be ignored. He seems to have a good feel, at least by association, for what makes city streets work. The Hudson Square BID, for instance, has been amajor proponent of pedestrian safety and public space improvements the last few years.
Still, Weisbrod doesn’t bring quite the same clear-cut policy chops as some other contenders. One of the most important reforms the planning department can spearhead is the elimination of parking mandates that drive up the cost of housing and generate traffic. Anna Hayes Levin, a member of the City Planning Commission who early in the transition was rumored to be in the running for the position, fought against the 17,500 parking spaces called for in the city’s initial plan for Hudson Yards when she was a member of Community Board 4. (Advocates successfully sued the city and a cap of 6,100 spaces was implemented instead.) And Vicki Been, the director of NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy who was reportedly a finalist for the spot, authored the definitive report about how parking minimums making housing in New York less affordable.
Weisbrod’s insider perspective could be an asset if the administration decides to stop building suburban levels of parking as part of most city-subsidized redevelopment projects. Many of the projects that buildparking-saturated development on city land are driven by masters of finance, and Weisbrod speaks their language.
One commenter wrote:
Weisbrod was there for the “zoning for sale” era. Instead of setting broad rules for everyone to follow over large areas, the city cut deals to require developers to hand over resources to politically connected groups in exchange for upzonings that put $billions in their pocket.
Having been founding president of the Economic Development Corp. under Mayor David Dinkins, Weisbrod was with the Trinity Development Group before his current role. It will be interesting to see if he chooses to release an advisory opinion from the city's Conflicts of Interest Board regarding his past professional associations. Most recently, he's been a partner at HR&A Associates, where the client list is extensive.
His connections in both government and private development reach far and wide. HR&A, for example, where he's one of 10 partners, was paidmore than $1 million pushing a Major League Soccer Stadium project in Queens near Citi Field.
The firm's client lists as advisers and consultants include several city government entities -- the Planning Department which he'll now lead, the Transportation Department, his former EDC, the due-to-be-reformed NYC Housing Authority and the Mayor's Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability from the Bloomberg era.
From the private sector, there's Goldman Sachs, Galesi Group, Milstein Properties, Millennium Group, and Forest City Ratner companies (which was prominently noticed on the new mayor's fundraising lists last fall). And, the firm was involved with mega-plans for an ice-skating center in the Bronx in the former Kingsbridge Armory. 
(Note: Forest City is indeed listed as a client, with no further details, and it has no place in the master list of projects and is not listed on a map of projects. So it's murky. HR&A is not, however, listed as a lobbyist for Forest City.)

The press release

The official press release, Mayor de Blasio Appoints Carl Weisbrod as Chair of the City Planning Commission:
Video available at: YORK—Mayor Bill de Blasio today announced Carl Weisbrod will serve as Chair of the City Planning Commission, pledging a new approach to development that aggressively confronts the city’s inequality crisis. From expanding affordable housing to growing local industry that provides good-paying jobs, Mayor de Blasio charged Weisbrod with using all the tools at the city’s disposal to lift up working New Yorkers, keep neighborhoods affordable, and create stronger, more resilient communities.

Weisbrod brings more than 35 years of public service to the City Planning Commission. From his time in the Lindsay administration as a young anti-poverty lawyer, to his service as president of New York State’s 42nd Street Development Project, to his tenure as the founding president of the nation’s largest Business Improvement District in Lower Manhattan, Weisbrod has a track-record of revitalizing neighborhoods across the city and creating opportunity for New Yorkers in the process.
In announcing Weisbrod, Mayor de Blasio emphasized the administration would increase the city’s capacity for bold, long-term and comprehensive planning. And to achieve that goal, the Mayor pledged to dedicate additional resources to the Department of City Planning that will expedite the evaluation and certification of land-use applications.
“Carl is a quintessential New Yorker. He brings a real passion for our neighborhoods and our diversity across the five boroughs. And he also understands exactly how the city can shape development to stoke the most growth, the strongest affordability, and the best jobs for New Yorkers. He is ready to take these challenges head-on,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“I love this city. I’ve spent my entire career revitalizing its neighborhoods and making sure New Yorkers were the ones who benefited from good growth in their communities. We have such an enormous opportunity to put people to work in good-paying jobs, build affordable homes, and create stronger, more resilient communities—but that demands an approach that doesn’t let a single tool sit idle. We are committed to striking tough bargains and making farsighted decisions that protect New Yorkers and help us build a stronger city,” said Chair of the City Planning Commission Carl Weisbrod.

About Carl Weisbrod
Carl Weisbrod has more than 35 years of experience serving the people of New York. He has left his mark on some of the city’s most dynamic and fastest-growing neighborhoods.

Weisbrod’s service in government extends back to the Lindsay administration, which he joined as a young anti-poverty lawyer at the Department of Relocation. He was appointed by Mayor Koch to spearhead the city’s efforts to transform Times Square, and he also served as the Executive Director of the New York City Department of City Planning, Executive Director of the National Service Program, and Chairman of the New York City Loft Board. As president of New York State’s 42nd Street Development Project, Weisbrod led the effort to revitalize Times Square, transforming it into a global hub for tourism and entertainment.
Under Mayor Dinkins, Weisbrod was the Founding President of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, where he negotiated the United States Tennis Association’s 99-year lease in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park—regarded as one of the most beneficial municipal sports deals in the nation—as well as the transaction that brought Harlem its first major supermarket, the Pathmark on 125th Street.
Mayor Bloomberg appointed him as a Director of the Trust for Governors Island and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, where he helped lead the post-9/11 recovery of downtown neighborhoods. That tenure overlapped with his 10 years as the founding president of the Alliance for Downtown New York, the largest business improvement district in the nation, setting in motion the evolution of the financial district from an area dominated by daytime office workers into a thriving 24-7 neighborhood.
Weisbrod also served as the head of the real estate division of Trinity Church. He is a former Trustee of the Ford Foundation and the Urban Land Institute. He has been a partner at the firm HR&A since 2011, where he managed the successful rezoning of the Hudson Square area in Manhattan into a dynamic hub for creative industries and new housing, including up to 700 affordable units.
Weisbrod grew up in Parkchester and Fresh Meadows, and he is a graduate of Cornell University and New York University’s School of Law. He currently lives on Roosevelt Island with his wife, Jody Adams, a retired family court judge.

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