Skip to main content

Featured Post

Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park graphic: what's built/what's coming + FAQ (pinned post)

Politico scoop: one real estate executive who de Blasio improperly solicited was Bruce Ratner; did it regard Site 5, or affordability? (I'd bet the latter)

Laura Nahmias and Sally Goldenberg of Politico had an interesting scoop yesterday, within an article headlined As some 2020 rivals forgo corporate cash, de Blasio imposes few limits. The second paragraph:
De Blasio has run aggressive and occasionally reckless fundraising operations since the start of his political career, when he was censured for exceeding the legal spending limit in a City Council race. And now that he is vying for president and needs to show the country his fundraising prowess, he is going back to donors who want things from his administration — a practice he readily points out is not barred by law, even though it is the exact behavior that landed him in the crosshairs of federal prosecutors in 2016.
The article notes that, while de Blasio and colleagues have escaped sanction, there's been some questionable behavior:
One of his campaign donors pleaded guilty last year to attempting to bribe the mayor in exchange for government help with his property. Last week, construction executive Husam Ahmad pleaded guilty to making straw donations to de Blasio’s 2013 mayoral campaign. And de Blasio donor Jeremy Reichberg was sentenced to four years in prison for his role in an NYPD bribery scheme.
The new article, based on a records request and interviews, adds much detail on an operation that Common Cause NY's Susan Lerner calls "only barely legal" because of generous Supreme Court rulings.

One developer/donor was... Ratner

While the mayor, according to the city's Conflicts of Interests Board (COIB), couldn't personally request funds from anyone with “matters pending or about to be pending” before the city, staffers could do it. 

However, de Blasio did call donors, according to the city’s Department of Investigation, which referred a determination to the COIB, which, as the New York Times's William Neuman reported 5/7/19, would not disclose whether it issued any penalties.

Politico reports that de Blasio's profession of ignorance of the restrictions struck sources as insincere.

As the Times reported:
A real estate executive, whose company had been seeking a zoning change for one of its projects in New York City, got a call from Mayor Bill de Blasio. After mostly political talk, the mayor changed the subject: Suddenly they were discussing the mayor’s nonprofit group, which he had created to raise money to back his policy agenda.
Mr. de Blasio let the executive know to expect a follow-up call about the fund.
Another meeting with a real estate executive, whose firm was developing affordable housing for the city, went much the same way.
Politico adds this piquant detail:
One of the donations was from developer and longtime ally Bruce Ratner, who had a matter pending when he gave, the sources said. The city returned that contribution and one other at the time.
What was the Ratner matter?

We don't quite know what Ratner matter was pending, but the Times article offers clues regarding two 2015 interactions, citing "a zoning change" sought and a firm "developing affordable housing for the city."

Neither of those two descriptions are exactly on point. As of 2015, Forest City, part of Greenland Forest City Partners, was seeking--or about to seek--support for a change in the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park General Project Plan, overseen by Empire State Development. 

That proposed change, as I reported for City Limits in July 2016, would allow it to shift the bulk of the unbuilt "Miss Brooklyn" tower, once slated to loom over the arena at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues, across the street to Site 5, currently home to P.C. Richard and Modell's. 

Nothing has happened yet, because P.C. Richard stalled a potential condemnation process with a lawsuit claiming it deserved space in any replacement building. In February 2019, it won a preliminary ruling. 

The bulk shift is akin to a zoning change, but outside the city's powers. In that case, de Blasio and his Department of City Planning could offer support, but not approval.

As to a firm "developing affordable housing for the city," well, that syntax suggests the developer was doing so under a city contract, or at a city-owned site, rather than doing so thanks to city subsidies, which are standard.

Forest City had already started one tower with affordable housing, and the Greenland Forest City joint venture had begun two towers. However, those total only 782 units, with 1,468 more required to be built by 2025, so there was--at least then, before the reform of the 421-a law--significant variability regarding the levels of affordability required.

My bet: affordable housing

If I had to wager, I'd bet Ratner was asking about flexibility regarding affordability. After all, Gov. Andrew Cuomo controls the Site 5 matter and Ratner famously told the Wall Street Journal in November 2011:
Mr. Ratner said Thursday that the existing incentives for developments where half the units are priced for middle- and low-income tenants "don't work for a high-rise building that's union built."
The city's already helped on affordability

As I've reported, in December 2014, de Blasio delivered at the groundbreaking of the 535 tower, claiming, "There are very few phrases I like better than 100% affordable housing, so this program is off to a good start."

A mayoral press release was headlined "FULFILLING PLEDGE, MAYOR DE BLASIO JOINS BROOKLYNITES TO BREAK GROUND ON 100 PERCENT AFFORDABLE BUILDING AT PACIFIC PARK."

However, as I reported, the building skews from the "original promise" to allot the subsidized units among five income "bands," with only 20% for the best-off cohort. Instead, 50% of the units in this and the next subsidized tower would go to households earning 165% of Area Median Income (AMI), or more than $140,000 for a family of four.

That meant "affordable" two-bedroom apartments would cost more than $3,000. The reality, as I reported for City Limits, was that few people were even eligible for such units and, as Rachel Holliday Smith reported for City Limits, many such units were initially left empty.

In a December 2017 interview, de Blasio was asked by Smith, "How do you justify that band of AMI as affordable housing in a complex like this one?"

"The way that we go about our plan is not that," the mayor responded. "Obviously Atlantic Yards was done in a different time and place. We live by our plan. There’s a chance to re-calibrate and reset that at Atlantic Yards, I would love to do that."

Actually, de Blasio got it backwards.  Had the "different time and place" Atlantic Yards promises been adhered to, that building--and its similar sibling, "100% affordable" 38 Sixth--would have a more affordable configuration.

Ratner's free now

It should be noted that Ratner's Forest City New York and its parent Forest City Realty Trust are defunct, absorbed last year by Brookfield Asset Management, and the Forest City subsidiary of Brookfield owns only 5% of Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park going forward.

Ratner's on his third act, as a philanthropist, so these days--as far as I know--he can give to de Blasio as he sees fit.

de Blasio: ends justify the means

Politico writes:
Faced with perpetual scrutiny over his fundraising practices — not because a politician aggressively raising money is strange, but because de Blasio fancies himself the reformer’s reformer — the mayor espouses an ends-justify-the-means attitude.
“The mayor’s fundraising has helped countless four-year-olds enter free full-day pre-k and create the most affordable housing of any administration,” spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein said. “It was all driven by the goal of helping New Yorkers.”
That sounds very much like a Forest City justification or, for that matter, one from former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz.

Comments