The Real Deal New York

City Planning Chair Carl Weisbrod: an understated force

The real estate veteran will be overseeing a controversial policy shift that may test his popularity in the real estate world

August 01, 2014
By Hiten Samtani

NYC City Planning Commissioner Carl Weisbrod (Credit: Chance Yeh)

Carl Weisbrod (Credit: Chance Yeh)

Carl Weisbrod, the recently appointed chair of the New York City Planning Commission, may not have the star power that his predecessor Amanda Burden did. Burden is an heir to the Standard Oil fortune, dates broadcast journalist Charlie Rose and lives blocks away from Mayor Michael Bloomberg on the Upper East Side.

But Weisbrod is an old hand at city politics and a veteran on the New York City real estate scene. So when Mayor Bill de Blasio picked him to head the commission charged with overseeing the city’s rezonings and trajectory for growth, the real estate industry was relieved.

Not only has Weisbrod served in a slew of government positions for four (well, now five) different mayors, but he’s also been on the other side of the aisle in the private sector. He oversaw Trinity Church’s 5.5-million-square-foot Hudson Square-area real estate portfolio and worked at consulting firm HR&A Advisors.

But under de Blasio, Weisbrod, who was also named director of the Department of City Planning, will be overseeing a controversial policy shift that may test his popularity in the real estate world. He’s tasked with implementing de Blasio’s mandatory inclusionary zoning policy — which requires, rather than incentivizes, developers to build affordable housing at projects that benefit from a rezoning. And he will also be targeting new, lower-income areas like East New York for rezoning, neighborhoods which are not on a lot of developers’ radars.

At least one developer, Jed Walentas of the Dumbo-based Two Trees Management, has already publicly sounded off against Weisbrod, who normally elicits praise from every corner of the industry.

Walentas, who was negotiating with City Hall over additional affordable housing at his Domino Sugar site in Williamsburg when he lashed out, told New York Magazine that Weisbrod hadn’t even been briefed on the project’s plan and said he told de Blasio that Weisbrod and Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen were “overplaying their hand and are going to fuck this up.”

But Walentas, who ultimately reached an amicable agreement with the city, later backpedaled. “My comments in that story were made in the heat of intense negotiations,” he said in an email to The Real Deal. “Carl was tough but fair, and had the creativity to bend the deal structure to meet the administration’s priorities in a way that worked for the overall project and ended up being mutually beneficial.”

Nonetheless, Weisbrod’s reaction to that situation may be a sign that he is willing to tangle with the development community, if need be.

“I’ve been called worse,” he told TRD with nonchalance during an interview at his Lower Manhattan office last month. Ballplayers, the lifelong Mets fan said, “will get that every single night of the week.”

“As with all developers,” he added, “they’ll come back again.”

Government days

The Bronx-born, Queens-raised Weisbrod, 69, graduated from Cornell University and New York University Law School.

His first job in city government was during the Lindsay administration as a young lawyer, and Mayor Ed Koch later appointed him president of the 42nd Street Redevelopment Project, tasking him with cleaning up the seedy, sex-shop-laden Times Square.

He did not let Koch down. Aggressively using the government’s powers of eminent domain to bring most of the area under city ownership, he also struck a key deal with the Walt Disney Company to take over the New Amsterdam Theater. That, in turn, helped get other big national brands into the area and helped to save the Theater District.

Weisbrod told TRD last month that Times Square’s rejuvenation not only transformed the city, but also “opened up the West Side of Manhattan to development, which had really been halted at Sixth Avenue because of the problems in Times Square.”

A grittier Times Square in the 1980s

A grittier Times Square in the 1980s

“You couldn’t have Hudson Yards without it,” he added.

Weisbrod was also instrumental in formulating legislation that allowed the city to create business improvement districts without getting state approval, which paved the way for the Times Square BID, now known as the Times Square Alliance. And he later went on to create the Downtown Alliance, Lower Manhattan’s chief business advocacy group.

And, perhaps most significantly, he created the current-day Economic Development Corp. in the 1990s under the Dinkins administration, sweeping several city agencies under one umbrella.

Bringing many smaller agencies together under the EDC required “bureaucratic choreography,” said David Dishy, the president of development and acquisition at L+M Development Partners, who worked under Weisbrod at the EDC.

But it was Weisbrod’s work as head of the real estate arm of Trinity Church from 2005 to 2011 that he is perhaps best known for in real estate circles today.

In that role, Weisbrod greatly increased the profitability of the church’s Hudson Square portfolio — first wooing major media and arts tenants like the Guggenheim Foundation and WNYC Radio to Trinity’s buildings, and then banding together the area’s local businesses in a new BID, the Hudson Square Connection.

And his work in Hudson Square didn’t stop when he left Trinity to join consulting firm HR&A Advisors in 2011. There, he successfully pushed the Bloomberg administration to rezone the neighborhood, paving the way for Trinity and other developers to build thousands of profitable residential units.

“What Carl did so brilliantly was to bring together land-use planners, architects and economists, along with multiple property owners and the full community board,” said HR&A chairman John Alschuler. “He generated intense neighborhood participation and excitement for the rezoning.”

Now, of course, Weisbrod is on the other side of the divide, tasked with balancing de Blasio’s crusade to spur more affordable housing with developers’ desire to build more profitable projects.

The Midtown East beast

A rendering of SL Green's One Vanderbilt (Credit: Kohn Pedersen Fox)

A rendering of SL Green’s One Vanderbilt (Credit: Kohn Pedersen Fox)

There may be no one place where the push and pull between the development community and City Hall is coming to a head more than Midtown East.

Just before leaving office, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg withdrew his proposal to rezone the 73-block area amid opposition from some elected officials, community boards and advocacy groups, who argued that developers were not being required to contribute enough in exchange for the right to build taller skyscrapers, and that the rezoning didn’t offer enough environmental protections or opportunity for public review.

Developers are, not surprisingly, overwhelmingly in favor of the rezoning.

“It’s going to be impossible for us to maintain our standing as one of the world’s leading business centers if we’re not updating our inventory,” RXR Realty’s Seth Pinsky, the former EDC president, told TRD before Bloomberg’s proposal died.

While Bloomberg wanted to charge developers $250 per square foot to build higher, the de Blasio administration, under Weisbrod’s direction, is now trying a different approach.

The plan Weisbrod is shepherding through splits the rezoning into two parts: The Vanderbilt stretch and the rest of Midtown East.

The new administration is also putting the onus for transit improvements directly onto developers, who will be awarded special permits to build taller towers when the improvements are made.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority would oversee the improvements, but the developers would have to execute them. SL Green Realty, which is hoping to build a 65-story tower at 1 Vanderbilt Avenue, has already committed $200 million to infrastructure upgrades in the area, and Weisbrod expects other developers to follow suit.

The Real Estate Board of New York, the industry’s biggest trade group, along with most developers active in the area, have expressed support for the special-permit approach.

But representatives for landlord Andrew Penson’s Argent Ventures, which owns 1.3 million square feet of air rights above Grand Central Terminal, said publicly last month that the plan effectively cuts his firm out of the action because developers will bypass him and go directly to the city to buy air rights.

The New York Landmarks Conservancy has also said that the revised plan “almost entirely ignores” preservation efforts for Vanderbilt Avenue’s historic buildings.

But Weisbrod defended the new plan, saying that Grand Central remained free to sell its air rights.

“It could not be more transparent or more in the public interest,” Weisbrod said of tying transit upgrades to project approvals. “We hope to see it formally enter the land use process this fall.”

Rezoning the rest of the Midtown East area, outside the Vanderbilt strip, however, will take a little longer. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council Member Daniel Garodnick are creating a task force that will make recommendations on the rezoning, Weisbrod said.

“We anticipate that going into land use [process] sometime in the fall of [2015],” he said, which means the rezoning won’t be completed until at least 2016.

Meanwhile, in mid- and high-density residential areas, the administration will implement mandatory inclusionary zoning citywide.

While REBNY has said that mandatory inclusionary zoning could stymie new projects, Weisbrod said developers “have always understood it was coming.”

City Planning and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development are jointly carrying out a study to explore how the policy could work and will make recommendations in a few months, Weisbrod said.

Meanwhile, the new administration is also redirecting its rezoning efforts.

Last month, it announced that its first major rezoning would be in Brooklyn’s East New York. The move is part of de Blasio’s push to increase the city’s affordable housing stock.

“We recognize that more housing is appropriate and there’s a need for public investment there,” said Weisbrod of the neighborhood. But he may be hard-pressed to lure developers to the area, given its high crime rates and low median income.

Weisbrod, who lives on transit-deprived Roosevelt Island with his wife, said the city was “looking for areas that have good transit, and East New York, with Broadway Junction, is fabulous.”

Sources predicted that the next crop of rezonings would also be in areas such as Gowanus, Sheepshead Bay and Bushwick, which all have a “thriving retail scene” that would help get the buy-in of the business community.

Dictating, with ‘no drama’

Bloomberg’s planning chief Burden is widely credited with shaking up an agency and commission that was long seen as less than innovative.

And sources say that Weisbrod is poised to build on that achievement.

They also contend that if anyone can get the real estate community to conform to the new administration’s policies without making enemies, it’s the understated, but widely respected, Weisbrod.

His built-up capital with developers, they added, cannot be overstated.

“He’s responsible for more good projects, good policies and good people than almost anyone I know,” said Rosina Abramson, a former director of city planning, who has known him since the 1980s.

Dishy said that Weisbrod is “definitely from the no-drama school of management.”

“He’s effective most in his quietness and the actions that he’s taken, which you might not even realize that he’s taken,” he said.

Still, he added: “He’s also not going to get pushed around.”

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