The Real Deal New York

De Blasio’s short list for real estate jobs

As inauguration day nears, sources point to the contenders to take over posts key to the industry

December 01, 2013
By C. J. Hughes

Bill de Blasio

Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio

Bill de Blasio promised a bold new approach to running New York. However, based on the names being bandied about for the City Hall jobs that matter the most to the real estate industry, the new boss might look a lot like the old boss.

Indeed, on the short list for chair of the Department of City Planning (which arguably has the most direct impact on the real estate business) are three people who are on the 13-member City Planning Commission now under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, according to several industry sources. The candidates mentioned to The Real Deal are: Anna Hayes Levin, Michelle de la Uz and Kenneth Knuckles.

“The changes are not going to be nearly as great as people assume,” said Fred Siegel, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a New York-based think tank, who worked on Rudy Giuliani’s 1993 mayoral campaign.

De Blasio’s 60-member transition team — which is coheaded by real estate veteran Carl Weisbrod and Jennifer Jones Austin, the head of a nonprofit social services agency — is tasked with vetting potential appointees.

The team, which was announced last month and also includes developer Douglas Durst and Forest City Ratner CEO MaryAnne Gilmartin, is expected to start naming commissioners in early December. But some positions might not be filled until after de Blasio takes office on Jan. 1, sources familiar with the process said.

De Blasio, sources added, believes that a person with seasoned knowledge of the minutiae of zoning codes would be a tremendous asset.

“Amanda Burden herself was a commissioner before she became the chair,” said one former Bloomberg administration official. “The thought is that you need somebody who knows the ropes.”

Of the three contenders, sources say, the front-runner is Levin, who was appointed to the commission in 2009 not by Bloomberg but by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who will be inaugurated as the city’s comptroller in January. As a result, she’s not seen as a holdover from the current administration, sources said.

Levin — a Yale graduate with a law degree — has a bit of grassroots appeal, too. She came to City Hall via Community Board 4 on Manhattan’s West Side, which grappled with numerous redevelopment plans while she chaired the land-use committee.

“She gets a lot of points for her work on the Hudson Yards rezoning,” the former administration official said.

Levin opposed Bloomberg’s earliest redevelopment proposal for the rail yards site, which included a stadium for the Jets football team, while pushing for elements of the office-building-focused plan in place now. She did not respond to a request for comment.

De la Uz, meanwhile, could satisfy different political aims for de Blasio. As executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee, a social justice group that builds affordable housing in South Brooklyn, de la Uz could presumably help advance de Blasio’s goal of creating 200,000 affordable units. She also lives and works in the 718 area code, which is the natural power base of de Blasio, a Park Slope resident who represented that area on the City Council.

De Blasio had appointed de la Uz to the City Planning Commission in 2012, but the pair reportedly had a falling out over the rezoning of Roosevelt Island. De Blasio supported the rezoning, but de la Uz voted against it, casting the sole “no” vote on the commission.

“That was not well-received,” one former official said of de Blasio’s reaction, though he added that de Blasio appears to have forgiven her.

Indeed, de la Uz is also said to be a strong favorite to lead the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the city’s affordable-housing-creation arm, which is expected to be more active under the new mayor. (It should be noted that HPD has served as a stepping stone of sorts in recent years; former Commissioner Shaun Donovan is now U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.)

De la Uz did not return a call for comment.

Others are placing bets that Knuckles, who has served as the commission’s vice chairman for the last decade, is tapped for chair. Knuckles — an attorney with an architecture degree who served in the Dinkins administration — runs the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, an investment group that’s been a major force in Harlem’s recent revitalization.

For his part, Knuckles said he had not yet been approached by de Blasio, but would be honored to be considered.

“The mayor-elect has very clearly stated what his priorities are around planning,” with affordable housing being at the top of the list, Knuckles said. “I assume he wants to continue to see growth in the city, but in a way that can better address income inequality.”

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Other contenders

Less likely, but still a hat in the ring, sources say, is Vishaan Chakrabarti, who was director of the City Planning Department’s Manhattan office during the early part of the Bloomberg administration, when he, too, worked to rezone the West Side.

But he may not be willing to give up his current roles as a partner at SHoP Architects and professor at Columbia University to reenter the public sector, sources said.

Chakrabarti, who also previously worked at Related Companies, was heavily involved in that firm’s plans to create a mixed-use development at the James A. Farley Post Office with Vornado Realty Trust, as part of the redevelopment of Penn Station.

Earlier this year, Related reignited interest in the project with a revised proposal, which a former state official said might just convince Chakrabarti to head back into the public sphere. “If he could pull together all the pieces to a transformative project of this type, I could see him coming back,” the source said.

Chakrabarti declined to comment on whether he’s been approached by de Blasio, but did offer that “the new Penn Station is an extremely important agenda item.”

Brand-new faces could turn up to lead the Planning Department too, like Regina Myer, the president of Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation, which relies partially on private developers to fund its upkeep.

However, Myer ran afoul of the city’s labor unions for not using them to build at the park, according to published reports. That may have put her in disfavor with de Blasio, who drew key support from unions.

A Myer spokeswoman did not return a call for comment.

Another name popping up to head the Planning Department is Meenakshi Srinivasan, chair of the Board of Standards and Appeals, a lower-profile agency that nonetheless can block certain zoning changes issued by the Planning Department and reverse Department of Buildings decisions.

Srinivasan, who has master’s degrees in city planning, urban design and architecture, worked in the Planning Department from 1990 to 2003. In that capacity, she too worked on the master plan for Hudson Yards, according to news reports.

A spokesman for Srinivasan declined to comment.

Meanwhile, several sources said de Blasio is zeroing in on Ronda Wist to run the Landmarks Preservation Commission, where he appoints all 11 members.

Wist, a vice president of the Municipal Art Society of New York, the design watchdog group, would replace Robert Tierney, who’s chaired the LPC since 2002. She is no stranger to Landmarks; she was executive director of the LPC at the end of the Giuliani administration, and previously worked at the Planning Department.

She did not return a call for comment.

Lost in transition

Some preferred candidates may have slipped through de Blasio’s fingers, however.

Sources say the mayor-elect would have been keen to have Andrew Kimball, the former CEO of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corp., as president of the city’s Economic Development Corp., the powerful agency that handles the developing and leasing of city land.

Under Kimball’s watch, the 300-acre shipbuilding facility was converted into an industrial park that employs more than 6,000 people. Millions of square feet of new commercial space are also being developed there. But last summer, Kimball took a job in the private sector as a director with developer Jamestown Properties. Kimball did not return a call for comment.

Sources also say Brad Lander, a City Council member from Brooklyn, would fit the de Blasio mold and could qualify for several positions. An affordable housing advocate who previously directed the Pratt Center for Community Development, where he led campaigns for inclusionary zoning, Lander also formerly led the Fifth Avenue Committee.

But Lander has said he wants to stay on the Council and help push the body leftward, according to news reports.

If de Blasio were to keep some of Bloomberg’s cabinet, sources say that one logical choice might be David Burney, who since 2004 has run the 1,200-employee Department of Design and Construction, a relatively noncontroversial agency that oversees construction of new city buildings.

With the city expected to embark on huge storm-protection projects, Burney’s expertise could come in handy, said Ron Shiffman, who teaches urban planning at Pratt and has been a critic of the Bloomberg administration.

“Burney can weave in the planning and design in a comprehensive way,” Shiffman said.

Meanwhile, several sources said de Blasio is considering Howard Glaser as the deputy mayor for operations, which is not entirely real-estate-centric, but intersects with the industry because it involves day-to-day happenings in the city.

Glasser currently holds a similar post in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration.

For de Blasio, having somebody with an upstate Rolodex could help the mayor with issues that require state approval, like raising taxes.

“If your agenda runs through Albany, it makes sense,” a former city official said.

One name that should probably be scratched off any list, however, is Mitch Rudin, the CEO of Brookfield Office Properties.

After he walked with de Blasio in Manhattan’s Veterans Day Parade last month, rumors heated up that de Blasio might consider a private-sector developer for a top job.

But according to a Brookfield source, “it was truly apolitical” and the two were only thrust together at the last minute.

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