(All photos by Adam Pincus and Alistair Gardiner for The Real Deal)
In a sense, this year’s REBNY awards banquet was the same as always. All the bigwigs were there, no one paid attention to the speeches, and REBNY grandees incessantly shushed the audience – to no avail. And yet, something was different: despite the record year that just ended, many attendees displayed a palpable sense of anxiety.
“Everyone knows there’s a big dark cloud hanging over our heads,” said real estate attorney Adam Leitman Bailey.
Scott Rechler, CEO of RXR Realty, expressed concern about global stock market turmoil and the recent slowdown in China, which could herald a broader economic slump. “Everyone’s trying to calculate what’s happening globally,” he said at the cocktail reception before the awards dinner.
Justin Elghanayan of Rockrose Development said that many local players were biding their time until the bubble pops before they start buying again. Ken Horn of Alchemy Properties said though the moderate range of the residential market would remain robust, “over $5,000 a foot, there will be some issues.”
Marc Holliday, CEO of SL Green Realty, spoke of a “lot of unknowns” in the year ahead. “You’ve got the energy market, and its potential impact on the financial sector — there are a lot of distractions,” he said. Still, he added, the New York property market would continue to be a magnet for investment, as the underlying real estate is a sure thing.
“It takes more than a little stock market bump to get this crowd down,” he said.
Mayor Bill de Blasio mingled with industry execs such as Bill Rudin, MaryAnne Gilmartin and Gary Barnett more openly and for longer than his predecessors have in the past, which left an impression on the crowd. Other politicians in attendance included Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, HPD Commissioner Vicki Been, City Planning Commissioner Carl Weisbrod and Manhattan Borough President Gail Brewer.
Politics was certainly a hot topic at the event, as attendees debated the uncertain future of the 421a tax abatement program. Some said the end of the abatement would slow down the pace of development. Though City Council Member Jumaane Williams described 421a as a “horrible” program, he said an alternative was needed to ensure the city gets more housing, and that it was part of his job to work with REBNY to make it happen.
Dottie Herman, CEO of Douglas Elliman, said the industry was closely following the upcoming presidential election.
“Right now a lot of people are looking at what the policies will be down the road,” she said. And could developer Donald Trump actually win? “I actually think Trump could do it,” Herman said. When asked if a President Trump would be good for the industry, she said this: “I think whoever wins should know something about business.” (The GOP front-runner, at least to TRD’s knowledge, was not in attendance.)
Others were more openly optimistic. Burt Resnick, chairman and CEO of Jack Resnick & Sons, a firm his father founded in 1928, said he felt confident the market would continue to prosper — “as long as the economy holds.”
“Capital wants to be here,” said Joe Harbert, president of the Eastern region at Colliers International
Savanna’s Chris Schlank said that though everyone was a little anxious about what 2016 would bring, his firm also smelled opportunity. “We like debt, we like distressed stuff,” he said.
Somewhat lost in all the chit-chat was the fact that actual awards were handed out. Daniel Brodsky of the Brodsky Organization won the Harry Helmsley Distinguished New Yorker Award for “invaluable contributions to New York’s civic welfare and the real estate community.” The late Matthew Stacom, Darcy Stacom (CBRE) and Tara Stacom (Cushman & Wakefield) jointly won the Bernard H. Mendik Lifetime Leadership in Real Estate Award. Douglaston Development’s Jeffrey Levine won the night’s humanitarian award, while Savills Studley’s William Montana, SL Green’s Edward Piccinich and Olmstead Properties’ Steven Marvin were also honored. “I feel like the MVP on an all-star team,” Levine said, when accepting his award.
For John Banks, president of REBNY, this was his first gala in charge. “I was here last year as a witness,” he joked. Addressing the hint of trepidation in the market, Banks said that real estate players go into the business with “an understanding that there is a business cycle.”
“We’ve got solid financials,” he added, “and all our members are still doing plenty of deals.”
A small group of protestors had waited outside at the beginning of the gala, greeting guests with hoots and riling against a host of development issues, including upzoning, Extell Development’s Lower East Side project at 250 South Street (a placard described it as the “building from hell). Some held photos of de Blasio with Banks’ predecessor Steven Spinola, declaring the mayor a “sellout.”
When asked about protestors outside, Banks said he hadn’t seen them, but insisted they had a right to be there. “I love the First Amendment,” he said.
(Mark Maurer, Rich Bockmann and Katherine Clarke contributed reporting.)