It’s extremely rare for the City Council to support a project over the objections of the member whose district would be rezoned to accommodate it.
But it’s equally rare for the local member’s colleagues to openly call for that, as Ritchie Torres and Donovan Richards just did.
The two members penned an op-ed in the Daily News that avoided naming their colleague from Sunset Park, Carlos Menchaca, yet minced no words in arguing that he should not be allowed to unilaterally kill a rezoning that Industry City’s owners say would create 20,000 jobs.
“Each of us was elected to be a responsible steward of the public good, not a feudal lord who gets to arbitrarily rule over public land as though it were a personal fiefdom,” wrote Torres, of the Bronx, and Richards, of Queens. “‘Member deference’ has its place, to be sure. But it becomes dangerous when it morphs into veto power over the growth of the city’s economy.”
Menchaca last month pledged to vote against the plan and said he expects the other 50 City Council members to back him up. That custom is so ingrained that developers typically withdraw an application if they cannot reach an agreement with the local representative.
But it is not absolute. At times, City Council speakers have pushed the chamber to disregard the local member.
Evan Thies was an aide to then-Council member David Yassky in 2009 when the chamber, at the time led by Christine Quinn, approved a Two Trees Management project in Dumbo over Yassky’s objection. (Letitia James, representing an adjacent district, supported the plan, which included a new school.) Now a co-owner of public affairs firm Pythia Public, Thies says Speaker Corey Johnson should have members debate Industry City’s $1 billion plan rather than reflexively echo Menchaca.
“Industry City clearly offers public benefits — economic benefits, opening up the waterfront in an industrial area, etc. — so the Council should at least consider an up-or-down vote,” said Thies, who represents real estate clients but is not involved in Industry City. “It should be heard by the entire Council… because the implications are citywide, not just on [Sunset Park]. And let the best argument win.”
Tweets by Ritchie and Richards about their op-ed drew enthusiastic cheers and biting criticism, with some commenters noting that both received substantial funding from the real estate industry for their successful primary campaigns this year for Congress and Queens borough president, respectively. (One reason for that support was that they were not seen as anti-development zealots.)
“Whether times are good or bad, elected officials who are backed by real estate $ will always say now is the time [to build], we can not squander, etc.,” tweeted Evie Hantzopoulos, an activist and Community Board 1 member in Queens. “Unfortunately you and @RitchieTorres are beholden to developers. It’s as simple as that.”
In response, another person asked rhetorically, “Is now a bad time to employ 20,000 New Yorkers?”
In a phone interview Tuesday, Torres told The Real Deal that of the $1.7 million he raised, $250 came from Industry City CEO Andrew Kimball. “I have a record of holding landlords accountable — people can review it,” he said. “I think when you cannot respond to the merits of an argument, then you resort to character assassination. That’s the modus operandi of the Twitter mob.”
Torres acknowledged that it was easier for him and Richards to argue against a City Council tradition because they are both heading for other offices. “But someone had to speak out,” he said. “No one from the mayor’s office was speaking out. No one from the Council was speaking out. Someone had to make the case for creating jobs and revenue in the midst of an economic depression.”
An Industry City spokesperson said that the developers were “encouraged by the perspective offered by the Council members” in the op-ed. A spokesperson for Menchaca pointed to the Council member’s response to Torres on Twitter: “Come to Sunset Park and meet the immigrant and working class families here. Ask them about IC and its ‘promise’ of jobs. Then we can talk productively.”
A day before Menchaca announced his decision on the rezoning, the owners of the industrial campus signaled they might abandon their plan because his demands were too great and the property could attract enough tenants with the current zoning. But they quickly pivoted, calling for city leaders — an apparent reference to the Council speaker and Mayor Bill de Blasio — to save the campus expansion. The application is midway through the public review process known as Ulurp, which will resume Sept. 14.
The mayor, though, declined this week to take up the fight, prompting Torres to tweet. “The mayor on 20K jobs: ‘that’s something we would appreciate in this city, but again, that’s really between the private developer and the Council to work through.’”
Torres added, “If our leaderless city has no desire to create 20K jobs via Ulurp, then the state should do it for us via GPP.”
His reference was to a general project plan — a state-driven process that bypasses the City Council. Forest City Ratner chose that route in 2003 for Atlantic Yards, circumventing local Council members de Blasio (who supported it) and James (who fought it).
But the state process carries its own risks: Last year Senate Majority Leader Andrew Stewart-Cousins gave diehard Amazon foe Michael Gianaris veto power over the tech giant’s $5 billion campus project. Amazon withdrew the plan weeks later.
Industry City is facing many of the same arguments from activists, including that it will trigger gentrification, pushing longtime residents out rather than employing them. Two key differences are that it involves no subsidies and comes during a pandemic that has cost the city more than 900,000 jobs.
Whether it will meet the same fate as Amazon — which a week ago seemed certain — now appears to be in some doubt.
Torres said he assumes Menchaca is responding to the concerns of local activists, “which I respect.”
“But to me there’s a distinction between purely local projects… and citywide projects, which should command review from the Council as a whole. That should be an exception to the rule of member deference.”
Letting one member decide a far-reaching proposal “short-circuits the legislative process,” said Torres.
“Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” he said. “Yet somehow in New York City we’ve convinced ourselves that absolute power in the context of Ulurp is a virtue. That’s cognitive dissonance.”