Two PR vets with deep ties to the real estate industry are trying to change the narrative that New York is dead — and they’ve tapped their industry contacts to help bolster the case.
Risa Heller and Jonathan Rosen this week launched nonprofit NY Forever with a social media campaign featuring a video of notable New Yorkers — including comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Ilana Glazer, Barneys creative ambassador Simon Doonan and Nom Wah Tea Parlor restaurateur Wilson Tang — swearing loyalty to the city.
It continued Thursday with prominent city buildings such as One World Trade Center and One Bryant Park lighting their facades in the campaign’s signature colors.
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The choice of buildings was not random: The campaign’s corporate partners include a bevy of real estate developers and firms including the Durst Organization, which operates those two properties, as well as RXR Realty, TF Cornerstone, Silverstein Properties, the Real Estate Board of New York and others.
The campaign is the brainchild of industry vets Rosen, a former adviser to Mayor Bill de Blasio and the co-founder of PR firm BerlinRosen, and Heller, who runs the PR and crisis management firm Risa Heller Communications.
It was borne out of frustration with the many trend pieces about people abandoning New York during the pandemic — and City Hall’s ostensible lack of interest in a broader plan to boost confidence in the city.
“We were incredibly frustrated about the narrative that people were fleeing and New York was dying,” said Heller. “We started saying, ‘Someone’s gotta stand up for the city. Who’s going to do that?’ And then we said, ‘Maybe it should just be us.’”
Together, they worked their extensive contacts to gin up support from media, finance and tech (including Salesforce, Goldman Sachs and WNYC), along with a who’s who of prominent real estate firms. The two PR firms have represented many of the developers and industry power players who signed on as corporate partners, including Brookfield, L&M Development Partners and Two Trees Management.
Developers have good reason to entice people back to New York. The real estate firms that have signed on to help NY Forever own or manage millions of square feet of residential and commercial space throughout the city.
Those sectors have been hit hard by the pandemic: Office vacancies are up, and despite landlords’ pleas to get employees back to their buildings, the occupancy rate remains stubbornly low. The residential market is showing signs of a rebound, but it’s slow going; the vacancy rate in Manhattan hit unprecedented highs this year and remains above 5 percent (previously, 2 to 3 percent was the norm).
The population drop may also doom many businesses in the retail and hospitality sectors, which have been hammered by the demise of tourism, shifting safety regulations, lockdowns and occupancy restrictions.
“The real estate industry is a business, it’s rooted in New York, it’s not going to pick up and go anywhere. It’s an industry with deep investment in the future of the city,” said Rosen. “And many of the families that own property here have been involved through many cycles of ups and downs in the city, so when we approached leaders in the industry, they instantly got it, and were like, ‘How can we help?’”
“People want to stand up for New York, and they were happy to be asked,” he added.
Some of that help is coming in the way of financial support; the real estate partners are helping underwrite the campaign’s operations. In addition to providing funding, those developers will also place advertising on their buildings and in digital kiosks at malls and shopping centers.
Heller and Rosen insist there’s no underlying political motivation for the nonprofit; Rosen called it “assiduously apolitical,” and Heller deemed it an “independent civic effort.”
Their immediate goal is to sign New Yorkers up for a mailing list and provide information on volunteer opportunities and other ways to give back, with support from such partners as New York Cares and the Citizens Committee for New York City.
Heller said it’s ultimately about encouraging “a real sense of ownership and pride around being New Yorkers.”