Real estate plots to prevent second de Blasio disaster

Steve Ross aims to raise and spend more than $10M, but for which candidate?

New York News Analysis /
Mar.March 10, 2021 12:00 PM
From left: Stephen Ross, Andrew Yang, Eric Adams, Kathryn Garcia and Shaun Donovan (Getty)

From left: Stephen Ross, Andrew Yang, Eric Adams, Kathryn Garcia and Shaun Donovan (Getty)

The last thing Stephen Ross wants is another eight years with a mayor like Bill de Blasio. He has three months to do something about it.

The billionaire developer and Related Companies chairman will pitch other business leaders Monday about funding an eight-figure effort to help one or more candidates in the June Democratic primary.

Ross says he wants a mayor who can lead the city’s recovery and “change the future course of the city,” the New York Times reported. Related has a lot riding on that, especially at Hudson Yards, where the pandemic has thrown the fate of its $25 billion megaproject into doubt.

But this is not simply about money. One gets the sense that Ross is prioritizing return to normalcy over return on investment.

Like most business leaders, Ross wants a like-minded chief executive at City Hall. He grew accustomed to that during 12 years of Michael Bloomberg — who secured the Hudson Yards rezoning that gave Related the chance to undertake the country’s largest private development — and eight years of Rudy Giuliani, who awarded Ross his first megaproject, the Time Warner Center.

It gnaws on Ross and his brethren to have de Blasio at the city’s helm. It’s akin to what haters of Donald Trump suffered: four years of waking up and realizing Trump was president and would be thumbing his nose at them in one way or another that day.

Why do people like Ross so despise de Blasio? It’s more about personality than policy.

De Blasio hasn’t actually damaged the real estate industry much. His deputy mayors for housing and economic development (first Alicia Glen, now Vicki Been) and planning czars (Carl Weisbrod, Marisa Lago) are all pro-development. His signature law calls for mixed-income housing, rather than a market-killing approach that achieves affordability by regulating property values down as far as possible or simply seizing them.

He upzoned six neighborhoods and expects to densify Gowanus and Soho this year. He made a deal with the Real Estate Board of New York on 421a (which Gov. Andrew Cuomo blocked, but that’s another story). He pursued private development on public housing campuses.

He paid the Podolsky family a princely sum for 468 decrepit apartments. He solicited donations from landlords and their lobbyists. He courted Amazon to Queens. He took up Two Trees Management’s idea for a Brooklyn-Queens streetcar service. And he launched a grandiose plan to redevelop Sunnyside Yards.

Some of de Blasio’s actions did or will hit real estate’s pocketbook, such as giving tenants free lawyers to fight evictions, pushing to freeze regulated rents and capping emissions at large buildings. But the tax increases he asked Albany for did not happen and he never embraced “cancel rent,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or the socialists.

The mayor’s policy failures, as the industry sees it, were acts of omission, not commission. He did not beat the drum for development, instead letting the City Council kill his own rezonings in Bushwick and the South Bronx and also private ones, notably Industry City’s and YourLIC’s in Long Island City.

De Blasio got outfoxed on Amazon by AOC, state Sen. Michael Gianaris and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and exacted not an ounce of political flesh from them in response. Instead he blamed Jeff Bezos — the very man he’d been wooing — for the breakup, like a gnat attacking an elephant.

And Two Trees’ beloved streetcar is missing and presumed dead. The mayor decided he couldn’t afford it.

But what bothered the city’s elite most about de Blasio was how he treated them. In 2017, he said he would prefer to eviscerate property rights, infamously declaring, “If I had my druthers, the city government would determine every single plot of land, how development would proceed.” He bristled at acknowledging wealthy residents’ importance to the city and refused to coax them back from their pandemic hideaways. Instead, he leapt at opportunities to say their welfare and concerns were of no interest to him. And his stock answer for raising revenue was always to raise their taxes, not grow the economy.

Fortunately for Ross and his ilk, the crop of mayoral contenders who see developers as something besides a piggy bank is at least five deep: Andrew Yang, Eric Adams, Sean Donovan, Ray McGuire and Kathryn Garcia. The challenge, then, is deciding which of them to help and how.

Ross plans an independent expenditure, a fund with no limits on contributions or spending and unaffiliated with any campaign. Its task will be made easier by the advent this year of ranked-choice voting, which allows it to support more than one candidate. A voter who returns a ballot listing McGuire, Adams and Yang, for example, would essentially be voting for the top finisher of the three.

The easiest decision for Ross’ group would be to oppose City Council member Carlos Menchaca, in the unlikely event that he emerges as a contender. Menchaca shot down Industry City’s rezoning, castigating its promised $1 billion investment as a plot to hasten gentrification. He even pledged to join the Democratic Socialists of America before changing his mind — a tendency the Industry City owners know all too well.

Ross’s tougher call will be Scott Stringer. Although the city comptroller’s establishment credentials would normally reassure developers, his stump strategy has been to make them the bad guys. Stringer’s housing plan, which pulls numbers out of thin air, is to take away their projects’ property tax breaks and require cheap rents and housing for the homeless in return. In other words: He takes, you give.

Stringer’s nakedly political rhetoric may be just that. But the danger exists that if it carries him to victory, he, like Trump, might not pivot back to reality afterward. Populism is a powerful drug.





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