David and Jed Walentas, the father-and-son duo behind Two Trees Management, may have had some not-so-charitable words for Bill de Blasio in the past — the elder Walentas infamously described the mayor as a “disaster for the city” in a 2014 New York magazine story. But Walentas, who later dialed his comments back, has nonetheless been generous to de Blasio with his wallet. In April 2015 — about a year after reaching a rezoning deal with the administration to redevelop the Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg — Two Trees gave $100,000 to the Campaign for One New York, a nonprofit de Blasio founded to further his policy initiatives.
Although the Two Trees donation was the largest among real estate companies identified by The Real Deal, the company was not alone in giving money to the fund.
Between December 2013 and the middle of 2015, the Campaign for One New York accepted a total of roughly $3.9 million in contributions from a wide range of entities, including real estate developers, unions and limited liability companies.
Altogether, real estate players gave $1.1 million from Jan. 2014 to June 2015, according to the New York Times. TRD combed through the donor list to see who from the industry dished out the most.
While the largest individual donations came from labor groups, the real estate industry and those with ties to it made up the bulk of donors. Many of the real estate firms that donated significant sums to the nonprofit are currently developing large residential projects in New York City.
The list includes Toll Brothers, which donated $50,000 and is developing the controversial hotel-condo Pierhouse in Dumbo. The developer has been sued by local residents who argue that Toll built the project higher than legally allowed. Thus far, the city has sided with Toll.
Frank McCourt’s MG Properties, which is developing a $3 billion mixed-use tower at 360 10th Avenue, donated $50,000 through an LLC in April 2015.
And Park Tower Group, which is partnering with L+M Development on Greenpoint Landing, a megaproject in Brooklyn, donated $50,000 to the fund in March 2015.
Unlike the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City — a nonprofit that facilitates public-private partnerships and has existed since 1994 under different mayors — the Campaign for One New York is de Blasio’s baby.
De Blasio has been criticized for setting up the fundraising vehicle, in large part because as public advocate, he argued for limiting corporate donations to politicians. And, because the fund is not an election account that goes toward a political campaign, it is not subject to New York City’s campaign financing regulations.
Still, there is no evidence that any of these donations were intended to influence city policy on specific projects — and if this was a motivation for Park Tower Group, it clearly didn’t work. Three months after Park Tower’s donation, the developer and its partner L+M announced that they had renegotiated an agreement with the city that halved the city’s subsidies to an estimated $65,000 per unit from $136,000. A spokesperson for Park Tower declined to comment. Meanwhile, some developers, including Toll’s David von Spreckelsen, have been unapologetic supporters of de Blasio’s policies. De Blasio himself has said that the fund is necessary to compete with the staggering war chest raised by conservative groups, like those backed by the Koch brothers. He has also denied that there is any quid pro quo.
“What I say to people … this is what we’re trying to do and this is what we’re asking support for. I don’t think people tend to give money to something they disagree with,” he told Politico New York, which in September ran a story examining the list of donors to the Campaign for One New York and their business interactions with the city, along with benefits they have received from the city.
Still, the preponderance of big residential developers, who often go before the city for various approvals and subsidies, has not gone unnoticed.
A New York attorney who works on land use matters and asked to remain anonymous said: “Why do you lobby anybody at any level? You want to make sure that they pay attention.”
Nevertheless, there are no guarantees. As one real estate industry insider told TRD, “Giving big numbers to an elected official gets you on their radar screen but doesn’t ensure that you get your project approved.”