The City Council’s new speaker: Still a wild card

Three months in, real estate players are still trying to gauge how Melissa Mark-Viverito will impact the industry

May.May 01, 2014 07:00 AM
Melissa Mark-Viverito’s ascent to speaker of the City Council has sparked concern among some in the industry

Melissa Mark-Viverito’s ascent to speaker of the City Council has sparked concern among some in the industry.

The new City Council Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, swept into office firmly in lockstep with Mayor Bill de Blasio, especially on the issue of affordable housing.

But with just over three months now under her belt, the real estate community is still closely watching Mark-Viverito to gauge her leadership style, trying to establish better communication with her, and to see where (if anywhere) she will differ from de Blasio on key development issues.

So far, the verdict on that last point is still out. However, not surprisingly, sources say they expect the East Harlem Democrat and Puerto Rico native to stray from her council predecessor, Christine Quinn.

Quinn started out as an affordable housing advocate, but later won over much of the development community by backing its large projects. Mark-Viverito, meanwhile, has little track record on the real estate front, though she has stood against the industry on some big issues.

“There is certainly concern [in the industry] that she will be much different than Christine Quinn,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a lobbyist and Democratic strategist. “She has not yet been tested, but she will.”

Industry sources said they are optimistic that Mark-Viverito is at least open to hearing their concerns. She has met with several developers and real estate players over coffee, both before and after her election to the council’s highest post, and made an appearance at the Real Estate Board of New York’s annual gala back in January.

“She clearly is concerned about community-based employment while being mindful of the commercial realities of a project,” said Tom Montvel-Cohen, a spokesperson for Albee Development, which is co-developing the mega-mixed-use City Point project in Downtown Brooklyn.

“I was gratified to learn how open-minded and thoughtful she was about the complexities of these projects — and [that she’s shown] a desire to find solutions to create benefits for both the projects and surrounding neighborhoods,” he added, noting that while he didn’t meet with her directly, Mark-Viverito met with an executive from Washington Square Partners, City Point’s development manager.

REBNY officially stayed out of the speaker’s race, and that was said to be because Mark-Viverito — who was reportedly not its choice candidate — seemed likely to beat her opponent, Council Member Daniel Garodnick, and the trade group didn’t want to pick the wrong horse. In other races, REBNY spent millions to try to bring about a real estate- and business-friendly council.

The new speaker didn’t side with the industry on a big recent issue, the rezoning of Midtown East, which had strong backing from the industry. She referred to it as “a big giveaway” during a panel discussion, according to the news website Capital New York.

Nonetheless, REBNY officials insist that Mark-Viverito is an “exemplary” speaker, citing, for example, her quick response in handling March’s East Harlem building explosion.

“She has expressed a willingness to work with us, and we’re willing to work with her,” said Jamie McShane, REBNY’s spokesperson and a former spokesperson for Quinn. “We respect her office and her role.”

Jonathan Rose, CEO of Jonathan Rose Companies, which largely focuses on affordable housing, called the new speaker a “strong voice” in the approvals for two of his projects — an East Harlem mixed-income complex called Tapestry, and Harlem RBI’s DREAM Charter School on a public housing site.

“She’s a get-things-done person, not slow-things-down person, which is very important,” said Rose. “I have enormous respect for her.”

And Mark-Viverito, who declined to comment, has seen some financial support from the industry.

The Witkoff Group, the Lighthouse Group, Marathon Development, and three unions (two representing hotel workers and one representing plumbers) collectively contributed 87 percent of the $30,000 raised at her inauguration party in late January, the New York Daily News reported. And several New York real estate players have donated to her past campaigns for council and speaker, including Edison Properties CEO Stephen Nislick, Monadnock Construction President Nicholas Lembo and Mack Company partner Fredric Mack.

There are some other clues as to how Mark-Viverito might proceed when it comes to real estate-related issues. Her most significant appointment to date was installing Brooklyn Council Member David Greenfield as chair of the council’s most powerful committee: Land Use, which votes on key development projects and has veto power over City Planning Department rezoning proposals. Unlike Mark-Viverito, Greenfield is a moderate and not a member of the labor-supported Progressive Caucus. At the time of his appointment, he told Crain’s he expected chairs to be “empowered to run committees independently.”

Sheinkopf said Mark-Viverito’s pick is “a signal to development firms not to panic, and to disprove any sense that she would be a preconceived opponent to development.”

Mark-Viverito also appointed Garodnick — who, while running for speaker, was said to be “softening” his relationship with the industry — as chair of the Economic Development Committee.

Elsewhere, she picked Brooklyn Democrat Jumaane Williams to head up the Housing and Buildings Committee. Since assuming the role, Williams has proposed anti-industry legislation that would give community boards a say in the construction of new hotels — even if a developer has as-of-right approval to build their project.

Real estate lawyer Adam Leitman Bailey said fears that Mark-Viverito will support economic development policies that accommodate only affordable housing and is skeptical that she’ll ever side with property owners in general.

“Landlords should have nightmares about her when they sleep,” Bailey said. “I’m hoping and praying she starts thinking about jobs and an economically vibrant New York, as well as trying to have some buildings be low-to-moderate [income] housing. There should be a balance.”

He added, “her entire agenda is not in line with what has benefited New York in the past.”

In a 2008 webcast with The Real Deal, Bailey debated Mark-Viverito over a proposed tenant protection bill that would have prevented landlords from unduly harassing tenants in rent-stabilized apartments. At the time, he claimed the bill, sponsored by Mark-Viverito and Garodnick, would “cause chaos.”

Also a question is how much of a check on the mayor the council will be. Last month, Garodnick said the body should be independent from the mayor in evaluating land-use issues.

“The charter contemplates a significant land-use responsibility for the City Council, separate and apart from any negotiations by the mayor,” he said in a statement. “That role should not be abdicated.”

Richard Anderson, president of the New York Building Congress, said he’s heard there are a flurry of bills currently being introduced by junior council members that would not have made it to the floor under Quinn. Quinn, he noted, seemed to have been more hands-on.

“My sense is that [Mark-Viverito] is letting council members do more of what they want,” Anderson said.

“She hasn’t done anything I either personally take issue with, or necessarily support,” he added. “She is an enigma so far.”

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