If New York City real estate developers want David Greenfield’s ear, they’ll have to make the trek downtown to City Hall.
While developers often attempt to wine and dine the chair of the City Council’s Land Use Committee, they can expect the man who now holds that powerful position to decline most social invitations.
“I’m not big on the socializing aspect,” Greenfield said. “I’m concerned about what that leads to. I have an open-door policy, but that’s in my office.”
Still, leading the panel that gets the second-to-last pass at crucial zoning changes and transfers of property, and in turn heavily influences the City Council’s final vote, ensures that Greenfield gets plenty of visitors.
In these meetings, smaller developers primarily complain that the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure governing is slow and cumbersome, while big developers are worried about anything that might hinder building, Greenfield said.
Greenfield said he spends about half of his workweek on land-use duties. The 36-year-old Orthodox Jewish lawyer, who formerly practiced corporate law at Rosenman & Colin, considers himself politically moderate and, in the context of the committee, very much a middleman between conflicting interests.
“He has to walk a very thin line between long-term solutions to affordable housing needs and the demands of the development community, because the latter is creating jobs,” said Democratic strategist and lobbyist Hank Sheinkopf. “It’s not an easy time to be in that position.”
Greenfield’s appointment to the Land Use helm was one of the first moves Melissa Mark-Viverito made as City Council speaker in January. The position is said to often serve as a political trade-off, in which, for example, a borough’s Council delegation supports a candidate for speaker and in return, one of those members gets the seat.
His predecessors, Melinda Katz and Leroy Comrie, have gone on to higher-profile opportunities. The former was elected Queens borough president in November (see related story). The latter won a State Senate primary in a Queens district last month, ousting embattled Sen. Malcolm Smith, who is facing federal bribery charges. He is unopposed on the general election ballot next month.
Greenfield is also in a unique position due to a loophole in the term limits law. Elected the City Council member representing Midwood, Borough Park and Bensonhurst in a 2010 special election, he is eligible to serve through 2025. That’s because his predecessor, Simcha Felder, stepped down to work for the city comptroller three years prior to the end of his term, but Greenfield is still able to run for three terms of his own. His potential remaining time — 11 and a half years — exceeds all others on the Council. And because he will be around longer, developers perceive him as carrying more power and influence.
Members of the real estate community describe Greenfield as hardworking, accessible and engaged, but note he has not faced many challenges yet. The two major projects he has steered through committee approval, TF Cornerstone’s 1,025-unit rental project at 606 West 57th Street and Two Trees Management’s Domino Sugar Factory redevelopment, both went relatively smoothly.
In addition, Greenfield and the Real Estate Board of New York are largely in sync in criticizing the extensive landmarking of historic districts that occurred under former Mayor Bloomberg’s administration. He has said at Land Use hearings that such landmarking is at odds with de Blasio’s affordable-housing initiative.
Not every project, however, has been met with a positive recommendation. The committee, along with Queens Councilman Ruben Wills, advised developer George Tserpes of Tserpes Holding LLC to withdraw his application seeking a zoning change to build a $60 million, 13-story hotel in a residential area in Queens’ South Ozone Park, because it would likely not be approved. Tserpes did so. Residents had protested the project, expressing fears that it could one day be converted into a homeless shelter.
“Although the applicant testified that this project would only be a hotel, the applicant had no commitments from hotel operators to open in the space, spurring the community’s doubts,” Greenfield said. “We didn’t believe the developer.”
More projects that require subsidies or propose zoning overhauls are likely to arise, which may challenge his image. Take for instance Alma Realty’s 2.2 million-square-foot, 1,723-unit Astoria Cove project, which is under review by the city. The proposal has embodied the disconnect between a developer and the public — the borough president, community board and residents — over the allotment of affordable units. Although Alma upped the affordable-housing component to 20 percent from 17 percent, Katz advised the Council to reject the project, arguing that the number remains insufficient.
Greenfield declined to comment on the project, and the developer did not respond to messages seeking comment.
He said his basic philosophy is to ensure the creation of “responsible development” that caters to the needs of both the developer and the residents in that district.
“I strive to be an honest broker between both parties,” Greenfield said. “In almost every case, you can reach the happy note.”
Although Greenfield is not Sephardic, he served as executive vice president of the Sephardic Community Federation and has ties to the local Sephardic community, many of whom are Syrian and involved in real estate. In his bid for City Council, he received donations from Aurora Capital’s Robert Cayre, Century 21 store owners the Gindi family and the Hidary family, which owns Hidrock Realty.
A spokesperson for the Hidarys said the family contributed to Greenfield’s campaign because of his “commitment, hard work and devotion to his district in Brooklyn,” noting that the donations occurred prior to his entry into the real estate world.
David Lombino, director of special projects for Two Trees Management, said he expects there will be several contentious rezonings in the next few years “as the city uses density as a means to create additional affordable housing.”
“Councilmember Greenfield is positioned where he wants to be, in the middle of those conflicts, trying to find creative solutions,” Lombino said, “and, where appropriate, getting to that ‘yes’ vote.”