Where real estate meets politics

A look at former City Hall politicos who wield big influence in the industry

With Mayor Michael Bloomberg nearing the end of his third (and final) term, it’s no surprise that many of his top aides have now caught a case of government fatigue and fled to the private sector. And a high percentage of those who’ve worked for the pro-development mayor have been tapped for jobs in the real estate industry.

While hiring a former administration official (or former City Council member) doesn’t get a real estate firm the keys to City Hall, it can provide valuable insight when it comes to navigating the ins and outs of government.

In the last few years, a number of the administration’s communication staffers have fled to do public relations for developers. Jordan Barowitz, for example, landed at the Durst Organization and John Gallagher went to Tishman Construction.

Former Bloomberg spokesperson Jennifer Falk, meanwhile, moved over to the policy side, helming the Union Square Partnership, a business improvement district.

More recently, David Lombino of the city’s Economic Development Corporation departed for Two Trees Management to become director of special projects. And, last month, Andrew Winter, the founding director of the mayor’s Office of Capital Project Development, was hired by Cornell University to oversee construction of the school’s new Roosevelt Island campus, which is expected to break ground in 2014.

Meanwhile, Josh Sirefman — who served as chief of staff to former deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff and then as EDC president — acted as an independent consultant for Cornell as it was preparing its bid for the new Roosevelt Island campus. (He was at Brookfield Office Properties for two years prior to that.)

But there are firewalls in place: For example, an ex-government official can’t lobby their former employer for a year after stepping down, and can’t ever advocate for a project that he or she voted on while in office.

Last month, The Real Deal examined which development firms have good — and not so good — relationships with City Hall. This month, we followed that up by looking at some ex-government veterans and where they’ve landed in the New York City real estate world.

Melinda Katz
Melinda Katz
Then: City Council member (chair of Land Use Committee)
Now: Attorney at Greenberg Traurig

Former city council member Melinda Katz — who was a mergers-and-acquisitions attorney before elected to public office — is now a real estate attorney at a top law firm, Greenberg Traurig.

As chair of the council’s powerful Land Use Committee from 2002 to 2009, Katz oversaw the rezoning of 6,000 city blocks, including the mega Greenpoint-Williamsburg rezoning in 2005.

Katz has worked for Greenberg, a firm with one of the city’s most extensive real estate practices, since 2009. Her clients include: Lightstone Group, which owns shopping centers and apartments; Phoenix Development Partners, which last year bought a waterside parcel in Long Island City, where it’s planning a 220-unit apartment building; and S&H Equities, a rental and hotel development firm headed by Serge Hoyda focused on the Lower East Side.

But Katz — who is also a registered lobbyist and was just hired by New York University to work on behalf of its expansion plan — said even though she’s working with developers, she keeps the interests of New Yorkers in mind.

“They were the ones I was fighting for, so I bring that perspective to the table,” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s not helpful [to developers] if things get stalled [by objections from residents].”

And Katz is not the only former council member to devote their post-political career to real estate. Former council speaker Gifford Miller, through his Signature Urban Properties, is breaking ground on a 10-building mixed-use project in the Bronx’s Crotona Park East.

Vishaan Chakrabarti
Vishaan Chakrabarti
Then: Director, City Planning’s Manhattan office
Now: Partner, SHoP Architects

While employed by the city from 2002 to 2005, Chakrabarti worked to rezone the Hudson Yards, and on the transformation of the High Line railway into a park.

A winding post-public-sector journey took him to the Related Companies, where he worked from 2005 to 2009. While at Related, he worked on a plan with Vornado to redevelop Manhattan’s Farley Post Office into the Moynihan train station — a massive, yet-to-be-built project that required frequent interactions with the state’s Empire State Development Corporation.

In 2009, he joined the faculty of Columbia University as the first head of the real estate development program.

An architect by trade, who once worked at Skidmore Owings & Merrill, Chakrabarti recently joined the architectural firm SHoP. That firm completed the master plan for Hunter’s Point South, Related’s 900-unit, mixed-use development in Long Island City.

SHoP also designed another headline-grabbing project : Atlantic Yards, from Forest City Ratner. The firm’s specific credits there include the Barclays Center (the basketball arena), and B2 (the site’s first apartment tower).

SHoP has also contributed designs for Moynihan Station, so there’s a chance Chakrabarti will need government agencies to sign off on his projects again.

Bob Lieber
Bob Lieber
Then: Deputy Mayor for Economic Development
Now: Executive Managing Director, Island Capital Group

After two decades with Lehman Brothers, Lieber became a public servant in January 2008 at the urging of Doctoroff — another Lehman alum.

Among Lieber’s accomplishments were the rezoning of Willets Point in Queens. He also worked to get the ball rolling for the engineering campus on Roosevelt Island as well as the city’s takeover of Governors Island. Yet he was unable to convince the City Council to approve a plan to let Related build a shopping mall at the Kingsbridge Armory.

In 2010, Lieber left to take a job alongside real estate mogul Andrew Farkas, at Island Capital. Farkas founded Insignia Financial Group, the real estate services juggernaut, which he sold to CB Richard Ellis in 2003 for roughly $415 million.

Today, in addition to helping sort out troubled real estate loans at Island Capital, Lieber is raising money and consulting on acquisition deals as part of a six-person team, according to sources at the company.

Last year, his new employer bought NAI Global, the commercial real estate firm, which was seen by many as a move to re-create a company with the same clout as Insignia.

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Jim Whelan
Jim Whelan
Then: Chief of Staff to former Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff
Now: Senior Vice President, Public Affairs, REBNY

Whelan — a veteran of numerous city mayors who started working in government in 1984 — was also a Doctoroff confidante.

But when Doctoroff left in early 2008, Whelan departed for a two-year stint at Muss Development. Then in 2010, the Real Estate Board of New York came calling.

At the time, the influential trade group was ramping up its efforts to defeat a proposed city living-wage law that could have required stores to pay their employees higher hourly salaries. REBNY argued that the added financial pressure would make it more difficult for retailers to lease storefronts from landlords. That provision was ultimately not included in the drastically slimmed down version of the bill, whose details are still being tweaked by Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

Whelan filled the newly created position to run the trade’s political shop, which is next turning its attention to the city’s onerous property taxes, he said, as well as the sometimes heavy hand of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. (REBNY aggressively came out against the council’s recent approval of a Brooklyn Borough Hall Skyscraper Historic District, arguing it would increase costs for landlords and stifle development.)

“We are not antilandmarking. We have members that have landmark and nonlandmark properties,” he said. “Unfortunately, this current commission doesn’t exercise any sense of balance and restraint.”

As for whether his government roots come in handy in his current position, Whelan said: “It’s useful to be inside government to understand how government works.”

Jeff Kay
Jeff Kay
Then: Director, Mayor’s Office of Operations
Now: Chief Operating Officer, Muss Development

Kay, who began as an intern at City Hall in 1996, spent the next 14 years there. Among the feathers in his cap were helping put together Bloomberg’s sweeping environmental initiative PlaNYC and overseeing the call center for the popular 311 line.

But after being passed over for the deputy mayor of operations job in the spring of 2010 — that went to Stephen Goldsmith, who later resigned after being arrested on a domestic violence charge — Kay departed for the private sector. In fact, he took over Whelan’s job at Muss, which has shopping malls, offices and condos.

Kay’s government know-how is likely giving the Queens-based firm a leg up in pitching for public projects. For example, Muss is currently vying to be selected by the city to develop Willets Point, which will eventually have more than 5,000 apartments, shops and a hotel on land that now has car-repair garages.

Patricia Lancaster
Patricia Lancaster
Then: Commissioner, Department of Buildings
Now: Professor, NYU Schack Institute of Real Estate

Lancaster, who’s an architect by training, ran the city’s DOB from 2002 to 2008 during the biggest building boom in decades.

On the plus side, she oversaw the re-writing of New York’s complex building codes in 2007, which was the first time it had been tackled in four decades.

However, her tenure was marred by a series of construction-site accidents, including two high-profile, fatal crane collapses. Under fire, Lancaster resigned in 2008, and was hired by the Durst Organization to help demystify those new codes, which took less than a year.

In her post-government career, she also founded the Lancaster Group, a consulting firm whose clients include Trump SoHo hotel, according to Lancaster’s website.

In addition, Lancaster, who also worked for the developer LCOR earlier in her career, is employed at NYU, where she teaches courses on construction management.

Kate Ascher
Kate Ascher
Then: Executive Vice President, EDC
Now: Consultant, Happold Consulting

Ascher was formerly with the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey and the EDC. In the 2000s, she worked under former EDC President Andrew Alper. Focused on infrastructure, she led the successful push for a new cruise ship terminal in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

When she left the city after four years in 2007, she joined Vornado for a three-year stint, during which she worked to gain approval for the 15 Penn Plaza skyscraper project. In that job, she appeared before the City Planning Commission to promote the additional public work Vornado was offering to do if it won approval for its tower. The sweeteners offered by Vornado — whose proposal was approved — included re-opening a long-defunct pedestrian passageway between Sixth and Seventh avenues under the proposed high-rise site, to alleviate subway overcrowding.

Today, Ascher is a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. She also heads up the months-old American practice at Buro Happold, a global engineering firm. Among her current projects is figuring out a way for the city to improve its management of Gateway National Park, a 10,000-acre federal swath that has major portions in Brooklyn and Queens.

She also recently took time out to write a book: “The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper.”

Ashley Cotton
Then: Senior Policy Adviser, EDC
Now: Vice President, External Affairs, Forest City Ratner

Cotton — who got her start helping manage Andrew Cuomo’s successful campaign for state attorney general in the mid-2000s and later worked for deputy mayor Bob Steel — only recently left the public sector.

At Forest City, she will focus on the opening of Barclays Center at Atlantic Yards, which is set to debut with a Sept. 28 concert featuring Jay-Z.

The opening “is a huge moment for Brooklyn, and as a Clinton Hill resident, I’m thrilled to be a part of it,” she wrote in an e-mail. “There is no question that my City Hall experience was ideal preparation for working on a project that is going to be a game changer for this borough.”

Cotton replaces government relations executive Bruce Bender, who also formerly worked for the city as policy advisor to the mayor. Cotton said Bender left to start his own consulting business.