As Black Lives Matter protests rage on, NY real estate bleeds blue
As longtime allies and defenders of the NYPD, industry execs explain their stance — and some break rank — during police-brutality protests
UPDATED, 1:42 p.m., June 6: Each year, titans of real estate get out their tuxedos and checkbooks and head to a ritzy gala to support their favorite city agency: the New York Police Department.
The New York Police Foundation soiree draws thousands of guests and is sponsored by some of the biggest names in New York City real estate. It pulls in millions for the NYPD.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find someone in the real estate industry who doesn’t express their support for the police,” said Stephen Siegel, head of global brokerage at CBRE, partner at Fairstead Capital and a former gala honoree.
For decades, the industry’s biggest developers, bankers, brokers and lawyers have thrown their political and financial weight behind the NYPD, and it’s rare to hear them criticize even the police force’s most controversial actions. As the protests set off by George Floyd’s death during a street arrest in Minneapolis have convulsed the country and renewed calls for a reckoning of police brutality and prejudice, but also gave rise to several nights of looting in Manhattan and the Bronx, many in the industry are doubling down on their support for the NYPD.
Others, however, are reflecting on that relationship.
“The police are on the front line for helping to keep our quality of life where it needs to be,” said Charles Bendit, co-chief executive of Taconic Partners. “But there is significant room for improvement.”
A question of order
The industry’s championing of the police stems from a landlord’s primal need for a distinction between private and public space.
The police are on the front line for helping to keep our quality of life where it needs to be. But there is significant room for improvement. — Charles Bendit, co-chief executive of Taconic Partners
“The whole function of our police system is to enforce private property,” said Bernard Harcourt, a political science professor at Columbia University. “At a point in which 800 New York City residents were dying a day [from Covid-19], there was no curfew. But break the Rolex window and you get a curfew. That is probably the most vivid illustration of the way in which policing is about private property.”
Over the last week of May, protests erupted across New York City and on May 31 looters ransacked several luxury stores in Soho including Coach and Louis Vuitton. The next day, Mayor Bill de Blasio imposed the first citywide curfew in 75 years. After looting intensified that night, including at stores such as Macy’s in Herald Square and Bergdorf Goodman on Fifth Avenue, the mayor moved the curfew three hours earlier, to 8 p.m.
Break the Rolex window and you get a curfew. That is probably the most vivid illustration of the way in which policing is about private property. — Bernard Harcourt, political science professor at Columbia University
On June 1, the day de Blasio’s curfew took effect, nearly 200 members from the Partnership for New York City, an influential pro-business group, pledged to create more opportunities for young people of color. Among the signatories: Related Companies’ Jeff Blau, Brookfield Property Partners’ Ric Clark, Blackstone’s Stephen Schwarzman, WeWork’s Sandeep Mathrani, Vornado Realty Trust’s Steve Roth and CBRE’s Mary Ann Tighe.
“Let’s work together to achieve racial equality and a safe, law-abiding society,” the letter read.
Kathryn Wylde, president of the organization, said the “events of the last couple of nights where you’ve seen looting and civil unrest have reinforced the importance of the Police Department.”
And that support goes far beyond lip service.
Last year’s Police Foundation gala, held at the Midtown Hilton, raised a record $5.5 million. It was co-chaired by top executives from Brookfield, Empire State Realty Trust, RXR Realty, Blackstone and Vornado, among others. (RXR, Blackstone and Vornado declined to comment for this story, as did the NYPD.)
The ties between the gala and the industry go way back. The Association for a Better New York, a pro-business organization founded by the late developer Lewis Rudin of Rudin Management, has long been a major patron. (In 1973, Rudin championed plans for a private security force working in tandem with the police to guard the heart of Midtown, but those plans did not come to fruition.)
Some high-ranking cops have even joined the real estate industry. Two-time NYPD commissioner Raymond Kelly did a stint at Cushman & Wakefield in 2014 as head of a new division that advised the brokerage’s clients on crime and terrorism.
The police foundation isn’t the only vehicle through which companies funnel dollars to the force. The Police Athletic League hosts an annual real estate and construction luncheon supported by bigwigs from CBRE, Fisher Brothers, Fried Frank and others.
“There’s always been a great relationship between the real estate industry and the NYPD,” said former New York police commissioner Bernard Kerik. (Kerik was recently pardoned by President Donald Trump for crimes including tax fraud and lying to White House officials. One component of the case involved developer Steve Witkoff paying Kerik’s rent at a posh Upper East Side pad for two years, though Witkoff was not charged with any wrongdoing.)
Kerik said the industry’s pro-police stance was solidified further under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was known for tough-on-crime policies, most famously a crackdown on “squeegee men.”
“For every percent that we reduced crime and murder, statistically, you saw increases in economic development. You saw increases in real estate values,” said Kerik. “They know that the backbone of economic development and real estate values increasing is safety and security. Who does that? The NYPD.”
Some experts challenge the aggressive policing measures welcomed by the real estate industry during the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations.
Lyndsay Boggess, a criminology professor at the University of South Florida, called “law and order” policing a short-term fix.
“If we respond with harsh punishments, nothing is going to change,” she said, noting such measures disproportionately affect poor and minority communities.
“Rather than respond with stricter laws, government should try to alleviate one of the causal factors (of crime generally and rioting specifically), which is the entrenched mistrust that some communities have of law enforcement,” she said by email. “One of the ways to do that is to invest in those communities.”
Akira Drake Rodriguez, a joint lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania who researches racism, real estate and police, explained that police are often called upon to defend property ownership.
“Police carry out evictions and are used by the state to protect property values,” Rodriguez said. “This has harmful implications for people who are not owners — black people who have the least homeownership rights are also the least likely to see police protecting them.”
New York’s finest
On May 28, the first wave of protests broke out across the city. Many New Yorkers saw Floyd’s killing as the latest in a long line of injustices by the police against black people, including the 2014 death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner.
Since then, multiple protests have been held daily and video of heavy-handed police conduct toward peaceful protesters has flooded social media. Footage shows NYPD officers beating protesters with batons and officers piling on top of someone to make an arrest. In widely condemned videos, a police cruiser ploughs into a crowd of protesters, a cop shoves a woman to the ground, and an officer yanks down the mask of a protester whose arms were raised and fires pepper spray into his face.
Update: Got her permission with a fuck yeah. The cop pushed her so hard at Barclays & she flung back. She is tiny. Now she’s in the ER after a serious seizure. I’m waiting for updates but have to wait outside because of COVID-19. Please keep my protest sister in your thoughts. pic.twitter.com/MqV0QJ0D8h
— Whitney Hu 胡安行 – #DefundTheNYPD #AbolishPolice (@whitney_hu) May 30, 2020
During a radio show hosted by WNYC’s Brian Lehrer on June 5, de Blasio deflected a question about police brutality, instead pinning the blame on protesters.
“If any protesters were there peacefully, and they got hemmed in, that is something that I don’t accept,” said de Blasio. “But there’s a little bit of magical thinking, that the systematic attacks on officers we saw by a few is not happening.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, another longtime beneficiary of big real estate money, has been supportive of the police response to protests. But he criticized the NYPD for not doing enough to protect property from looting.
“The NYPD and mayor did not do their job last night,” Cuomo said June 2, after the first night of curfew. “You have 38,000 NYPD people. It’s the largest police department in the United States of America. Use 38,000 people and protect property.”(Despite numerous reports of police violence toward protesters, Cuomo later said the curfew had improved the situation in New York City.)
On June 3, an open letter signed by more than 400 former and current de Blasio staffers criticized the mayor’s “unwillingness to challenge the abuses of the NYPD” and demanded the department’s $5.9 billion 2020 budget be cut by $1 billion by 2021.
But for big business, law and order come first.
“If anything,” said the Partnership for New York City’s Wylde, “the business community and real estate community are concerned that the police feel vulnerable and don’t feel like they can do their job. From a business standpoint, we think the police need support to do their job.”
Suri Kasirer, a lobbyist whose clients include SL Green Realty and Silverstein Properties, agreed.
“At its core, the NYPD is the finest police agency in the world and we all have a lot invested in making sure it continues to function effectively,” she said in a statement.
Though she noted that “constructive criticism” was called for at times, Kasirer said she did not believe the protests that have swept through New York City since Floyd’s death are a turning point.
Some property owners have expressed their concern about the looting and the police’s response, but also acknowledged the broader social unrest that led to it.
Dan Hollander, a developer and investor at DHA Capital, lives in Soho and owns property in the neighborhood. Though he slept through much of the looting that occurred in the area earlier this week, he recalled stepping outside of his home the following day to see storefront windows smashed and garbage strewn everywhere.
“It was utterly shocking and incredibly depressing,” he said. He said he shared Cuomo’s frustrations with the city’s initial handling of the looting.
“As a property owner I count on the maintenance of public order and so it was distressing to me … to see what happened over the last few days and the sort of slow police response to it,” he explained.
Under the 8 p.m. curfew, which is to run through the weekend, incidents of property damage have declined. But clashes between protesters and police continue and calls from the public to reform and defund the police have intensified.
To Hollander, calls for abolition of the police are “extreme.” But he admitted change is needed.
“[Police are] a super important function and we all count on them. Having said that, there’s just no place for racist behavior in police forces,” he said. “Important institutions have to be reformed.”
Others in the real estate industry are similarly acknowledging the need for police reform.
“The killing of George Floyd was a despicable act and clearly there needs to be change,” said Jordan Barowitz, a spokesperson for the Durst Organization. He declined to elaborate.
Major landlords including Brookfield Property Partners and Empire State Realty Trust say the destruction of property and looting pales in comparison to the social issues driving the protests.
“In the context of the larger movement that’s afoot right now, we think it’s a small consideration,” said Brian Kingston, Brookfield’s CEO. “In the sense that these protests and this movement is about fair and equal treatment for all Americans, we support that wholeheartedly.”
“We support peaceful protests and are confident that the looting will pass,” Tony Malkin, CEO of Empire State Realty Trust, said in a statement. He declined to elaborate further on his view of the NYPD.
The Real Estate Board of New York, the industry’s most prominent trade group, while acknowledging that the industry has historically been supportive of the NYPD and law enforcement, is re-evaluating what should be done legislatively in light of recent events. “Right now our industry is focusing on how we can come together to provide real solutions and not just lip service to address these issues,” said James Whelan, the group’s president, in a statement earlier this week.
Some, however, are skeptical that real change is on the horizon.
“Until Americans start talking about what they’re personally willing to give up, I won’t believe we’re heading toward a solution,” said Seth Pinsky, a former real estate executive at RXR Realty and president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation in the Bloomberg administration.
“People understand it intellectually,” Pinsky added. “But [I’m] not sure they’re ready to take the necessary steps for reform. Unfortunately, we Americans can be very short-sighted.”
Eddie Small contributed reporting.
Correction: An earlier version of this story described Tishman Speyer as one of Suri Kasirer’s clients. Tishman Speyer has not engaged Kasirer.
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This story was edited by Hiten Samtani, who can be reached at email@example.com