New York Daily News De Blasio & the developer sharks: The mayor gets badly bitten by Alyssa Katz
The people have spoken on Mayor de Blasio’s creative political fund-raising, now under the microscope of federal and state investigations.
More than half of voters in a recent Quinnipiac poll say yes to the proposition “Do you think Mayor de Blasio does favors for developers who make political contributions to campaigns in which he is involved or don’t you think so?” Of those, all but a handful deem that conduct either unethical or outright illegal.
Between the probes and the frequency with which his generous political donors also end up with blessings from the city for real estate projects, it’s no wonder New Yorkers turn a withering gaze on what sure looks like dirty business.
But consider an alternate theory of what’s eating de Blasio, not inconsistent with the story of transformational politics he himself spins.
Yes, his administration bestows favors on donors, in that just about everyone in the many corners of the real estate business that require City Hall actions — who bid on city property, or affordable housing deals, or seek zoning actions — happens to be one.
And it’s for good reason they have so many development opportunities to feed on. De Blasio set out to rev up construction as the engine of his ambitions to build affordable housing on a history-making scale — often, it must be noted, on terms those same donor-developers resent.
In short, de Blasio takes money from developers while creating opportunities for them — not as a quid pro quo but in service of bridging the economic gulf that separates rich and less-rich New Yorkers.
By the lights of a crusader who sought the national spotlight as a vanquisher of income inequality, taking toll payments from developers, and spending proceeds to promote his affordable housing innovations in New York and beyond, came as an act not of vice but virtue.
Where de Blasio’s theory of civic transformation fell apart was on his own administration’s competence to swim with the real estate sharks who own New York .
One donor gobbled the Lower East Side nursing home where apparently clueless city administrators lifted a deed restriction based on the buyer’s pinky promise to keep it a health facility — then flipped it for condominiums.
Another blotted out the Upper East Side sky with a luxury tower many stories taller than zoning allows because the Department of Buildings got outfoxed by a wily developer who bent the rules.
Both of those fails came to light only because community boards and City Council members Margaret Chin and Ben Kallos sprang into action at the behest of constituents who had gotten the cold shoulder from the mayor’s side of City Hall.
Naturally, that both developers gave the $4,950 maximum to de Blasio’s campaign, plus another $10,000 from the condo builder to de Blasio’s Campaign for One New York non-profit, raises the possibility of special and potentially illegal treatment.
But the alternative explanation offers a gruesome spectacle worthy of a nature show: Everyone getting in the water together, and sharks feeding on weaker fish.
Another clue that de Blasio’s real estate bureaucracy is no match for the sharks: The stunning cancellation last week of Flushing West, one of seven much-heralded new housing development zones.
Again, it was a City Council member, Peter Koo, who forced a reckoning with reality: Towers on the 12 industrial blocks by Flushing Creek would pierce a LaGuardia Airport flight path. Oops.
Separate from the screw-ups, de Blasio and Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen have shown willingness to cut generous-to-developer deals to rack up the score on the affordable housing board (target: 200,000 units built or preserved over 10 years ).
Their spokesperson justified accepting a less-than-highest bid (from a donor) to build condos at the downtown Brooklyn Public Library site as justified by “the most affordable housing.” To close the deal preserving 5,000 rent-stabilized apartments in Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village and healthy returns for private equity investors, they pledged in addition to city subsidies lucrative development rights elsewhere.
And developers privately say that in outer-borough neighborhoods, de Blasio’s updated version of the 421-a tax break, which went belly-up in Albany, would have padded their profits far more than under the expired program — while counting as affordable apartments units renting for at or close to market rate.
We can call all of these bargains with the sharks win-wins — and de Blasio does. We can call them giveaways to wealthy developers. Perhaps the corruption label will ultimately stick — but far likelier we’ll remember the de Blasio years as the era when real estate ran the city.