New York CIty Council Member Ben Kallos

Rebecca Rembra

Commercial Observer Power Politicians: The Officials Who Call the Shots on Real Estate by Rebecca Rembra

Power Politicians: The Officials Who Call the Shots on Real Estate

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Ben Kallos

New York City Councilman, Manhattan, District 5

If a developer wants a rezoning or a special tax exemption for its project, it has to convince the City Council that the development will benefit the neighborhood and New York City at large. The first step in that process is getting a “yes” vote from the subcommittee on planning, dispositions and concessions, which is chaired by Upper East Side Councilman Ben Kallos. Since taking over the gig in January, the second-term Democrat has adopted a more aggressive stance toward evaluating land use applications than some of his predecessors. He asks each developer how much subsidy they’re receiving from city, state and federal sources, what the cumulative value of their tax abatement is, whether they’re using minority- and women-owned businesses for construction, if they have a local hiring plan, and whether their workers are getting health insurance and earning a living wage.   

“We’re squeezing as much affordable housing out of every dollar as we can,” Kallos said.

In December 2017, the council passed a bill he co-authored that would impose fines on landlords who receive the J-51 or 421-a tax breaks and flout the law by failing to register and offer stabilized leases for rent-regulated units. He also spearheaded a package of bills passed by the council last May that sought to reform the Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA), the little-known body that grants zoning variances to developers who claim they are financially burdened by the zoning code. The legislation requires the BSA to write more thorough decisions, create a map of variances and notify local community boards, council members and borough presidents when it receives an application.

However, Kallos may have waged his fiercest battle last year against Gamma Real Estate, the developers of a planned 800-foot-tall residential tower at 3 Sutton Place. He helped pass a 10-block rezoning in the East 50s that will discourage projects like Gamma’s by forcing builders to adhere to “tower on base” standards, meaning 40 to 50 percent of the building has to sit below 150 feet. The developer is appealing the new zoning with the BSA, arguing its tower should be grandfathered in under the old, less-restrictive zoning.