OPINION: Foxes guard City Planning henhouse

BY LYNN ELLSWORTH | Once upon a time, N.Y.U. sociologist Harvey Molotch described a coalition of large property owners and real estate developers whose interests aligned to create a “growth machine.” Years later, economic historian Jason Barr described a “skyscraper industrial complex” composed of real estate developers and their allied advisers, financiers, trade unions, architects and construction firms, whose economic self-interest demanded unlimited skyscraper construction.

In fact, these forces have crystalized into the most powerful lobby our city has ever known, the Real Estate Board of New York a.k.a. REBNY. Oligarchic families of immense wealth dominate REBNY. Some are family dynasties with thousands of tenants paying rent to them, a political situation not seen since the feudal period.

(Courtesy Lynn Ellsworth)

Such power is a matter of public interest when the industry ends up controlling the government institutions that are meant to regulate that power on behalf of the broader public good. The Department of City Planning is a case in point. There, the foxes have seized the henhouse. Communities cannot have a fair hearing. Any critique of a rezoning is patronizingly dismissed at City Planning as “city NIMBYism.” Public hearings have become kangaroo courts in which commissioners listen in boredom to communities but then proceed to a majority vote along the lines indicated by REBNY.

Of the 13 members of the commission who control the Department of City Planning, one (Douek) is a real estate investor and donor to the mayor, managing a new $75 million “opportunity fund” for Brooklyn.

Another one (Capelli) is a former real estate industry lobbyist.

Five (de la Uz, Knuckles, Eaddy, Knight and Marín) are real estate developers of various types, ranging from a senior employee of Bluestone Group to C.E.O.’s of development corporations to the head of the Fifth Ave. Committee.

The commission’s current chairperson (Lago) ran the Empire State Development Corporation (E.S.D.C.), a real estate development monolith for the state; E.S.D.C. — now known as just E.S.D. — is infamous for abusing eminent domain to the detriment of black and low-income communities, with one academic noting that E.S.D. acts as “Robin Hood in reverse, taking from the poor to give to the rich.”

One commissioner (Levin) has long cheered on the Hudson Yards project, yet is married to a senior partner at Davis, Polk and Wardwell, the same law firm that advises major Hudson Yards developer Extell.

Another Planning commissioner (Cerullo) is C.E.O. of the Grand Central Partnership, a real estate-controlled business improvement district (BID), whose secretary is John Banks, the C.E.O. of REBNY. The partnership pushed for multiple upzonings in Midtown that directly benefitted their board members.

Only one (Ortiz) has a graduate degree in urban planning, however runs a consultancy advising shopping mall owners how to “optimize” their retail tenant mix.

At least two members have conflicts of interest with the Gowanus rezoning project (Bluestone and Fifth Ave. Committee).

At least one (Knuckles) has a clear conflict of interest with the East Harlem rezoning.

Two commissioners are architects with high-rise projects under their belts in Long Island City and Grammercy (Burney and Rampershad).

Is it any wonder that these people rule Planning as if upzoning and real estate profit-making are the same thing as actual urban planning?

The practice of “recusal” does nothing to manage such embedded conflicts of interest. The fix is easy: Edit the City Charter to rule out fox-guarding-henhouse appointments. The Charter Commission is deliberating now, so citizens need to act fast. Do your part and e-mail the Charter Commission at www.charter2019.nyc/submit-your-ideas and tell them to make fixing this situation a top priority.

 Ellsworth is chairperson, Tribeca Trust, and president, Human-Scale NYC