In the Zoning
Jotham Sederstrom Nov. 16, 2009, 3:12 p.m.
The Commercial Observer: How have all the zoning changes over the last eight years impacted business?
Mr. Lindenbaum: As an applicant, for some of them, it’s obviously helped my business and even where we weren’t the applicants—but the city initiated proposals—we represented people in the areas proposed to be rezoned and had an input on behalf of those people. So, in that sense, the zoning changes have helped my business. Now, many zoning changes are floor-area neutral. That’s to say, they raised the floor area in one part of the rezoned area but they lowered it in another part, primarily in the mid-blocks. That can have a plus or minus effect depending on whom you’re representing.
Do you agree with the city’s zoning changes?
You’re talking about close to 100 neighborhoods!
Are there any that you consider to be ill-advised?
I wouldn’t say they weren’t intelligent. But what I would say is that there are some instances in which the city could’ve been a little more generous in some of its floor area allocations. In other words, the city could’ve allowed a somewhat higher density in some of the neighborhoods that they rezoned.
Any neighborhood in particular?
I could say West Chelsea. I could say possibly in Greenpoint and Williamsburg. Those are the ones that come to mind immediately.
You’re about to be honored by REBNY with the Harry Helmsley Distinguished New Yorker award. What makes you a distinguished New Yorker?
[laughs] I guess I’ve been around long enough. No, I think that it’s been my privilege to have the opportunity to counsel major developers and major cultural institutions for almost 50 years now. And, I think, in the course of that time, we’ve preserved the best of the old, we’ve created the best of the new and we’ve established a skyline that is second to none in the world. I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of all that and in my own small way be involved in not only creating the physical face of New York but also in contributing to the cultural life of the city.
Being in the business for so long, how do you keep it interesting?
Oh, I love it. I love the challenge. I love getting up in the morning and coming to the office. The best is when somebody asks me a question that nobody ever asked me before. I love it. It’s an opportunity to be creative.
What kind of recent question hadn’t you heard in your 50-year career?
I was at an agency the other day and a question of process came up, and we were kind of stuck as to how to work out the process. And I said to the chairman of the agency, ‘Why don’t we do it this way?’ And he said to me, ‘I don’t think that’s ever been done before.’ And my response was: ‘But that’s what you and I are here for, to do things that have never been done before.’ And that’s what I mean by a challenge.
Are you seeing the same kind of issues you saw 40 years ago?
Oh, no. Thirty-five or 40 years ago, the process was much simpler, number one. Two, the communities were just beginning to get involved. They weren’t involved to the extent they are today, and, perhaps most importantly, it was at the very beginning of the dawning of environmental consciousness; and the environmental review process, of all the processes, has gotten to be the most complicated and the most far-reaching in the last 40 years. It was very cursory. It’s a lot more detailed now.
Is the process significantly longer today?
Oh, absolutely. We had a Board of Estimate; we didn’t have ULURP. We didn’t have this lengthy precertification process. We didn’t have the amount of paper, documentation, research and models that we have today. And we didn’t have the lengthy environmental review process, and we didn’t need environmental consultants. In a way, when we had the Board of Estimate, we didn’t have lobbyists that were specifically engaged for the City Council because the City Council wasn’t involved. It was the borough presidents and the three citywides.
Is ULURP [the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure] frustrating? In other cities, towers are built in half the time as it takes here.
It’s not frustrating, but it was an adjustment to get used to it.
Is there someone in the real estate world whom you particularly admire?
Two of the great people in the industry who I worked for at the beginning of my career and who were wonderful mentors were Harry Helmsley and William Zeckendorf Sr. They were giants. Harry, in particular, had eyes like a slot machine. We’d sit in a room; there’d be three or four people. He had a very small office and we used to stand at the window and he’d say, ‘I want to take inventory,’ and he’d point out his buildings. But we’d sit and talk, and three or four guys would give their opinions and his eyes would go around like a pinball machine. Then they would stop; and every time they stopped and he gave his answer, it was a jackpot. It was totally a jackpot.