Leading His Charge
Jotham Sederstrom Jan. 18, 2012, 9 a.m.
Since 1986, Steven Spinola has served as president of the Real Estate Board of New York, the powerful lobbying arm that he has captained through two recessions, property tax reductions and a series of battles against the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. The Commercial Observer spoke to Mr. Spinola, 63, about what he learned in 2011, new battles for the New Year, his weakness for skiing and whether he’d rather be drinking with Robert Moses or Jane Jacobs. Hint: His answer probably won’t surprise anybody.
The Commercial Observer: With 2011 officially closed, let’s review the biggest issue the Real Estate Board of New York, and the industry at-large, tackled in 2011.
Mr. Spinola: Well, clearly, the first issue would be that the state was in a major downfall with serious budget problems, and Albany pushed to raise taxes and to decrease spending by $10 billion to $13 billion. And so one of the first things that we got involved in was the question of obviously holding the line on spending in the State of New York .
How did REBNY react?
We got involved in lobbying and working with the Committee to Save New York to, I think, accomplish what was not thought to be accomplishable, which is to hold the line on that $10 billion shortfall without raising taxes. More importantly, the business community was able to articulate a common voice on important issues, which included, on a statewide basis, a cap on taxes. It doesn’t affect New York City , but the cap on real estate taxes, as well as holding the line on spending and not going crazy on raising taxes.
As you said yourself, that was one of those issues people thought couldn’t get done, and it got done, but I imagine it wasn’t without major lobbying and publicizing your stance.
Yeah. I think we not only made our points, but we also raised some serious money to be able to address those points and get them on TV. We demonstrated that we can work well with others and we were able to support what I thought was significant leadership on behalf of the governor, taking a lot of shots and yet demonstrating what can happen when the chief executive officer actually gets his hands dirty and gets involved in the discussions and the negotiations and advocates a position.
Generally speaking, Governor Cuomo has a reputation for being easy to work with. Is that how you view the governor and is that how the real estate industry sees him?
The answer is he’s easy to work with because he’s willing to work when you raise an issue with him, or when he cares about an issue. And there’s no holding back as to what his feeling is or his position is or what he thinks can be done. With some other people, who we won’t mention, they may not have wanted to stick their neck out. Well, nobody could accuse Andrew Cuomo of not sticking his neck out.
I assume that at the beginning of each year you gather all the committees together to lay out the important issues and decide which deserve to be addressed. In 2011, were any of those plans disrupted by unexpected events?
I mean, this past year, we had to get 421-a extended. We did. But part of that issue was there was a push to require prevailing wages for anybody who got 421-a. Well, that would have hurt, we believe, a lot of low-income housing that was going to be built, and it would have guaranteed that Course of Construction would have stayed at a much higher level, and we need to bring down Course. So without breaking our relationship with the construction trades, we fought that off. They’re going to continue to fight for it. It’s an issue that’s going to come up again, but we’re building that relationship. We continue to work on that relationship and articulate the reasons we can’t do it.
The other thing that came up was a serious push for sick-leave requirements in the City Council that put forward that sick leave be given for any employees who were in some way in a building that was getting some kind of a benefit. We fought that. The good news was that Speaker [Christine] Quinn came out and opposed it. And that was a battle that we joined in with the chambers of commerce in all five boroughs and the issue was basically laid aside. Right now, there’s a push, again, to require a living wage.
The Real Estate Board of New York has also taken umbrage at what it believes to be a liberal stance on landmarking by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. Will the board continue to take on that issue in 2012?
It’s not that the city shouldn’t be identifying individual buildings and saying these are wonderful buildings for whatever reasons—the architecture, the historic nature. Let’s landmark those buildings. Nobody is questioning that. We may have a legitimate debate as to whether or not they’re wonderful buildings. But the main concern is that there’s been this aggressive attempt to create districts, huge districts. Districts used to be unique small areas around the city that you want to preserve for a reason, but not districts that basically encompass a collection of different types of architecture, or hundreds of buildings. What’s unique when we’re all of a sudden landmarking hundreds of buildings?
The Real Estate Board of New York is one of the most powerful lobbying arms in the city, but the Landmarks Preservation Department seems to be getting the upper hand here.
There’s no question that we have lost more of those battles than we have won. We think the city is landmarking away its economic future, and during the middle of this year we started to rev up some of our efforts on this. And we’re going to clearly look at 2012 as a year in which we’re going to try to make our case even stronger.
Would you consider yourself David or Goliath in that particular fight?
We’re always David. This is a battle with the City of New York and the Landmarks Commission that seems to want to respond to the landmark advocates who would landmark every building in the City of New York. There are a lot of people who don’t want to see new buildings built. I don’t know if I have an answer as to where we’re going to put the additional million people that are supposed to come and live in the city of New York by 2030. But they don’t want it in their neighborhood, and so they want to landmark buildings. We’ve opposed districts that included empty lots and old gas stations that were determined to be worthy of being included in a landmark district.
Do you ever worry that overdevelopment could threaten the character of New York City ?
Well, the answer to that is I do—there’s always the potential that if every developer decided to start a new office building tomorrow, then I’d be very worried about it. But the truth of the matter is that we have an aging stock of office space. The average age is somewhere over 71 years old for office buildings. That is very different than around the world, where office buildings are much more recent, and clearly more modern.
Just to play devil’s advocate, from the few issues you and I just discussed, most are at odds with the average New Yorker who’s not in real estate. Does that concern you at all?
Well, of course it’s a concern. I think we win our argument if we have an opportunity to lay out our arguments. With landmarking, everybody says, “Oh, isn’t it wonderful?” And then, we ask them to take a look at these buildings: “Do you believe these are worthy of landmarking?” And we usually get a different response if people actually spend the time.
In terms of development, the quick answer for people who say they don’t want development is, well, then where should your children’s jobs be created? Should they be created here, or should they be created somewhere else? Because that’s what we’re talking about. If we don’t have development, we don’t have the companies here that bring the jobs, that pay the salaries, that pay the taxes, that pay for the services that the city of New York desperately needs.
Let’s shift topics. Would you rather have a drink with Robert Moses or Jane Jacobs?
Oh, I don’t know. I don’t drink.
“I don’t drink”? That’s a nonanswer.
I mean, Moses clearly is someone that anybody who’s been in government, as I have been, would like to have a drink with.
Do you think that you and Jane Jacobs would see eye-to-eye on much?
I don’t know.
Despite the fact that you oversee an organization that boasts more than 12,000 members, many of them brokers, you’ve never worked as a broker yourself. Has that ever hampered your ability to understand their particular needs?
No. I mean, when I was with the city, I did economic development, and so, you know, was I functioning as a broker? I don’t think I was functioning as a broker. But when I came here I had the talent of brokers and owners to support me, and I’ve had a tremendous learning experience from the best people in the world in terms of doing real estate, everywhere from brokers to owners, financial institutions, residential, commercial.
So I’ve been to school. And I think I understand a lot of what’s needed to pull deals together, which is what brokers are so great at. I don’t think I’d be a bad broker, but I’ve never gone for a license. I didn’t want to get into potential conflict-of-interest issues.
Governor Pataki appointed you to the New York State Real Estate Board in 1996. What’s more influential: that or the Real Estate Board of New York?
They’re two different organizations. The state board of real estate is really an advisory group that makes recommendations on real estate policy to the governor. I was also then appointed by Joe Bruno when my term was up with Pataki, and I served for 10 years. And one of the things I’m very proud of is that I chaired the education committee on that board and we revamped the curriculum for continuing education for people with licenses.
REBNY is very different from that. We’re a lobby organization, and so, in terms of who’s more influential in getting to the governor? It might be his own state board of real estate. Who’s more influential in terms of dealing with the legislature, the city council and the governor? I’m betting that it probably is REBNY.
Speaking of betting, early on in your career you worked for the New York City Off Track Betting Corporation. Do you ever go out to Belmont to make a bet?
No. I never was a race fan. I’ve been to Belmont once, and I’ve been to a dog track once, and it’s not something that I enjoy. I mean, a horse is a beautiful animal, but it’s not something that I enjoy. Now, I haven’t been to Aqueduct yet either—for the gambling.
When’s the last time you took a vacation?
Well, I haven’t really taken a vacation. I normally take off between Christmas and New Year’s, and I’ll take days here and there, and I take long weekends in the summer. And other than that, we really haven’t gone away. I used to go away. Actually, let me take it back. Easter week we went skiing for a week out in Vail.
Do you ski?
I mean, you’re spoiled when you ski there. I mean, there are other wonderful—especially out West—other wonderful places. I’ve been to Jackson Hole, but we’re just so used to Vail, and we’ve done spring skiing there. I’m not a big cold person, and the weather is usually perfect out there, and you ski the top half of the mountain. And it’s ideal.
I’m so used to talking to real estate professionals who, when you ask about hobbies, they usually just talk about golf.
Well, I do play golf, but I didn’t play much this year. My handicap went way up, and, in part, I just couldn’t get out.
Hopefully, you’ll get a chance.
Believe me, nobody’s crying for me. But I’m not asking for that. But four weeks ago, I came down with pneumonia, so that actually had me out of the office for a few days.
But you’re back in action now?