Such Great Heights: REBNY’S Year In Review

As the city and real estate market continued its post-recession surge over the past year, a number of significant milestones played out under the watchful eyes—and in some cases careful direction—of the Real Estate Board of New York that will shape the future of the city for decades to come. 


1 WTC as seen from New Jersey.

Of course, some initiatives became issues of contention. That’s not a big surprise in New York, where argument is its own dialect. But no one, especially REBNY President Steven Spinola, would argue the fact that the past year was characterized by great optimism and achievements.

Among the highlights: 1 World Trade Center was officially named the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, developers broke ground at Hudson Yards, the Empire State Building was offered to the public, and, perhaps most triumphantly of all, Downtown Manhattan came into its own after a devastating storm.  

“It’s a wonderful indication of what New York is able to do,” Mr. Spinola said. “It was another false prediction that the days of lower Manhattan were numbered because of [Superstorm] Sandy.”    

REBNY members served on the Building Resiliency Task Force, making important changes post- Sandy that will make the city stronger in the face of another disaster, they spent countless hours giving the city feedback regarding the latest building code, and they led the efforts to reinstate the condo, co-op and J-51 abatement programs, which were upheld in Albany. 

“We were anxious to do something early in 2013 to renew that program,” Mr. Spinola said regarding the abatement extensions. “Albany amazingly reached an agreement to pass a bill that both gave the extension for co-op and condo owners and J-51. … It was a major accomplishment.” 

Of course, more contentious issues arose, none more notable than the Midtown east rezoning, which REBNY, Mr. Spinola and many leading real estate heavyweights had stood, and still stand, firmly behind. At one point, the initiative appeared destined to pass and perhaps become Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s crowning zoning achievement. But it wasn’t to be, at least not in 2013. 

“It was terribly disappointing that it didn’t pass,” said Stephen Green of SL Green, who sits on the REBNY board of governors, echoing a sentiment that reverberated throughout the development community. “We don’t have enough new iconic buildings, and the rezoning would have created an incentive for developers like us to take a chance on older buildings at great locations.” 

The proposal would have allowed developments on qualifying sites to achieve higher “earned-as-of-right” floor area ratios by contributing to a city-managed District Improvement Fund in support of public realm and infrastructure improvements or by transferring unused air rights from area landmarks. 

But although the city ultimately withdrew the rezoning application prior to a City Council vote, the fight is not over for REBNY. Mr. Spinola said the public review process helped to refine the original proposal, and he believes a consensus exists between newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration and the real estate community that a new version of the plan should be hashed out this year.    

“We’ve already had discussions within REBNY and with the council and the mayor before he was sworn in. There seems to be a consensus that the issue should not be dropped and there’s a need to revisit it and to accomplish something,” Mr. Spinola said. 

“In the end, it may be somewhat different from what was identified a few months ago when it didn’t move, but this is something we still want to spend a great deal of time on, looking at the mayor’s version. We look forward to seeing this plan soon and to see how quickly the city can act on it.”  

At this time last year, the city still reeled from the effects of Sandy, making 2013 a year unlike others in recent memory. Statistics provided by REBNY put the damage Sandy dealt to New York City at $19 billion, with more than 305,000 housing units damaged or destroyed. 

As the remarkable rebuilding efforts played out, the wrath of the storm drifted from the collective psyche of the city at large, but REBNY continued its efforts heading the recovery and preparing for the future. Its involvement in a series of initiatives changed city, state and federal regulations and policies, amending and improving codes and regulations to rebuild with greater strength and become more resilient. 

REBNY members served as industry representatives for the Building Resilience Task Force, which made 33 recommendations resulting in 13 new local laws. The BRTF worked with the mayor’s office to create the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency, a $20 billion blueprint for protecting against climate change. 

“We spent a great deal of time in 2013 dealing with the aftermath and what needed to be done as a result of Sandy and working with the city and state on appropriate things  to ensure that we’re better able to handle another disaster,” Mr. Spinola said. “Thanks to the quick work of my members, we played a role in helping the city understand what was doable, and as a result, the city put forward a better proposal that will help New York in the future.” 

In its most recent annual report and roundup, REBNY nodded to former Mayor Bloomberg’s pro-development and business stances by calling the 12 years of his tenure “some of the most dynamic years in New York’s real estate history.” The board went on to note the desire to “maintain an open dialogue and cooperation” with Mayor Bill de Blasio and the new administration. Many are taking a wait-and-see approach to the new, progressive City Hall.  

“I just hope that the new administration allows us to develop and to do what we do well and that we’re not burdened by rules and regulations that would undermine New York’s position in the world,” said Mr. Green, who will receive the Bernard H. Mendik Lifetime Leadership in Real Estate Award at this week’s REBNY banquet. “I do believe that the mayor is pro-development and he wants to maintain New York’s position as the commercial and cultural capital of the world.” 

Charity is a staple of the real estate community, and among the charitable endeavors pushed by REBNY over the last year, the Residential Deal of the Year Gala raised more than $75,000 for the Member in Need Fund, which provides financial grants to members facing illness or family crisis. The organization partnered with the New York City Department for the Aging for its Fifth Annual Summer Donation Drive, collecting more than 400 battery-operated and hand-crank radios, whistles and batteries from REBNY members that were then distributed to senior citizens affected by Superstorm Sandy.

The Downtown Committee’s Annual Holiday Gift Drive for Nazareth House collected more than 400 gifts for needy children, the REBNY Tennis Pro-Am raised awareness and $83,000 for the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation, and the Commercial Management Breakfast raised $34,000 for the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City. 

“REBNY is an extraordinary organization and very civic-minded,” Mr. Green said. “The real estate community in my mind represents the most diligent of New Yorkers. We represent New York.”  

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