David Greenfield Is the Chief of Land Use—Just Be Careful What Twitter Says About Him
Over the six years that David Greenfield has served in the City Council, he has fashioned himself as one of the more social media-savvy politicians. He regularly tweets commentary and answers to questions during hearings for the Land Use Committee, which he has chaired for almost three years.
So naturally when he successfully advocated for express F train service to his district—the Midwood, Borough Park and Bensonhurst sections of Brooklyn—the North Brooklyn critics’ (whom Greenfield said have to wait 10 seconds longer for a train because of the revamped system) favorite medium of attack became Twitter.
A parody account was set up to confuse users of the social media site, creating an eerily similar handle to his, @NYCGreenfield. How did they pull that off? Instead of a lower case “L,” an upper case “I” was used. The other tipoff that whoever was manning the account was an impostor was less subtle: His biography read, “Father. Husband. Neighbor. Member of the @NYCCouncil & Chair of Committee on Land Use. Screwing 52% of Brooklyn for my own political gain.”
The Queens Ledger and Brooklyn Star captured some of the tweets before the account was deleted. The 140-character pot shots painted Greenfield as something of a North Brooklyn-hating monster out to slow down the train system. “This morning I rode the F to Bergen St and then held the doors open for 45 minutes. #ProductiveSaturdays,” one read.
The Democratic councilman, who spoke with Commercial Observer earlier this month in his office across the street from City Hall, dismissed the critic as a coward hiding behind an anonymous online account.
“People are taking issue with me because they’re upset about my positions, whether it’s in the world of land use or it’s advocating for my folks on the F express…I have no problem with that,” said Greenfield, a 38-year-old, quick-talking, part-time law professor who accentuates certain words much in the same way one would in a lecture hall. “I think it’s a testament to the fact that I’m getting things done.”
Having thick skin is natural for a politician in a rough-and-tumble town like New York City, but it’s especially required if you hold Greenfield’s position as land use chairman. While his south Brooklyn district is made up of mostly low-lying buildings, Greenfield is the gatekeeper for changes to the city’s skyline that require a municipal green light. He holds influence over the uniform land use review procedure (ULURP), the landmarking process and real estate transactions with the city.
And since this is a real estate boom that’s given birth to super-tall skyscrapers and fanned the flames over affordable housing, he’s more in the spotlight. But the press-friendly Greenfield seems open to the challenges, branding himself as an honest broker.
“Obviously there’s always going to be some institutional tension between the executive branch and the legislative branch,” said Carl Weisbrod, the chairman of the City Planning Commission and the commissioner of the New York City Department of City Planning, who was appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014. “One of the major pluses about working with David is he’s intelligent [and] he’s able to see the broad picture of the specific project before him.”
Seeing the forest for the trees has become increasingly important as the city grapples with how it can create more affordable housing. Despite community pushback over density concerns, the council pushed through two de Blasio zoning plans intended to create more affordable housing earlier this year.
One of the programs, mandatory inclusionary housing, has dominated headlines in recent weeks and three projects have either been voted down or pulled from the Land Use Committee. The program requires developers seeking a residential zoning change to include below-market rental apartments in a project so that more density is added to a property.
A proposal in Inwood soured after the local councilman, Ydanis Rodriguez, revoked his support because all sides couldn’t reach an agreement. Deputy Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer criticized a 10-story proposal in Sunnyside, Queens, because the community was concerned about the height of a property (the developer later pulled the project before the committee voted on it).
“I think it’s a very challenging time,” said Ross Moskowitz, a partner in Stroock, Stroock & Lavan’s real estate practice, “for the mutual goals that the administration and the council have in creating more affordable housing. However, as with any new program, questions are being asked and interpretations are being made that don’t have any historical context, so there is uncertainty.”
What makes Greenfield stand out among legislators as land use chairman is that he tries to unpack the complex issues that go into a zoning change, according to those who work with him on those projects. After all, ULURP involves several layers of municipal and community review—a byproduct of the Robert Moses era, when the powerful city planner pushed through major capital projects that sometimes displaced entire neighborhoods.
“If you ever watch my hearings, the [City Hall] reporters make fun of me because in every single hearing I say the same thing: ‘We’re going to break this down now for the people who are watching at home,’ ” he said, adding that people are watching, if not in real time. “And you know what? It’s very complicated. I think part of what I try to do as the chair of the land use committee is break it down and make it simple.”
Moskowitz, who worked in economic development during the Giuliani administration and now represents clients going through land use procedures, said Greenfield’s “intellectual curiosity” helps draw out answers on the bigger impact a single project might have.
“He actually wants to understand the project,” he said. “He wants to understand the implications from a land use perspective.”
Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) also illustrates the unwritten code in New York City that the full council body usually leaves its vote in ULURP up to where the local member stands on a particular project.
Greenfield dismissed that the ruling on a project lies in the hands of a single person. A given zoning project has a number of players, he explained, including the developer, civic groups, community boards, individual residents, unions and peripheral city agencies such as the New York City Economic Development Corporation and the New York City School Construction Authority.
“It’s overly simplistic when the media says, ‘Oh, it’s one council member,’ ” Greenfield said. “It’s not true. The weight bears down on the council member’s shoulders. But there are a whole host of folks who have interest. And council members are trying to balance those interests. What I do is try to help the process along to try to bring people to the table to the extent that we can to try to get to an agreement.”
Van Bramer, the majority leader in the council, agreed there are a lot of moving parts to the ULURP machine but said it wasn’t fully true that a local councilman is simply just a cog in the wheel.
“I think David’s analysis is correct,” he said. “But I would also add that it is important to acknowledge that the local council member knows the communities, knows the issues [and] knows the concerns better than any of the other players in any land use action.”
That was the case when it came to the rezoning of Vanderbilt Avenue from East 42nd to East 47th Streets, paving the way for construction of SL Green Realty Corp.’s future 1,550-foot One Vanderbilt across the street from Grand Central Terminal. The effort was led by Councilman Daniel Garodnick, who worked with Greenfield and the Land Use Committee on the agreement, in which SL Green paid $220 million toward subway improvements below its tower in exchange for a bigger building.
“David has stood with us in demanding real public benefits in the rezoning of both Vanderbilt Avenue and the greater East Midtown area,” Garodnick said in a statement.
Greenfield’s committee faces a similar plan some time in the next year for the broader Midtown East District, running from East 39th to East 57th Streets and Second through Fifth Avenues. Shaped by Garodnick and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, the plan would also allow landmarked properties to sell some 3.5 million square feet of air rights anywhere within the district, with the city taking 20 to 40 percent of each transaction. (The real estate industry has been iffy about the higher end of that spectrum.) Weisbrod’s Department of City Planning held a scoping hearing last week, the unofficial kick-off to ULURP.
“We look forward to working with a partner like David, who you can make your arguments to,” said John Banks, the president of the Real Estate Board of New York, who has known and interacted with Greenfield in Banks’ role as a real estate booster since last year (and for Consolidated Edison before that). “He will give you a fair opportunity to talk about them and…is the type of person who wants to get to ‘yes.’ And that’s what you need in something as complicated as the East Midtown rezoning.”
Greenfield declined to weigh in on the specifics because he said he doesn’t want to pre-judge the rezoning, or any other project, before it even started ULURP.
“The reality is that most major corporations do not want to work in buildings that are 50 years old, where they’re struggling to get Wi-Fi or cell service,” he said. “So we have to look at it from that perspective. Once we understand that’s the goal, working backwards from there: There are community issues, and there are developer issues. This definitely is our goal to get it done by 2017.”
Before taking office, Greenfield, who is Orthodox Jewish, was a top executive at the Sephardic Community Federation, a lobbying organization for Brooklyn’s Syrian-Jewish population.
Greenfield has also garnered a reputation as a real political player with strong interpersonal skills. Tapping into both the Orthodox and Sephardic Jewish communities, Greenfield is considered a strong fundraiser not just for himself but also for other council members.
Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce President Carlo Scissura met him roughly 10 years ago while Scissura was the chief of staff to then-Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz and Greenfield was at the Sephardic Community Federation.
“He is a straight shooter,” said Scissura, who still keeps regular contact with Greenfield in their current roles. “He is very clear in his objectives. He has been very effective both in the Sephardic center and then in the council.”
Greenfield first ran for council in 2010 in a special election to replace Simcha Felder, a conservative Democrat who left office to work for then-Comptroller John Liu. He faced and won a tough battle against a candidate backed by the popular Brooklyn power broker and Assemblyman Dov Hikind—a one-time friend and boss but now rival of Greenfield.
Now into his first full term (he was re-elected in the 2013 general election), Greenfield is making use of basically every minute that he has. He is a married father of three who teaches land use at Brooklyn Law School. Greenfield will joke that his wife knows a simple run to the store could end up being an hour because constituents (not necessarily his, either) will stop him to ask questions. A burly, bearded man with an ever-present yarmulke, he will run four times a week from 11 p.m. to midnight, because it’s the only time during what he says is an 80-hour work week that he isn’t answering emails or engaging on Twitter. By 5:45 a.m., he is up again when his youngest child usually wakes him.
Rumors have swirled that Greenfield really wants to be the finance chair, a position currently held by Julissa Ferreras-Copeland of Queens. And things are already lining up for Greenfield to take that role if he’s re-elected in 2017, according to one Brooklyn player who said that he’s a shoo-in to become the finance chair.
But in the meantime, Greenfield isn’t just twiddling his thumbs on the land use committee. In fact, he co-led a successful effort earlier this year to reform the landmarking process in New York City, instituting a timeline in which a project can be protected from variances or demolition.
Going a step further, Greenfield maintained that land use is the ultimate power that the council has, because it can basically kill a project going through ULURP although a dead project is a rare one.
Sure, the finance committee plays a huge role in the budget, and the public safety committee is a bully pulpit to dictate policies for the New York Police Department. But Greenfield noted that making a decision on a building is something that lasts for a century, if not longer.
“Of all the power that we have—that the city charter has given us—the most power that we have in one area is exactly in land use,” he said. “If you mess up the budget this year, you can fix the budget next year. If you mess up a building this year, you cannot fix it until the year 2100. That is why I think there is so much focus on this.”