REBNY 2018: Thrills and Frills

A look at the dignitaries being honored at the real estate industry body's 122nd annual banquet


changing of the guard is a good moment for reflection. Last June, it was announced that Rob Speyer would be stepping down as chairman of the Real Estate Board of New York and be replaced by Bill Rudin.

Speyer got the job in 2013, five years and a bizarro world ago—and that crack isn’t strictly about the national political scene.

SEE ALSO: Queens Condo to Pay $119K for Underpaying Workers’ Wages

New York City is a different place than it was under the beginning of the Speyer regime. Michael Bloomberg was mayor. Steven Spinola was the long-serving president of REBNY. Sheldon Silver was the Speaker of the New York State Assembly. Nobody had heard of WeWork (WE).

Different, right?

We spoke with Rudin and asked what his plans were for the organization.

Liam La Guerre looks at the various milestones in the Speyer presidency, from tapping John Banks to become Spinola’s replacement, to helping steer the city into the next incarnation of its 421a program, Affordable New York.

Speaking of Affordable New York, it has been one of the things that the 122-year-old trade organization has lobbied most fiercely for, and now that a year has passed since the new legislation has been signed into law, Aaron Short explores how the program has been panning out.

Of course, REBNY is not an organization that is strictly defined by the laws it advocates. It is also a presence in the courtroom. Lauren Elkies Schram examines the six legal cases that the trade organization has lent its legal expertise to over the last year.

One of REBNY’s big victories of last year was the fact that the City Council tore up the commercial rent tax for businesses whose rents are less than $500,000 per year, which Matt Grossman reports on.

An organization like REBNY will no doubt  be facing unforeseen questions and problems including a booming population and a razor thin vacancy rate; so if they’ll pardon a little persnickety advice on our part, Rebecca Baird-Remba examines at the issues that will be on the horizon.

Baird-Remba also got a look at the board’s annual report, the highlights of which we reported here.

Of course, not everybody is in love with the board. Rey Mashayekhi looked at its most persistent critic, labor advocate Ray Rogers.

REBNY, and the industry it champions is all about data. Mashayekhi found out where, physically, the old archived data is being housed (LaGuardia Community College, as it turns out).

Finally, our yearly REBNY issue also delves into who is being honored this year and why. The honorees at this year’s banquet include Rudin Management’s Gene Boniberger; Richard LeFrak; Cushman & Wakefield (CWK)’s Ron Lo Russo; C&W’s Joanne Podell; U.S. Senator Charles Schumer; outgoing president Speyer; and Stribling & Associates’ Elizabeth Stribling.

—Max Gross

Gene Boniberger
Senior Vice President and Director of Building Operations of Rudin Management

Gene Boniberger is a company man. He kicked off his real estate career at Rudin Management Company in July 1977, as a 19-year-old straight out of school. He has never left.

He rose to become the company’s senior vice president and director of building operations in2013, acting as chief engineer, building manager and operations manager along the way. Today, the 110-year-old privately held firm owns and manages over 15 million square feet of New York City real estate, all of which is supervised directly by Boniberger.

Now, Boniberger is being honored with the George M. Brooker Management Executive of the Year award by REBNY, where he sits on the Management Division Board of Directors, Commercial and Residential Management Councils and Sustainability Committee. Outside of REBNY he serves as a founding board member for DonateEight, an organ donation nonprofit affiliated with LiveOnNY, where he is also a board member. He supports Outreach and most recently the Torch Foundation. All of these charities are dedicated to helping children.

The award recognizes “accomplished individuals within the management area” who display “outstanding professionalism in property management, civic achievement and contribution to the real estate industry.”

“I liked the work and mostly liked the people I worked with,” Boniberger said of his rise at Rudin. “And there always seemed to be a new opportunity opening up to me. In this type of job, you are doing something wrong if you aren’t learning something new every day.”

Being selected for this award, Boniberger said, is gratifying.

“It is nice recognition for me and my company,” he said. “The people on the REBNY board are very well known in the industry and respected, so I am honored to be recognized by those people. I am honored to be considered a peer of those people. I’m grateful.”

However, receiving an award like this has been also cause for introspection. Looking back over his career, he said that he can’t help but associate his greatest accomplishments with some of the saddest moments in the city’s history.

“You think about the [Superstorm] Sandy recovery, 9/11 or the blackout of 1977, which occurred on my third day of work. Those are the things that stick in your head,” he said. “But there certainly was never a boring day.”

In particular, he considers getting tenants back into 80 Pine Street just six weeks after Superstorm Sandy devastated the property to be one of his greatest achievements.

“We pumped 5 million gallons of water out of the basement of that building. The building’s electrical distribution system was destroyed, but we were able to get that building up and running in a manner of weeks and have tenants move back in,” he said. “That was a major accomplishment, but it wasn’t all mine. It was really my crackerjack team.”

Boniberger considers technological innovation key to this kind of problem-solving, and he said that most recently his time has been focused on the invention and refinement of a software platform called Nantum, a building operating system.

“Nantum was something born in our buildings,” he said. “It is used in our buildings, and now the Rudin family has started a separate software company [Prescriptive Data] to market the software to other managers and landlords.”

He will be delivering a two-minute speech during dinner at REBNY’s 122nd annual banquet but isn’t planning anything elaborate.

“From what I understand, it is a very loud crowd, and there is a lot of networking,” he said. “I’ve been told no one is going to hear your speech so don’t worry about it.”

—Christopher Cameron
Richard LeFrak
Chairman and CEO of the LeFrak Organization

Richard LeFrak, the chairman and CEO of the LeFrak Organization, needs no introduction. One of New York’s oldest and most notable landlords LeFrak found himself in the political spotlight over the last year as one of the closest friends to President Donald Trump.

He was even selected by the president to sit on his infrastructure panel, which was abruptly dissolved after the president’s remarks on white supremacist activity in Charlottesville, Va. At Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla. Trump also allegedly asked Le Frak if he would consider developing the controversial border wall with Mexico, according to The New York Times.

Now, LeFrak will once again step into the Klieg light but for a more positive reason: He is the recipient of REBNY’s Kenneth R. Gerrety Humanitarian Award.

“At 122 years old, REBNY is as potent and valuable to our industry as ever,” LeFrak said in a prepared statement. “They’re a model for how an organization can age and grow. When you look at its membership, it’s all independent entrepreneurs who have different issues and different needs—brokers, property managers, appraisers and landlords. But what holds REBNY together is that they have at least one thing that each part of our industry needs. They’re an advocate, an educational program, a database, an insurer—I could go on. If you work in real estate in New York, you rely on REBNY, whether you know it or not.” (LeFrak otherwise declined to be interviewed for this story.)

LeFrak today owns more than 40 million square feet of property across the U.S., a great deal of which was developed by his company. (Yes, 40 million.) His firm’s portfolio includes LeFrak City in Queens and, in Manhattan, 40 West 57th Street and Gateway at Battery Park City.

The humanitarian award LeFrak will receive this week is recognition of his philanthropic actives including support for the Guggenheim Museum, New York Presbyterian Hospital, the American Museum of Natural History, Prospect Park, Barnard College, the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera.

LeFrak also serves in the leadership of a number of organizations, including as a member of the board of directors of the Prostate Cancer Foundation and as the vice chairman of the board of trustees for the Museum of Natural History.

The septuagenarian billionaire is showing no signs of slowing down in his golden years and is currently engaged in building developments that range from a 41-story glass and steel tower in Jersey City, N.J., called Ellipse, to a $4 billion mixed-use community in Miami, dubbed Sole– Mia Miami.

Ron Lo Russo
The President of Cushman & Wakefield’s Agency Consulting Group

Ron Lo Russo, the president of Cushman & Wakefield’s Agency Consulting Group, won’t be shouting to be heard on stage at REBNY’s annual gala, although he is an honoree. He got all his serious remarks out of the way at the Young Men’s/Women’s Real Estate Association members-only luncheon.

“It was great to speak at the luncheon because people actually listen and pay attention. Unlike at REBNY,” said Lo Russo, who is chairman emeritus of the REBNY-affiliated organization. He is being honored as the Young Real Estate Professional of the Year both by YMW and REBNY, which is presented “to a member whose knowledge, skills, integrity and high degree of ethics has contributed most to his or her profession and the community.” Recipients must be less than 50 years old when chosen.

“Lindsay Ornstein [the chairwoman of YMW] called and said, ‘I have good news for you, and I think you know what it is,’ ” he said. “It was a real honor because this is an organization I hold near and dear to my heart. It’s an award given to me by my peers and colleagues in the industry. It’s an award for character and professionalism.”

However, he admitted that calling himself a “young” real estate professional is a bit of a stretch.

“I’m 43. I recognize it is not young,” he said, adding that, from his résumé, “you might think I was 100.”

Lo Russo started his real estate career at 22 years old working as assistant property manager of 2 Penn Plaza for Mendik Co. Learning quickly that he wanted to move to the business side of commercial real estate, he began working toward a law degree at night.

But when Vornado Realty Trust purchased Mednik in 1997 in a deal valued at $654 million, he found his footing. There he began managing leases as in-house counsel. After a brief sojourn practicing law, Glen Weiss, Vornado’s director of leasing, asked him to come back to the team. “I jumped at it and began running a portfolio of buildings as the vice president of leasing,” Lo Russo said. “In all, I was at Vornado for 16 years.”

Lo Russo has been at C&W for five years now, acting as the company’s president of the New York tri-state region, until 2016, when he stepped down to head agency leasing for the brokerage. A spokesperson for C&W described his current position as brokerage with a twist of consulting—i.e., not just transactional.

Although he declined to reveal specifics, he said that he has numerous exciting opportunities in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Long Island City, Queens, coming to the table in the near future. Looking back over his career he said that he is particularly proud of a 2011 deal with NYU Langone Medical Center at Vornado’s 1 Park Avenue. The institution renewed and expanded its lease to 400,000 square feet from 240,000.

“It was one of my standout deals,” he said. “It was the largest I had done at the time, but it was also very complicated.”

He also pointed to a 15-year, 152,000-square-foot deal with AOL for its new headquarters on the fourth and fifth floors of 770 Broadway. That was in 2007.

“It was the beginning of tech in that area. It reshaped Midtown South,” he said. “It’s an old deal, but it’s very important for me. Working alongside Glen Weiss was great.”

At C&W, Lo Russo developed a training program for aspiring commercial real estate professionals, known as “PREP” (Professional Real Estate Program). He handled C&W’s $100 million acquisition of Massey Knakal Realty Services in 2014.

And even when he isn’t making deals, Lo Russo still likes to throw punches.

“I box a lot,” he said. “You’ll find me in the gym three days a week, getting up at 4:30 in the morning. My kids take up every moment outside of that. I have three amazing kids ages 9, 7 and 4.”

He also serves on the boards of Boy Scouts of New York and Tomorrow’s Hope, which supports Catholic Schools on Long Island. He is a Trustee of the Citizens Budget Commission and is a member of Partnership for New York City.

“I am extremely grateful for the people I’ve gotten to work with,” he said. “I’m looking to work hard and do the next right thing because there is no way you can predict or map out anything in life. I’ve been really blessed.”

Joanne Podell
Executive Vice Chairman at Cushman & Wakefield

Joanne Podell is an executive vice chairman at Cushman & Wakefield and this year she is being honored by REBNY with the Louis Smadbeck Memorial Broker Recognition award, given to a broker with “personal and professional integrity, long-term leadership and prominence in the brokerage community and participation in REBNY’s committees.” But this isn’t her first rodeo.

Over her 25-year commercial real estate career, Podell has been the recipient of REBNY’s prestigious Retail Deal of the Year award three times. She was also named C&W’s 2016 global top broker, the first time that a retail broker was the sole recipient of that recognition.

“You’d probably have to ask REBNY why I am being honored,” Podell said with a laugh. “The one thing I can say is that it is a tremendous honor because a humanitarian award really speaks to how I work with the people around me. I am really humbled by that because getting the awards for production means that you work hard and are good at what you do. That is fantastic. But being honored for your professionalism and good works, so to speak, is just amazing.”

Podell has been active in REBNY for many years and is currently serving as a member of REBNY’s Commercial Brokerage Division Board of Directors, Retail Committee and Lower Manhattan Office Building Committee. Her clients include TD Bank, Nike, Ann Taylor, LOFT, H&R Block, Destination XL, Cole Haan, Dean & DeLuca and Converse. She has represented Empire State Realty Trust, the Trump Organization, Madison Capital and TIAA-CREF. She is currently working to bring fresh tenants to both Empire State Realty Trust at the Empire State Building and Harry Macklowe at 432 Park Avenue.

“Having an organization that can speak for all of us and lobby on behalf of all of us is great,” she said of REBNY.

Podell got her start in retail leasing through the back door, as a furniture retailer. That business failed, and she needed a job fast, which led her to real estate.

Most recently she’s received industry accolades such as the REBNY Most Ingenious Deal of the Year award and Commercial Observer’s Deal of the Year Award for finding Nike its flagship at 650 Fifth Avenue, a 15-year deal for 69,214 square feet. That store will open this year. “It was a very complicated deal, and it took many years,” she said.

Podell also handled the store rollouts of Ann Taylor and TD Bank. “It was pretty awesome,” she said.

At C&W, Podell works with Artemis, a sprawling women’s networking organization. Outside of real estate, she works with the Anti-Defamation League and Francine LeFrak in an organization called Same Sky, which supports women in Rwanda and a women’s prison in New Jersey. She is also active with Young Women’s Leadership Network, started by Ann Tisch, a private-public partnership that works to help students break the cycle of poverty through education.

“I’m busy,” she said, “but I like what I do.”

Chuck Schumer
United States Senator of New York

Chuck Schumer has had an unexpectedly challenging year.

The senior senator from New York thought he had a shot at majority leader during the 2016 election. He had already sewn up enough votes to become minority leader in March 2015.

But the Democratic wave that would lift Hillary Clinton into the White House and Schumer into one of Washington’s top jobs ebbed cruelly last November, leaving him stranded in the minority. And Schumer would become the public face of a political party that suffered its greatest defeat in the new century.

“He had a tough year,” said political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “He’s not very good at being a second banana to anybody, and here he is being second banana to the president and to [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell. It’s not a good role for him. Its difficult.”

The Brooklyn-born, Harvard University-educated Schumer—who rose from a seat on the New York State Assembly in the 1970s to Elizabeth Holtzman’s seat in the U.S. Congress in the 1980s and finally took Al D’Amato’s seat in the Senate away from him in 1998—has had a target on his back from President Donald Trump almost since the president was sworn in. Trump chided him for opposing cabinet picks and mocked his “fake tears” shed in opposition to Trump’s immigration travel ban.

Meanwhile, Democratic activists protested outside his Park Slope, Brooklyn, home demanding that he oppose the president at every turn.

Schumer has been in Trump’s crosshairs ever since. Trump even tried to link the veteran lawmaker’s support of an immigration visa lottery program to a terrorist attack in Lower Manhattan this past November.

Schumer has brushed back Trump’s jabs and worked within his office’s limitations. He united senate Democrats in votes against the president’s agenda, derailing legislation to end Obamacare. He and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi reached a deal with Trump to keep the government solvent and fork over billions of dollars in hurricane aid.

For his lifelong commitment to public service and advocacy for all New Yorkers, Schumer will receive the John E. Zuccotti Public Service award at REBNY’s annual gala this week. Industry leaders are closely watching several proposals that are on the table this coming year. Schumer has historically been a champion of real estate, but he must walk a fine line between what developers ask for and what his liberal political base demands.

Industry leaders hope a program allowing visas to immigrants in exchange for federal investment in development projects, known as EB-5, will be included in any immigration deal discussed this winter.

Schumer has vowed to protect undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country as children, as part of any spending agreement while also supporting EB-5, a program that has come under criticism from his fellow Democrats.

He has also pushed for a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan with the inclusion of a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River to alleviate commuter traffic—a boon to developers of large projects on Manhattan’s West Side—although questions remain over whether either bill makes it over the finish line.

But Schumer, like Trump, prides himself as a dealmaker who should not be underestimated. “He’s one of the smartest legislators around. He knows his way around Washington, and he knows the senate well,” said political consultant George Arzt.

And Schumer has inhabited his new role as a Democratic statesman well, Arzt insisted. “He is much more laid back and playing the part of a pre-eminent leader,” Artz said, “but he still makes his way to high school and college graduations and major events in the state. He has not abandoned his base.”

—Aaron Short
Rob Speyer
President and CEO of Tishman Speyer

Rob Speyer, REBNY’s most recent chairman, has a lot going on as the president and chief executive officer of Tishman Speyer, like a 2.9-million-square-foot office tower on Manhattan’s Far West Side. And in Long Island City, Queens, he has a 1.2-million-square-foot office campus called The Jacx and a 1,900-unit apartment complex called Jackson Park.

Yet, while working on those megaprojects, Speyer still found time to take leadership positions at REBNY, the Advisory Board of the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, New York-Presbyterian Hospital and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

For his service and other “invaluable contributions” to the welfare of the city and real estate community, he will receive the Harry B. Helmsley Distinguished New Yorker award at REBNY’s 122nd Annual Banquet this week at the New York Hilton in Midtown.

Speyer’s tenure at REBNY is somewhat unique. He completed a five-year term (January 2013 to December 2017) as REBNY chairman, longer than the usual three-year term. (Only Bernard Mendik and Burton Resnick served as chairman for longer than Speyer). And it hasn’t been a walk in the park.

During his incumbency, the 122-year-old trade organization had to navigate a number of public and extremely controversial issues including the fall out of the 421a tax abatement program, which led to a tussle between the construction industry and developers over prevailing wages, and the Midtown East rezoning effort. Then he had to help REBNY members get acquainted with the city’s first new mayor after 12 years as Bill de Blasio took the helm from Michael Bloomberg. And he led REBNY during its search for a new president following Steven Spinola’s resignation after three decades of service.

“From an organizational perspective, I am proud to have guided the search that led to the appointment of John Banks as REBNY president and the seamless transition from Steven Spinola,” Speyer said in a statement. But, he added, “from a policy perspective, I am extremely proud of the constructive and pivotal role that REBNY played in the creation of the Affordable New York Housing Program [which replaced 421a] and the rezoning of Midtown East. Both initiatives are vital to the city’s economic future, and each required a great deal of perseverance to get across the finish line.”

On top of being REBNY chairman, Speyer (who was Tishman Speyer’s president and co-CEO from 2008 to 2015 until his father Jerry Speyer stepped down) has guided his company’s growth to more than $45 billion in assets under management.

And Speyer was reappointed as chairman to the Advisory Board of the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City in 2014 by de Blasio, after serving in the same role in 2006 for Bloomberg. While on the board of trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Speyer was co-chair of a committee that oversaw the renovation of the historic Midtown church.

With his REBNY post in the rearview mirror, Speyer preached that infrastructure is the most serious challenge that New York City still faces.

“New York City has experienced phenomenal economic growth—with jobs, residents, tourists and commuters all in record territory,” Speyer said. “In order to accommodate such rapid growth, we need major and sustained investment in the infrastructure that underpins our economy and quality of life. This means mass transit, roads and bridges, airports, tunnels, schools and parks. At the same time, we need to invest in making our infrastructure systems more robust, resilient and connected.”

—Liam La Guerre
Elizabeth Stribling
Founder and Chairwoman of Stribling & Associates

It’s difficult to know where to start with the résumé of an industry household name like Elizabeth Stribling, the founder and chairwoman of her eponymous residential brokerage. That’s how you know it’s probably time for a lifetime achievement award. And that’s just what she is getting.

REBNY is honoring Stribling with the Bernard H. Mendik Lifetime Leadership in Real Estate Award, given for “exceptional service to the real estate industry and professional accomplishments over the course of distinguished careers.”

“I was quite taken aback and thrilled,” Stribling said of the call she received from REBNY President John Banks informing her that she was being honored this year. “It was quite out of the blue. It means I’ve been working in real estate for a long time.”

Fifty years to be precise. Stribling dove headlong into the business at the age of 21 as a residential sales agent, after studying English literature at the University of Cambridge and completing a degree at Vassar College. She founded Stribling & Associates on April 1, 1980, which today has 350 agents and was ranked the third-largest new development firm by sales volume, according to The Real Deal. Stribling’s daughter Elizabeth Ann Stribling-Kivlan now runs the firm.

“Mendik was the president of [REBNY’s] Real Estate Board of Governors for many years,” Stribling said of the award’s namesake. “He was a very charismatic man full of marvelous enthusiasm, and he was devoted to real estate. I can say that I love this town, and I love this industry as much as Mendik did.”

She said that the transaction she is most proud of wasn’t her most expensive.

“Around 1975, I sold the Robert Lehman mansion,” she said, referring to the townhouse at 7 West 54th Street built for Philip Lehman in 1899 and later used to display the family art collection, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Selling that, to me, was so significant because it represented a legendary family that include Gov. Herbert Lehman and a very significant art collection that went to the Metropolitan. It was important to me because it was part of the fabric of this town.”

She also counts being tapped for the transformation of the legendary Plaza hotel after El Ad US Holding’s $675 million purchase of the landmark in 2004 as another highlight of her firm. “It was a $1.5 billion sellout and 100 years of New York history,” she said of marketing the condo conversion of the hotel.

Today, she is up at 6 a.m. every day to head to Stribling’s offices at 924 Madison Avenue, where she still acts as president of Stribling Marketing Associates, overseeing condo development sales. She is also chairman of the French Heritage Society, which restores buildings across France. She said it’s like a second job.

“I am very much a worker. I always have been, and I always intend to be,“ she said. “And I am very, very honored to be recognized for years of dedicated service to an industry I have been a sort of Joan of Arc for.”