BOMA President Hani Salama on His Engineer Roots, Building Emissions and Waste Reform

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Hani Salama began his career as an electrical engineer laboring for a British construction company in Dubai, building the desert city’s massive, tube-shaped airport from the ground up in the early 1980s. 

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He worked six days a week in the stifling heat, building a new terminal and runways in just 18 months. After graduating with his bachelor’s in engineering from the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., he was recruited by Balfour Beatty, which is now the United Kingdom’s largest contractor, and sent to the United Arab Emirates to work on the Dubai International Airport. Before that, he spent his early years in Cairo, Egypt, immigrated to the U.S. with his family at age 12, and built a life with them in Jersey City.

In the late 1980s, he returned to New York City after four years in the Middle East, where he learned every aspect of construction, from structural engineering to heating and air conditioning work. After earning a master’s in mechanical engineering at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, he landed a job at the Empire State Building in the early 1990s, working there for a dozen years as a construction manager, and later as the director of operations. He also spent several years as an executive at Monday Properties, overseeing major New York City office properties like the Helmsley Building. 

These days he’s an executive vice president at Capital Properties, where he manages the leasing, development and operation of several office and residential complexes scattered across New York City, Boston, the D.C. area, Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and Cape Cod in Massachusetts. The firm owns 111 and 115 Broadway: two landmarked, neo-Gothic office buildings in the Financial District that are collectively known as Trinity Centre. 

However, the 58-year-old married father of two and Monmouth County, N.J., resident has a more public role: He’s the chairman of the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) of Greater New York. The 53-year-old trade organization offers a range of services for its 775 members, who are largely owners and managers of office buildings, along with the consultants, vendors and brokers who cater to them. The group hosts networking events and educational seminars on policy issues and construction topics, and it lobbies local politicians and the city government on behalf of its membership. 

Commercial Observer sat down with Salama at his office in the former Lawyers’ Club at 115 Broadway earlier this week and chatted about his plans to turn around the downward slide in BOMA membership, the group’s work on commercial trash hauling reform and the new carbon emissions law, and his experience at the Empire State Building during 9/11. 

Commercial Observer: What do you oversee in your job here at Capital Properties?

Hani Salama: I run all of Capital’s properties. We have two commercial buildings here in New York. We’re sitting in one of them. We have three in Boston and one in Chicago. And we have the residential portfolio in the D.C. market [which is] about 1,400 residential units [across] four separate complexes: one in D.C., one in Virginia and two in Maryland.

And you have a hotel on the Eastern Shore in Maryland?

It’s called the Inn at Perry Cabin, in St. Michaels, Maryland. About half a mile away from there, is a golf course. So, we just developed [the golf course], and it was designed by Pete Dye. And next to the golf course is an old hotel that we call the Lodge. Frank Gehry is working on the design for that. 

Are you trying to create a resort there? 

Yeah, we’re doing it now. The Inn at Perry Cabin is a famous five-star hotel where Wedding Crashers was filmed. And we use that with the golf course together right now, and the Lodge as well. So, all three will work like a resort. And we’re building another building with indoor pools and things like that.

We have another hotel in Cape Cod called Chatham. It’s a very large, 10-acre complex with cottages right on the water. I manage the development, hotel operations, leasing, commercial operations, and the residential.

Do you have to travel to these properties outside of New York City a lot?

I’d say about once every week or two weeks, I go for the day. I was in Boston yesterday. One of our three buildings in Boston is on the water. It’s the original building that John Hancock used for shipping; ships would come and offload their merchandise and he’d get a cut. That building is called Custom House. We completely gutted the building, and right now we’re in the middle of developing and renovating it. Last week, I was in D.C. for the residential [buildings].

20190718 hani salama 062 BOMA President Hani Salama on His Engineer Roots, Building Emissions and Waste Reform
Hani Salama in his office at the former Laywer’s Club in 115 Broadway. Photo: Sasha Maslov/For Commercial Observer

Tell me what BOMA does and describe your role in the organization. 

My role is basically to run the organization and to advance the agenda and the goals that we’re trying to achieve. And some of those goals are pretty standard, [like] increasing membership. And that’s big, because we’ve been losing members every year. Bring up the young professionals. We call them emerging leaders. And without these young folks getting involved in our own industry, I think BOMA will die and the industry will suffer without proper talent. So, education and making sure they’re involved in BOMA and getting involved in our committees. 

I see BOMA as a service organization. We cater to real estate companies, but we’re expanding into medical, industrial and college facilities. Our service is to support our industry; fight for it, because there’s some legislative stuff that’s coming out of City Hall that’s kind of aggressive.

Also, work with the city. It’s not just “fight, fight, fight,” but you’ve gotta work with the city as well. Because if you keep saying, “No, no, no,” then after a while they’re going to see these guys as just Mr. No. You’ve gotta compromise. For example, with the trash franchising [zones to regulate commercial waste haulers], we did compromise and said, “Okay, if you want to have three to five trash haulers per zone, and you can bid out and get the right bids and be competitive [with pricing], we’re okay with that.” Then they changed it to one [hauler per zone]. Now we’re saying, “Wait a minute, that’s a monopoly.”

Is your constituency all kinds of landlords or just commercial landlords?

Office building commercial landlords. That’s our bread and butter. And we’re trying to expand into other industries as well.

Do you work with residential landlords?

We are trying to expand a little bit in residential. The argument here is that people like me — and there’s a million people like me out there — run commercial office buildings, residential and hotels. And others run industrial facilities and corporate facilities. It’s not like you have these real estate companies that only have one niche, only focus on office buildings. Why not get into residential? Since there’s a demand.

So you’re involved in lobbying and policymaking?

Lobbying is an interesting word. But the answer is, we are. We have a seat at the table, let’s put it that way. We work with the City of New York on some of these issues. Sometimes they ignore us, right? Sometimes they take our opinion and they change it a bit.

But you also do a lot of professional development.

Professional development is huge, policy initiatives are huge. We also get involved in helping buildings become top buildings in the United States. We have our own award called Pinnacles for New York. The winners of the pinnacles go on to the next region, which is Mid-Atlantic and then they go on into international, and that’s how two [New York City] buildings won this year. 

We make sure the industry’s up to speed on a lot of things. I mean, we now have this whole thing about coding, that if a new [building] code or policy comes out, we send an alert to all the real estate [members] saying, “Hey, we got this new code, we’re working on it.”

What do you mean?

An example is the [waste] franchising. We tell the entire industry that we got a change [in the legislative text, that now the city is trying to promote [exclusive] zones [with only one vendor per zone]. And we would be able to put one vendor in 20 zones. So, we get people that are stakeholders in the industry, like SL Green, Vornado and CBRE, [and make sure they] understand what we’re doing, what’s going on. So, they may want to have some say, and they might have lobbying efforts as well.

Let’s talk about the emissions bill. What role did you play in that legislation?

I think [BOMA was] trying to make certain changes in the bill, to make it more acceptable and feasible and not taxing to the point where [it] will be a problem.

Enforcing, for example, a 50-cents-per-foot penalty for someone that forgets to send a report; for one million square feet, are you paying a $500,000 penalty a month? Because you forgot to send a report? Things like that didn’t make sense.

And they’ll answer, “Why didn’t you just send a report?”

OK. I mean, it happens. But let’s say there’s a change of managers and let’s say a property manager left. And the new property manager comes in, doesn’t even know that this report is due. He gets a bill for over $500,000 on his desk. Those are things that we thought, you know, maybe we can make them more normal.
I think the idea of lowering emissions is important. We should not take that lightly. The question is, how do you change this law? I don’t know the answer. But as it’s written, I’m not sure it’s achievable.

Tell us about your time at the Empire State Building.

I was there when 9/11 happened. When the towers went down, all the antennas went down. Back then all the TV stations and radio stations still needed an antenna. Some people didn’t have cable, right? About 30 percent-plus of the [city’s] viewers had no signal, nothing. The TV and radio stations needed to get their signal back, forget the money side of it.

So we at the Empire State Building allowed them to just put antennas [on the building]. We didn’t ask for a lease, we didn’t ask for a financial commitment. It was one of those things where you just had to do the right thing. We were the tallest building in the city at the time. And height is king when it comes to transmission.

They did a lot of temporary installations and they were up on the air. After the whole temporary phase, we started negotiating leases with them. One of the things we had to do was to reinforce the steel tower, because it wasn’t ready for all these antennas to go up there. To do that, you have to shut down the antennas that are there at the moment at that time. And we only have a window of three hours from one or two in the morning till four or five in the morning to do the work. So, one o’clock comes in the morning, we sent the workers up in the tower, they weld the hell out of the tower, they come down three hours later, and the next night they have to do the same thing. And I used to get phone calls in the middle of the night. Because people in the city were obviously afraid — that’s normal, right, after what happened — they see smoke coming out of the Empire State Building and call the fire department every night. 

The fire department would call me up and say, “You gotta stop welding.” And I was like, “I can’t stop welding.” They said, “Well we keep coming here because we can’t ignore the calls. Every call we get. We have to come over. That’s our job. That’s it.” I said, “I’m sorry. I’m not sure I can do anything for you.”