The real estate consultancy to see in the de Blasio era
Today, Carl Weisbrod works his last day as a partner at real estate consultancy HR&A Advisors. On Monday, he will report to work as Bill de Blasio’s planning commissioner, a job where he will wield nearly unrivaled power over major real estate projects in New York City, including some in which his former employer has had a hand.
In the de Blasio administration, Weisbrod will be joined by fellow HR&A alums Shola Olatoye, who will chair the New York City Housing Authority, and Anthony Shorris, de Blasio’s first deputy mayor.
De Blasio's Small Business Services commissioner Maria Torres-Springer, meanwhile, is married to Jamie Torres Springer, a partner at the firm. (She hyphenates her name, he doesn't).
“So you say, ‘Are we plugged in?’” said John Alschuler, the firm’s chairman, in a recent interview. “I mean, ‘plugged in’ implies that we’re just familiar. Yeah, we’re familiar.”
“Our alignment comes not because we know people, it comes because we have a common set of values and a common way of thinking about the future of New York City,” he said.
In much the same way that the liberal public relations firm Berlin Rosen has close ties to the de Blasio administration, it's an alignment that makes ideological sense but is also quite likely good for business.
“That may be the case," said Alschuler, when I asked him if expected the firm's ties to the city to draw new clients. "On the other hand, I’ve done a very significant amount of work over the last 12 years in the Bloomberg administration, where none of that was true."
The company proudly advertises its enhanced connectedness: On Feb. 12, HR&A sent out an email to more than 6,000 friends and clients of the firm to announce Weisbrod's appointment. Recipients who opened the email found a NY1 screenshot of a City Hall press conference from the week before.
“HR&A is proud to congratulate our Partner Carl Weisbrod on his appointment as Chair of the New York City Planning Commission and Director of the City Planning Department,” the email read.
("We will sever all financial connections completely and finally before he assumes public office," Alschuler told me.)
Similarly, when Olatoye was named head of NYCHA, HR&A tweeted, "Excited to congratulate HR&A alum @SholaOlatoye who will lead @NYCHA and @deBlasioNYC to affordability in NYC housing."
In the de Blasio era, it is fair to say, this is going to be an important firm.
So what is it?
HR&A, according to Alschuler, “works in the intersection between financial feasibility, public policy and urban design.”
What that means, in practice, is that HR&A is the sort of place that clients like Major League Soccer or the Howard Hughes Corporation can go if they need financial analyses to underpin or inform their development plans, some data-driven lobbying or project management. It’s the kind of place to which the city can turn for help conducting analyses of NYCHA's economic impact, or the cost of returning the projects to a state of good repair. It's the sort of place the state can call upon to administer its Hurricane Sandy recovery effort in Red Hook and the Rockaways.
“I’m very impressed with their work,” said Queens assemblyman, Phil Goldfeder. “It’s not so easy to go into strange communities, diverse communities and try to come up with answers to big questions, like how are we going to protect ourselves in the future.”
HR&A has competitors, but because the firm's work is so variegated, not that many.
On the real estate consultant side, there are commercial real estate outfits like Cushman & Wakefield and Jones Lang LaSalle. On the economic consultant side, there are firms like Appleseed. On the lobbying side, well, HR&A would rather not be compared with the Suri Kasisers and Patricia Lynchs of the world.
“I’m not a lobbyist,” insisted Alschuler, who is nevertheless registered as one.
“I register as a lobbyist because I respect the law, it’s what the law requires,” he said, adding, “Regularly, people come to me and ask me to represent them to the government, And I always say, I don’t do that. I only advocate to the government when I have done the work that has produced a factual, financial or substantive conclusion that I’m explaining to a government official.”
Like many purveyors of financial analyses (the real estate brokerages included), the profession opens itself up to accusations of bias.
“Their reputation is producing an analysis as requested,” one real estate developer told me. “Whatever you want the result to be they will provide it to you.”
Alschuler disputes that characterization.
"We hold ourselves to very high professional standards,” he said. “We don’t produce studies the outcomes of which we don’t believe in. ... If I do a study and it doesn’t make the point the client wants to make, well they own the work product, they just bury it.”