Bill de Blasio, development pragmatist

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De Blasio. (Public Advocate's office via Flickr)
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If Bill de Blasio becomes mayor, he will drive the “hardest bargain possible” with developers, he says. But his record, back before he was a public advicate planning to run for mayor, is distinctly that of a pragmatic deal maker who chose his battles carefully on the issue of development, rather than that of the populist hardliner he now sounds like.

In recent weeks, the public advocate has surged to the front of the Democratic pack by presenting himself the only true progressive alternative to the Bloomberg years.

"The question is how do we demand commitments from real estate developers to develop affordable housing, and how do we push up wages?" said de Blasio recently. "The Bloomberg model has been incredibly counterproductive."

In fact, de Blasio’s record as a councilman demonstrated a willingness to work with developers to spur economic development and tackle the city's affordable housing crisis, using an approach to land use that at times bore a strong resemblance to Bloomberg's own.

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For instance, de Blasio, like Bloomberg, was a staunch backer of the Atlantic Yards project, on the basis of the developer's promise to provide union construction jobs and more than 2,000 units of below-market housing.  

While de Blasio fought for affordable housing requirements during the rezoning of Fourth Avenue, he only pushed up to a point. When the planning department wouldn't budge, de Blasio voted for the rezoning anyway, citing the fact that it would, at least, help control the demand for market rate housing in the neighborhood.

In 2009, he pushed through a rezoning of a development site on the Gowanus Canal so Toll Brothers could build 447 condos there. And, when Toll Brothers said they would pull out if the federal government declared the canal a Superfund site, de Blasio backed a Bloomberg alternative cleanup that the city promised would take fewer years and have the added benefit of not scaring developers away by stigmatizing the neighborhood with the "Superfund" label. Critics countered that Bloomberg's alternative clean-up would prove less thorough.

And, like Bloomberg, but to the consternation of some very vocal Brooklyn Heights residents, he supported the development of condos in Brooklyn Bridge Park to help fund the park's operations.

He uses that background to allay concerns in the real estate industry that he would be difficult to work with as mayor.

“When he talks to the real estate industry, he tells us to look at his record,” one real estate executive told me.

“I’ve been in situations where he refers back to Atlantic Yards and Brooklyn Bridge Park,” said another industry executive.

Bill de Blasio represented Park Slope as a city councilman from 2002 through 2009. His years in that position coincided with the rise of Brooklyn as we now know it: Hipster credibility undermined by Manhattan real estate prices, a deep-seated anxiety about gentrification and overdevelopment infused with arriviste NIMBYism. So when, in 2005, Bruce Ratner and the Pataki and Bloomberg administrations announced an agreement to build 16 skyscrapers and an arena at the nexus of Prospect Heights, Park Slope, Fort Greene, and Downtown Brooklyn, and when it then used the threat of eminent domain to pressure existing residents to sell or relocate, brownstone Brooklyn (or a good part of it) balked.

Residents took issue with the project’s reliance on eminent domain, the developer’s evasion of the city’s onerous public review process, the development’s sheer scope (8.6 million square feet), and its implications for traffic, parking, schools, sewage. Some even worried about the shadows it would cast.

After several members of Park Slope's Community Board 6 voted against the project, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz and de Blasio “purgedthem.

“I support the project because I believe that we're at a crisis in New York City when it comes to affordable housing. ... And I think we're in a crisis when it comes to economic development and providing real jobs for the community,” said de Blasio at a hearing in 2006. “But I also want to stress as much as I believe this project will help move us forward in terms of economic development and especially affordable housing.”

He cited the developer’s signing of a Community Benefits Agreement, which promised things like local jobs and affordable housing.

“I think the Community Benefits Agreement is historic,” said de Blasio. “I think it sets a model that I hope will be followed throughout New York City going forward... but it must be adhered to. And it's the responsibility of all of us and especially as we elected officials, to ensure that it is scrupulously adhered to.”

(The chair of a Harlem community board negotiating with Columbia University over its Manhattanville expansion plans thought otherwise, telling the Observer that, "We are avoiding the Brooklyn model. We are wanting to do something else. We are wanting to develop a wide coalition of organizations and people that will be properly represented, perhaps through a local development corporation, but it's not going to be ACORN negotiating for the community or any similar type of thing.")

In a separate event, in 2011, Atlantic Yards developer Bruce Ratner co-chaired a birthday fund-raiser for de Blasio in advance of his run for mayor.

"Mr. de Blasio has never criticized the deeply flawed process that gifted a complete zoning override and 22 acres of valuable Brooklyn real estate to a single developer without any vote or any bidding process," said Daniel Goldstein, the founder of Developer Don't Destroy Brooklyn, which led the anti-Atlantic Yards fight, in an email. "He's never railed against the sweetheart deal, or advocated on behalf of homeowners and tenants who faced the highly controversial use of eminent domain. From the start and right up to the minute he has unconditionally supported the biggest land grab of the Bloomberg years, a deal made entirely in back rooms."

In the meantime, the developer has yet to create nearly as many jobs as anticipated, has yet to appoint an independent compliance monitor as required by the agreement, and has also pushed back the completion of all 16 skyscrapers to 2035 and softened its affordable housing commitments.

“I think he was too quick to believe that there would be affordable housing that would be generated in that deal,” said Ronald Shiffman, a Pratt Institute planning professor, of de Blasio. (He is not, overall, a de Blasio critic—he told me he thought de Blasio would make an excellent mayor.)

In 2011, Norman Oder, the publisher of the Atlantic Yards watchdog blog, Atlantic Yards Report, pressed him on the topic of Atlantic Yards and its unfulfilled promise after a Crain's New York Business conference in June.

"I want to get the results we wanted originally, or as close to them as possible," de Blasio told Oder. "So my framework here—I don't think this history's over yet."

In a statement, the de Blasio campaign said, "Bill de Blasio has put forward the most comprehensive affordable housing plan of any candidate for Mayor—one that will create or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing and require developers to build more permanent affordable units. From his time working at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in the Clinton administration to his work on the City Council to reform 421a and end discrimination against Section 8 tenants to his work as Public Advocate to crack down on bad landlords, no one has done more to fight for affordable safe housing for all New Yorkers."

"He felt like the deal represented a good step forward on affordable housing and good jobs," said Brad Lander, who is supporting his candidacy for mayor and who has been critical of Atlantic Yards. "And a lot of affordable housing and good jobs remain in the project."

Bill de Blasio's history of siding with real estate during controversial development fights goes beyond Atlantic Yards.

In 2003, he was one of two Councilmen whose approval was necessary to the Bloomberg administrations’ rezoning of Fourth Avenue to allow for taller development.

He argued on behalf of affordability requirements, but ended up voting for a rezoning that didn’t include them.

"He pushed hard for inclusionary and I believe the the unsuccessful fight on Fourth Avenue is what set up the more successful fight in Greenpoint-Williamsburg and Hudson yards, where Bill played a valuable role," said Lander. "There had never been a geographically specific inclusionary zoning map anywhere in New York City before."

De Blasio was also a staunch supporter of a Toll Brothers proposal to build hundreds of condos on the banks of the Gowanus Canal, to the dismay of some residents.

In March, Toll Brothers hosted a fund-raiser for de Blasio at the developer's 99 Wall Street offices.

“There’s no difference between him and the mayor on development schemes, as far as we can see,” said Marlene Donnelly, a member of Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus, known as FROGG. 

But Lander argued otherwise, pointing out that de Blasio, "pushed hard for increased affordability and job commitments."

UPDATE: This article has been updated to reflect that Oder's interview with de Blasio was in 2011.