June 19, 2019
Dear Speaker Johnson, Councilmember Matteo, Councilmember Torres, Public Advocate Williams, Charter Review Commission, Conflicts of Interest Board:
When regulated industries take over the city agency that is supposed to regulate them a serious problem of governance emerges: foxes end up guarding the henhouse. Academics call it ‘agency capture.” Such is the case at the City Planning Commission and the Board of Standards and Appeals.
Of the 13 Commissioners at the City Planning Commission, one (Douek) is a real estate investor and donor to the Mayor, managing a new $75 million “opportunity fund” for Brooklyn. Another, (Capelli) is a former real estate industry lobbyist. Five (de la Uz, Knuckles, Eaddy, Knight and Marín) are real estate developers of various types, ranging from a senior employee of Bluestone Group to C.E.O.’s of development corporations to the head of the Fifth Ave. Committee. The commission’s current chairperson (Lago) ran the Empire State Development Corporation, the real estate development monolith for the state, an agency infamous for abusing eminent domain to the detriment of black and low-income communities, with one academic noting that it acts as “Robin Hood in reverse, taking from the poor to give to the rich.” Another commissioner (Levin) has long cheered on the Hudson Yards project, yet is married to a senior partner at Davis, Polk and Wardwell, the same law firm that advises major Hudson Yards developer Related Companies. Another Commissioner, (Cerullo) is C.E.O. of the Grand Central Partnership, a real estate-controlled business improvement district whose secretary is John Banks, the C.E.O. of REBNY. The partnership pushed for multiple upzonings in Midtown that directly benefited their board members such as SL Green. Only two have graduate degrees in urban planning, but one of those runs a consultancy advising shopping mall owners how to “optimize” their retail tenant mix in favor of property owners rather than small businesses. Two commissioners are architects with controversial high-rise projects under their belts in Long Island City and Gramercy (Burney and Rampershad).
It is troubling that at least two members have conflicts of interest with the Gowanus rezoning project (Bluestone and Fifth Ave. Committee). At least one (Knuckles) has a clear conflict of interest with the East Harlem rezoning.
As a result of these conflicts of interest that are both direct and embedded given the ‘Fox Guarding the Henhouse’ character of these appointments, communities cannot get a fair hearing at the City Planning Commission. There, hearings there have become kangaroo courts in which the Commissioners profoundly connected to the real estate industry rubber stamp a majority vote along the lines indicated by landlords and developers via their lobby, the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY).
For these reasons, we request:
- A moratorium on upzonings and rezonings until a majority of new commissioners are installed at the City Planning Commission who do not represent the interests of the real estate industry. No industry can regulate itself.
- That the City Charter Commission rectify in the Charter the problem of ‘agency capture’ so that appointees from a regulated industry (be they real estate investors, advisors, or developers) may not dominate or chair a regulatory agency. Knowledge of real estate development is not needed as a skill for urban planning.
- A public investigation into biased decision making, excessive and undue influence of real estate lobbying efforts, and conflicts of interest at the City Planning Commission that may have affected decision making in the cases of Gowanus, Bushwick, Flatbush, Industry City and the past rezonings of Inwood, East Harlem and East New York.
Lynn Ellsworth, for Human-Scale NYC
Mi Casa No Es Su Casa,
East Harlem Preservation
Voice of Gowanus
Stop Sunnyside Yards
Take Back the Bronx
The Movement To Protect The People (MTOPP)
Neighbors United Below Canal
Moving Forward Unidos
Lower Seaman Tenants Association
Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side
Northern Manhattan is Note For Sale (NMN4S)
Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network (BAN)
Artists Studio Affordability Project (ASAP)
Justice For All Coalition
Queens Neighborhoods United
Diego Beekman Mutual Housing Association, HDFC