A little more than two years ago, City Council Member Christine Quinn’s red hair would be at the front of any rally protesting the proposed West Side football stadium, complaining about the traffic, the taxpayer subsidies, the lack of any sort of meaningful input from the neighborhood where it was going to go.
The sort of fame—and notoriety—that her opposition gave her may have done her good: Shortly after the stadium died, Ms. Quinn ascended to Speaker of the City Council. But in a funny twist that may only make sense, Ms. Quinn has abandoned the rabble-rousing that first gave her such a high profile, and is now the consummate real estate insider.
Nothing made that clearer than last week, when the City Council Speaker appeared amidst a string of dignitaries a block away from where the stadium would’ve gone. This time, Ms. Quinn was helping announce a deal that she had helped put together; it’s a plan that will allow real estate developers to build 12 million square feet of apartments and offices (more than the original Rockefeller Center) in towers stretching maybe 40, 50 or even 60 stories high, on top of platforms over Metropolitan Transportation Authority train yards.
“There has been a lot of discussion about what the future of these yards would be and what was the appropriate and right thing to build on these yards,” she said. “It was not a winner-take-all process. It was not an all or nothing.”
Since becoming Speaker in 2006, Ms. Quinn has taken more of a join-’em rather than beat-’em approach in general, and she has arguably accomplished more as a result.
She largely adopted the Mayor’s position in negotiations over the 421a housing tax abatement last fall in the City Council, although she extended the area where full taxes would be paid on new developments to head off a further revolt among some council members. And, in a hit she took for her neighborhood, she endorsed Mr. Bloomberg’s trash plan even though it meant turning the Gansevoort Peninsula in Hudson River Park into a recycling facility, a move many residents opposed.
When she did take up a bullhorn and protest the sale of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village last fall, she did not appear to accomplish much except for a cursory review of a union-backed plan that would have kept rents on a certain percentage of apartments below-market
THE FACT THAT MS. QUINN STOOD AT THE West Side rail yards last week, trumpeting the future development of not only an important parcel of land but also a parcel of land in her own district, was therefore not as paradoxical as it might have seemed. But it was a tremendous political risk to endorse a rezoning plan that might, once the public gets a better look at it, turn out to be unpopular among her constituents.
What usually happens when a piece of raw land becomes hot, as the rail yards did, is that the city undertakes a seven-month rezoning process, called the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP, in which a proposal wends its way from community board to planning commission to the City Council, getting tweaked or prodded along the way—and sometimes outright killed—as a result of community pressure. It is, in fact, this process that usually gives the local City Council member the utmost influence over the project.
In fact, one of the opponents’ complaints about the football stadium was that it had been removed from that process and was rezoned by the state Empire State Development Corporation, where it would be insulated from local politics. And one of Ms. Quinn’s real breakthroughs once the stadium proposal died was convincing the Bloomberg administration, and then the M.T.A., to undertake that local review.
However, Ms. Quinn got involved in shaping the rezoning proposal that she will later be asked to vote on. In a letter accompanying the request for proposals issued on July 13, Ms. Quinn wrote, “I look forward to reviewing, and fully expect to support, an application for rezoning of the Western Rail Yard that complies in all substantial respects with the design guidelines ….”
“They didn’t want it to be done in the back room by E.S.D.C., so what they did was had it done in a back room in the City Council and Mayor’s office,” said Douglas Durst, a developer bidding on the rail yards. “It’s curious. I’m not saying it’s good or bad. In order to avoid having a back-room process they ended up having a back-room process.”
Her detractors suggest that Ms. Quinn has become increasingly friendly toward the real estate industry as she toys with a mayoral run in 2009. City Council Member Tony Avella, who has declared his candidacy for that post (and who has raised just $103,465 so far to do it), says, “Her attitude has changed completely from when she was just a City Council Member.”
His example: a set of bills he proposed that would have curtailed the power of, or increased representation on, the Board of Standards and Appeals, an obscure panel that can grant exceptions to zoning rules if developers show a need for them.
“When I introduced this in 2002, she immediately signed on and was a supporter of the legislation,” the Queens Democrat said. “And, lo and behold, she is opposing both bills now.”
A ROUGH TALLY BY The Observer of her latest campaign filings show that Ms. Quinn has raised at least $262,745 from the real estate industry since last October, about 20 percent of the $1.4 million she’s received in private contributions. Some of these came from executives at companies that are considering bidding on the rail yards, among them Steven Roth, the chief executive of Vornado Realty Trust, who, with his wife Daryl, each gave the maximum $4,950, as did Stephen Ross, the chief executive of the Related Companies, and Mr. Durst. Robert Speyer, senior managing director of Tishman Speyer, bundled $17,325 the records show.
By comparison, just $5,760 out of the total $138,717 that Ms. Quinn reported for her 2003 council re-election appears to have come from real estate professionals.
Mr. Durst, who has supported Ms. Quinn on previous campaigns, says that he has done so because “she is doing a very good job,” and has long held an interest in her district because he is co-chairman of the Friends of Hudson River Park, and the park lies in her district.
“She’s always been open to listening to development projects,” said Mr. Durst. “She hadn’t been simply against [the West Side stadium] because she’s against development. She’s been against bad development.”
Ms. Quinn did not respond to a request for an interview by deadline, but it is far from clear that the request for proposals that she helped negotiate was friendly to developers. Many community leaders said that Ms. Quinn got as much as could be expected on the two hot issues: affordable housing and preserving the High Line, the elevated rail line (and future park) whose northern portion winds around the rail yards.
“I wish there were stronger requirements for affordable housing, but fundamentally we appreciate it will go through ULURP, and we think there is some room to negotiate improvement during the land-review process,” said John Raskin, organizing director for Housing Conservation Coordinators, a West Side not-for-profit. “The site needs to be developed. It is not incredibly useful sitting as an empty rail yard.”
Neither the preservation of the High Line nor the affordable housing is, however, guaranteed, which makes it hard to determine whether the development will both provide the “give-backs” Ms. Quinn spoke about and be attractive enough that developers will want to pay a high price for it—thereby providing much-needed capital funds to the M.T.A.
The real test is what happens over the next three months, as developers put their bids together and shape the future of the West Side—and of Ms. Quinn’s political career.