Perhaps the best way to describe Angela Pinsky’s advocacy for the real estate industry is by saying that when she joined the Real Estate Board of New York almost two years ago, she didn’t see her job as much different from the one she was leaving in the mayor’s office.
“I work on a lot of the same issues,” said Ms. Pinsky, who married Economic Development Corporation head Seth Pinsky last summer. “The thing about the real estate industry, it’s very civic minded. Many owners are family businesses and there’s this strong tradition in the industry of wanting projects and policies that are best not just for the industry’s own interests, but for the entire city.
Landlords know that their success and the health of their investments depend on the health of the city as a whole.”
Ms. Pinsky joined the mayor’s office during the heady first years of the Bloomberg administration, a period of sweeping vision, and bore witness firsthand to how real estate could provide government with the levers for urban change.
Starting as then-Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff’s chief of staff, one of the first projects she worked on was the rezoning of the Williamsburg and Greenpoint neighborhoods in Brooklyn, a process that would eventually allow a wave of residential development to sprout in the area. The neighborhood’s potential wasn’t as easy to see then. Ms. Pinsky lived in Williamsburg at the time, near the waterfront, an area that was a forlorn stretch of derelict-looking industrial buildings.
“If you didn’t get dinner by 6:00 you weren’t going to eat that night,” Ms. Pinsky said. “It’s hard to believe looking at the neighborhood today, but there weren’t grocery stores or restaurants back then.”
The area was already gaining momentum as a place for artists and hipsters and for its proximity to Manhattan. The rezoning, though, kicked that transformation into high gear and made the neighborhood the magnet for living, culture and nightlife that it is today. The project was just one of many seeds of revitalization that the administration sought to plant around the city, a bold agenda that galvanized Mrs. Pinsky’s view of real estate as a tonic that could cure the city’s ills.
“I worked on the Olympic bid and PlaNYC,” Ms. Pinsky said. “There was the feeling that you were never doing enough.”
Mayor Bloomberg arranged the office in City Hall as a large bullpen with everyone sitting at open workstations. His was, and still is, at the center of the room. Ms. Pinsky sat near the periphery, but the layout avoided isolation and permitted everyone in the room to feel within the fold of the office’s work.
“You could hear what the mayor was talking about on the phone and you always had an awareness of what was going on,” Ms. Pinsky said. “There were no silos. That was one of the great things about the administration—it was transparent.”
She remembers Mayor Bloomberg as having a photographic memory and a talent with data. “Numbers are part of his body,” Ms. Pinsky said. “But he was also very instinctual. The mayor would do the research and then trust his gut.”
Mr. Doctoroff, who left city government in 2007 to become the chief executive of Mayor Bloomberg’s financial information company, Bloomberg LP, was more analytical. “Dan wanted analyses down to the penny and he would ask you little details to see if you knew about a project inside and out,” Ms. Pinsky said.
Ms. Pinsky grew close with Mr. Doctoroff. She said he still checks in on her. “I had a very strong attachment to Dan,” Ms. Pinsky said. “I was young and had a lot to learn. I was timid. Working in that situation makes you learn about decision-making. I grew up a lot in that role. Dan still calls all of us. He’s very protective.”
Mrs. Pinsky stayed on when Mr. Doctoroff left, maintaining her position as a chief staffer for Bob Lieber, a former Lehman Brothers executive who was hired as Mr. Doctoroff’s successor in the role of deputy mayor of economic development. Mr. Lieber was less of a visionary than Mr. Doctoroff, according to Ms. Pinsky, but had a clear talent for negotiating deals, skills that Ms. Pinsky would also soon come to appreciate.
One of the first issues they handled together was what to do with Off Track Betting. The parlors were oozing red ink, Ms. Pinsky said, largely because the city and state took money out of its total revenue rather than its profits. “OTB expenses were rising and there was nothing to compensate it for that,” Ms. Pinsky said.
Mr. Lieber helped devise a solution in which the city and state would share a cut of OTB’s profits only, an approach that would pad its bottom line. He worked hard to align various interests in the state that would permit the idea to be implemented. But the negotiations bogged down and eventually he retreated, arranging a deal that would allow the state to take control of the organization. A year later, it was shuttered.
Mr. Lieber’s efforts had paid off in one sense; the city was no longer on the hook for OTB’s $500 million of pension and other liabilities. Still, it was demoralizing to see how such a common-sense solution could meet defeat when OTB’s inevitable demise had been so widely predicted.
By the spring of 2010, with the economy and government-spurred developed in slow gear due to the recession, Ms. Pinsky was ready for change. Mr. Lieber had left office to return to the private sector, taking a job at C3 Capital Partners. She soon got her own chance to switch over as well. “Mike Slattery, an executive at REBNY, called me in,” Ms. Pinsky said. “I wasn’t expecting it but they had an opening.”
For REBNY, Ms. Pinsky was a hugely attractive hire, as she had not only valuable connections in city government, but also a close feel for how it works. Having staff with Ms. Pinsky’s skill set and experience has been essential for the city’s real estate industry, whose health depends not just on economic winds but as much on the burdens and restrictions that government places on it too.
In recent months Ms. Pinsky has been working on a range of issues. Taxes on carried interest, an investment structure typically employed by hedge funds but also by some real estate partnerships, will likely be raised from the current capital gains rate. Ms. Pinsky and other lobbyists hope to segregate real estate from the issue, which has been focused at increasing taxes specifically for investment funds.
The outcome of their efforts could have a profound effect on how ownership structures are arranged in the real estate business. Closer to home, the City Council is grappling with whether to pass living-wage legislation, a regulation hotly opposed by the city’s real estate industry. The requirement primarily affects retail tenants, forcing them to pay higher wages to employees in buildings that receive city subsidies or incentives.
The issue is what brought down a bid by the Related Companies to redevelop the Kingsbridge Armory in 2009, when Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz backed instituting requirements that would have forced Related’s tenants in the project to pay the higher wage rate.
“Related couldn’t build under that requirement,” Ms. Pinsky said. “Retailers aren’t going to go to a building if they can get space across the street that’s cheaper. And developers know that and they’re not going to build if they can’t be as competitive.”
Ms. Pinsky, née Sung, got married to Seth Pinsky last summer. At least on the surface, the marriage seems like a well-suited match. Mr. Pinsky is the head of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, the pseudo government agency that the mayor’s office uses as one of its primary arms of economic development. Mrs. Pinsky said that she and her husband are actually quite different. “It really was a case of opposites attracting,” Mrs. Pinsky said. “I like dance music, he listens to nothing but classical. I’m very social and he tends to be more introverted.”
While Mrs. Pinsky would have preferred a getaway like Hawaii for their honeymoon, Mr. Pinsky chose the Sudan and then Egypt. Mr. Pinsky prefers exotic, out-of-the-way destinations that sometimes verge on risky. He was days away from visiting North Korea before the government there canceled his papers permitting entry. He went to Iran earlier in their relationship without Mrs. Pinsky.
“We had a safe word,” Mrs. Pinsky remembers. “Waffles. If he got captured and said that, I knew to send the U.S. government.”
The travel, especially in former Soviet countries, an area that fascinates Mr. Pinsky, has afforded her a perspective on infrastructure here.
“You can compare what they have in other cities and see where it has gone right and wrong and, also, what we do that is right and wrong,” Mrs. Pinsky said. “I still want to go to Hawaii.”