Decline of the West: Candidates to Succeed Gale Brewer Really, Really Don’t Like Development

Little-known fact: the Visigoths also used out-of-context high-rises to defeat the Roman Empire.

Little-known fact: the Visigoths also used out-of-context high-rises as weapons against the Roman Empire.

Seven candidates vying to replace Gale Brewer as the Upper West Side’s voice on City Council—six Democrats and one Green Party member—gathered at the New York Society for Ethical Culture last night at the behest of Landmarks West to discuss, to quote the organizers, the overdevelopment of the neighborhood.

The moderator, Bruce Simon, started out by asking the crowd how they felt about the state of preservation on the Upper West Side—too much, too little or just right? Nobody dared raise their hand for “too much,” a few sheepishly copped to thinking it’s “just right” and the majority held up their hands for “too little.”

The first candidate, Mel Wymore—who had by far the slickest campaign and exuded the confidence of a frontrunner, though no polls have been taken—asked the crowd a question of his own: “What’s the difference between the Upper East and Upper West Side?”

“Less congestion!” they shouted. “Unique character!” “More activist!” “We have more fun!” (Oddly enough, the distinctive odor of marijuana wafted through the lobby of the building on 64th Street at Central Park West as this reporter entered the candidates’ forum.)

Mr. Wymore at first struck an accommodating tone towards development in the neighborhood, touting his work at Riverside South, where as chair of Community Board 7 he helped negotiate with Extell over its towers on the Hudson River. In exchange for half a million square feet of additional development rights beyond what were entitled when it purchased the land, the developer built a new elementary and middle school and 500 below-market rate apartments, and made a $20 million contribution towards Riverside Park South.

“Mel talks about being proud of what happened at Riverside Center,” fellow candidate Noah Gotbaum shot back later in the debate. “Well, Extell is laughing all the way to the bank!”

Bad as-of-right development on the Upper West Side.

Evil as-of-right development on the Upper West Side.

And Mr. Wymore’s balanced attitudes towards builders were short-lived, with the candidate later arguing that the city should “modify” as-of-right development rules, which allow construction within that falls within the parameters of the zoning code to proceed without any public review or approval beyond the normal building safety regulations. “If not eliminate [as-of-right development] completely,” he continued, suggesting that “increasing bulk by 20 percent should trigger public review.” (Nearly all projects would cross that threshold, as developers rarely see value in demolishing a structure to replace it with something only slightly larger.)

Debra Cooper also took aim at developers’ inherent right to build, saying she’d like to eliminate it. She bemoaned the fact that “most of the Upper West Side is littered with buildings that have been built as-of-right.” (Included among these, we’d note, are all of the Upper West Side’s pre-war gems, which were built at a time when as-of-right was the only kind of development.)

Ken Biberaj opened by admitting, somewhat courageously, that he worked with his family’s small real estate company. (In 1987, The New York Times wrote that his uncle “buys and sells more than 100 properties in the Bronx each year—and rarely holds anything for longer than 18 months.”)

Reopening the Russian Tea Room, he said, “is something I’m especially proud of,” also noting his family’s involvement with the historic Loew’s Paradise Theater on the Grand Concourse.

When challenged by an audience member on his real estate background, he deftly turned the criticism around and declared, “I’m proud that I’ve been able to [lease to] small businesses,” saying it gave him the background necessary to understand the issues that the Upper West side is facing. (The neighborhood has been at the forefront of European-style retail regulation, with zoning rules enacted last year to limit the ability of banks to lease large storefronts.)

Candidate Marc Landis also has ties to the real estate industry: as head of the real estate department at Phillips Nizer, he’s worked closely with Tahl Popp Equities, which has been criticized by affordable housing advocates for buying up apartments in Harlem with the intention of raising rents. But he was less candid about his connections, telling the audience only that he’s worked on land use and zoning issues as an attorney.

Good as-of-right development on the Upper West Side.

More evil as-of-right development on the Upper West Side.

Mr. Landis did, however, cop to raising a fifth-generation Upper West Sider. By our calculations, this would put his family on the Upper West Side well before the subway line that The Observer rode in on beneath Central Park West was even built.

The moderator at one point asked the candidates their opinion of councilmanic prerogative—or the tendency of local legislators to defer to those who represent the districts in question on localized issues, especially regarding development—but no one would endorse the practice, which the eventual victor will almost certainly engage in.

Mr. Simon then gently chastised the candidates’ reluctance to bow to political realities, telling that that they “may want to think twice” if they want other council members to vote for the decisions they make on Upper West Side issues.

He also asked the candidates about the $10 million that the real estate community has pledged to pour into Council races.

“Stay out of our district!” said Mr. Landis, who makes his living working for real estate professionals, about the real estate lobby.

“No one’s going to take money from this,” said candidate Helen Rosenthal, with no small amount of exasperation after the candidates before her each pledged not to accepted help from building interests. Mr. Gotbaum called the question a red herring, pointing out that the so-called “independent expenditures” that the lobby would be making cannot legally be coordinated with any campaign.

“They may stay out of the Upper West Side,” concluded Ms. Cooper, “because frankly we’re all just too ornery for them.”