In the Zoning

Being in the business for so long, how do you keep it interesting?
Oh, I love it. I love the challenge. I love getting up in the morning and coming to the office. The best is when somebody asks me a question that nobody ever asked me before. I love it. It’s an opportunity to be creative.

What kind of recent question hadn’t you heard in your 50-year career?
I was at an agency the other day and a question of process came up, and we were kind of stuck as to how to work out the process. And I said to the chairman of the agency, ‘Why don’t we do it this way?’ And he said to me, ‘I don’t think that’s ever been done before.’ And my response was: ‘But that’s what you and I are here for, to do things that have never been done before.’ And that’s what I mean by a challenge.
Are you seeing the same kind of issues you saw 40 years ago?
Oh, no. Thirty-five or 40 years ago, the process was much simpler, number one. Two, the communities were just beginning to get involved. They weren’t involved to the extent they are today, and, perhaps most importantly, it was at the very beginning of the dawning of environmental consciousness; and the environmental review process, of all the processes, has gotten to be the most complicated and the most far-reaching in the last 40 years. It was very cursory. It’s a lot more detailed now.

Is the process significantly longer today?
Oh, absolutely. We had a Board of Estimate; we didn’t have ULURP. We didn’t have this lengthy precertification process. We didn’t have the amount of paper, documentation, research and models that we have today. And we didn’t have the lengthy environmental review process, and we didn’t need environmental consultants. In a way, when we had the Board of Estimate, we didn’t have lobbyists that were specifically engaged for the City Council because the City Council wasn’t involved. It was the borough presidents and the three citywides.

Is ULURP [the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure] frustrating? In other cities, towers are built in half the time as it takes here.
It’s not frustrating, but it was an adjustment to get used to it.

Is there someone in the real estate world whom you particularly admire?
Two of the great people in the industry who I worked for at the beginning of my career and who were wonderful mentors were Harry Helmsley and William Zeckendorf Sr. They were giants. Harry, in particular, had eyes like a slot machine. We’d sit in a room; there’d be three or four people. He had a very small office and we used to stand at the window and he’d say, ‘I want to take inventory,’ and he’d point out his buildings. But we’d sit and talk, and three or four guys would give their opinions and his eyes would go around like a pinball machine. Then they would stop; and every time they stopped and he gave his answer, it was a jackpot. It was totally a jackpot.
jsederstrom@observer.com

In the Zoning