Developer Bruce Ratner came to Steven Spinola for help in 1985. Mr. Ratner needed to get tenants for his planned MetroTech Center in Brooklyn, and Mr. Spinola was Ed Koch’s economic development chief. Part of his job was to keep tenants in New York, and Morgan Stanley was thinking about moving its back offices to New Jersey.
“They were trying to convince Morgan Stanley to go to MetroTech,” said Mr. Spinola last Friday, sitting at the lunch counter at Junior’s near Times Square, his left hand surrounding a Diet Coke with lemon as he recalled his rise to prominence. “They asked me to go to a meeting with Morgan Stanley to discuss and to tell them that the city was ready to encourage them to do whatever.”
Mr. Spinola was wearing a dark brown, three-button suit with a black-and-gold Real Estate Board of New York lapel pin. For the past 24 years, REBNY has been the seat of Mr. Spinola’s power. He’s the longest-serving president in the century-plus history of the city’s largest trade group and arguably the most powerful real estate lobbyist in the state. He faces his sharpest challenge in years in dealing with an incoming governor, Andrew Cuomo, who has an electoral mandate and also a need to work with a real estate industry whose interests do not always jibe with his party’s political machinery.
After Mr. Spinola’s meeting with Morgan Stanley, the prospects for a deal looked dim. “We went down in the elevator. I turned to Bruce Ratner and I said, ‘There’s no way you get them to MetroTech.’ I said, ‘But I have a site on Pierrepont Street that’s currently a garage. And one of my guys came to me two months earlier and said, “The city’s about to give a new lease for this garage. We oughta have a cancellation clause in case we ever need it.”‘”
Mr. Spinola talks like a locomotive, chugging along through whatever point he’s making. Or as he says, “I talk a lot, so …”
“So I called up City Hall, I asked for it, they gave it to me. So I said to Ratner, ‘Can you spend the weekend coming up with a design for a building on that site? I’ll sole-source it to you if we can get Morgan Stanley to be the principal tenant.’ And we made that deal.”
The groundbreaking took place outdoors on the job site in 1986, Mr. Spinola remembered. Residents of Brooklyn Heights were protesting outside. They didn’t want something so decidedly un-Heightsy–a bank back office, of all things–in their neighborhood.
Mayor Koch spoke at the groundbreaking. “I want to acknowledge Steve Spinola, who will be leaving,” he said. Mr. Spinola was preparing to depart City Hall for REBNY.
The Heights picket line booed his name.
The mayor turned to Mr. Spinola and said, “You finally made it.”
STEVE SPINOLA IS one of the low-profile hands running the city, or, at least, the city’s most encountered industry–we all live and work in real estate. Consequently, it’s difficult to come across a discouraging word about him.
“He’s always authentically Steve,” said Mary Ann Tighe, a CEO at commercial brokerage CB Richard Ellis and the first woman to chair REBNY, “which is the hard part. He’s always authentically Steve, and yet he can dial it up or down. That’s unusual.”
“He won’t shout it from the treetops, but there’s an incredible perseverance and persistence to getting things done,” said Cushman & Wakefield co-chairman Bruce Mosler, a REBNY governor.
The Observer asked Mr. Spinola his age at the Junior’s lunch counter. “I gotta remember–1949, so I’m 61. I remember one year I lost a year in my mind,” he said. “Every year I thought I was something else. Yeah, 1949. Born in Greenpoint. It’s amazing to see all the changes over the years.”
Mr. Spinola went to City College to study political science (“and Bushwick High School, as if you really care,” he said over the phone on Monday afternoon).
When he finished college, he worked in community outreach for the Off Track Betting Association. For a brief period, he headed up World Hunger Year, an organization started by singer-songwriter Harry Chapin, before returning to the State Assembly’s Education Committee, where Mr. Spinola had worked during college.
“If you ask me what I am, I’m a lobbyist,” he said at Junior’s. “That’s primarily my job in addition to running REBNY. REBNY is not primarily a lobby–it’s a membership organization that provides services to our members.”
Under Mr. Spinola, membership has almost tripled, to more than 12,000, with the addition of thousands of residential brokers. He recently hired four new staffers, including two from the Bloomberg administration: Angela Sung, to help expand influence on the federal level; and Jim Whelan, to run REBNY’s political organizing efforts.
One insider in the real estate industry who has known Mr. Spinola since the 1970s said some people wonder if he has “fallen asleep at the switch” after so many years. “I can’t think of anyone who would classify him as a nice guy first and foremost if they weren’t talking to a reporter,” said the insider. “He’s an operator!”
Another source said he’s more energized than ever as he finishes his third recession–and encounters his second Governor Cuomo–as REBNY president. “The world is much quicker today. When I first came to the board, it was a little bit easier,” said Mr. Spinola. “You had an issue–the city took it up, you went, you lobbied, you called a meeting and so forth.
“Now there’s 10 issues,” he continued. “Thank God for BlackBerrys or whatever else.”
A waiter in a black tie and vest with rolled-back baggy white shirtsleeves and a gold name tag, “Mr. Gus,” came by to ask if The Observer wanted more coffee (check, please!). “I’m glad you guys are solving the world’s problems,” Mr. Gus cracked.
“We’re trying,” Mr. Spinola replied dryly without skipping a beat.
“The problem is they keep printing more money,” Mr. Gus said, returning with the bill.
Mr. Spinola nodded gently in agreement. “You’re right.”
WITH ANDREW CUOMO’S election, Mr. Spinola and REBNY will face a stronger governor than they have in years, not to mention one who comes out of a party buoyed by unions and pro-tenant activists who don’t typically share REBNY’s landlord-friendly credo. Plus, the industry has a long memory. Many recall the governor-elect’s father and the so-called “Cuomo tax”–a mid-1980s state capital-gains surcharge that levied 10 percent on property sales over $1 million. Deals dried up dramatically after an initial flurry to beat the tax’s enactment. The son has no plans to implement such a thing, but still–the Cuomo name alone has been enough for some in Big Real Estate to throw a wary eye toward the family’s restoration.
When talking about the new chief executive, Mr. Spinola stayed diplomatic without slowing down. “Andrew Cuomo will be a very strong governor. You could argue that he got a mandate,” he said. “He has said fairly directly that New York City can’t afford any tax increases, we can’t afford to continue to spend and we’re gonna have to bring spending in line with our ability to spend.
“What I think he needs to be able to continue that effort,” Mr. Spinola said, “is a louder voice from the business community to say, ‘We agree,’ and not just let unions run ads that say, ‘They’re taking away your health care,’ or, ‘They’re making senior citizens do,’ umm, ‘They’re taking away their lunches,’ or whatever it is.”
Mr. Spinola said that REBNY had “direct conversations” with Mr. Cuomo before his campaign got under way, conversations “about him needing to hold that line and the need for the business community to not run away.” (Mr. Cuomo’s transition team did not return a request for comment.)
And, hey, if Mr. Cuomo balks at what REBNY sees as the tough decisions, the industry has precedent on its side.
“Well, you know, Eliot Spitzer was viewed as very powerful until, you know,” Mr. Spinola said. “And even he lost his power before the scandal, because the unions attacked him. They ran ads. As a result, he ended up making some compromises, and the state really didn’t correct itself, and that hurt.”
BEFORE GOING ACROSS the street to Junior’s on Friday morning, Mr. Spinola had shared a panel with three top residential brokers at the New York Real Estate Expo in the Marriott Marquis. The housing market was on the docket, but he was talking about the tax burden.
“The tax situation is very serious,” Mr. Spinola told the panel moderator, New York Times reporter Christine Haughney.
“You should understand that real estate taxes for the City of New York generate twice as much as income tax generates, and three times as much as the sales tax generates. And really, 48 percent of the locally generated revenue of the City of New York comes from real estate tax.”
This is one of Mr. Spinola’s favorite facts these days. New York is literally the country’s most taxing state, he reminded the room. He rested his left elbow on the table and sliced the air with his hand.
“This may be a town known as Wall Street,” he added, “but it’s really real estate that in effect pays for everything that’s going on.”