When Eric Adams, the mayoral candidate who currently leads in the polls, ran for Brooklyn borough president in 2013, the then-state senator from East New York ran for his party’s nomination unopposed, one of his only major rivals allegedly giving up that January, citing the position’s minimal legislative power or political influence. Eight years later, the race to replace him has quietly developed into one of the most crowded in the city, with about a dozen candidates crammed onto the Democratic Party ballot: a curious collection that includes, among others, three sitting members of city council, a state assemblywoman, a hospital executive and a somewhat controversial former Bloods member who now runs a city contractor in Fort Greene called Gangstas Making Astronomical Community Changes Inc.
It follows that the race’s major candidates have spent the last decade establishing political careers in parts of Brooklyn that have been most transformed by real estate, and the industry’s presence hangs over the race like the very mountainous condominiums that announce its existence. It is common, among the candidates, to declare that no fundraising has been collected from those employed by development firms. Some have strived, in their own ways, to ally themselves with the movements, or at least the sentiments, that have stirred the last decade of anti-gentrification work.
“My community is ground zero for the gentrification that occurs when you indiscriminately rezone and you rezone without paying attention to what the community tells you,” said Jo Anne Simon, a state assemblywoman whose district includes corners of Brooklyn Heights, Carroll Gardens, Gowanus and DUMBO.
While her office in Albany is both literally and figuratively removed from the battles over local land use, Simon has gotten involved in those issues directly in advance of her campaign. Last year, she vocally backed efforts to delay that process “until safe, in-person, full-scale community meetings are possible.” It restarted back in April.
“Very little of our development is actually community driven and that’s why you end up with these very bitter battles,” Simon says.
Like most of her fellow candidates, the ostensible powerlessness of the borough presidency beguiles her. Aside from being assigned a handsome budget, the president’s main role largely involves authoring advisory opinions as part of the city’s main Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) regulations. The regulations promulgate a project-by-project process for approving new developments, and borough presidents are tasked with writing long reports on the subject that are in no way binding. (This, presumably, is what is meant when Adams tells Politico that he “sometimes arrives in the wee hours to tend to official duties such as signing off on land use applications and capital allocations.”)
“Frankly, nobody likes the ULURP process. It stinks. It’s not working particularly well for anybody,” Simon says. Elsewhere, she has said the process “provides little meaningful room at the table for the community.”
The sense of powerlessness is part of the longer arc of the last few decades of city politics, which has seen power increasingly consolidated into the mayor’s office and has seen most elected offices become stylized charades of power. But it’s also hard to say that those reports don’t matter. According to the New York Times, Jed Walentas, who runs the real estate company Two Trees Management, has managed to funnel some $74,000 to various Eric Adams-related operations in anticipation of the advisory opinion Adams is due to pen on the company’s River Ring project in Williamsburg. One has to imagine the money is buying something that’s more than a “little meaningful.”
“My sense is that Eric was not as deeply engaged in the details of development,” says Simon. “You have to read between the lines. You have to understand what they’re studying or not studying and you have to be able to ask.”
When she talks about this, one gets the impression of parsing through the complex jargon of planning language; before running for office, she started a law firm where she remains a principal and where she attained some notice for prosecuting Bartlett v. New York State Board of Law Examiners, a case that created legal precedent permitting disability claimants to continue claiming legal benefits long after securing graduate degrees.
When she talks about building plans, Simon speaks with a serene, legalistic confidence.
“My approach with every development project would be to study it,” says Simon about what her style would be in authoring those reports. Like a judge, she says her approach would be thorough, but non-adversarial. “I would read everything about it,” she says.
Another candidate, Antonio Reynoso, says he also wants to see a borough president who does more. Like Simon, Reynoso has been involved in colorful zoning battles, namely DeBlasio’s earlier efforts to rezone Bushwick, which came to an anticlimactic end early last year. It started soon after Reynoso took office and he responded in 2016 with an effort to put together what was touted as a community based approach, one that would balance “the desire to create and preserve affordable housing with the need to preserve Bushwick’s character.” After two years, and abundant meetings, something called the Bushwick Community Plan was unveiled and, like the greatest works of Rodin and Le Corbusier, it would remain a neat idea relegated to a world of paper and ink.
For Reynoso, what went wrong was a matter of coming up on the wrong side of a political tug-of-war.
“We were willing to take 8,000 units of development and the city wanted 12,000, so because of that discrepancy, Bushwick was relegated to the same zoning it’s had since the 1970s,” he says.
Reynoso’s negotiations didn’t have an ally in borough hall: Adams was quick to back the city’s plan, which was the project of a developer called the Camber Property Group.
“I think things have changed since we last had a conversation about rezoning in Bushwick,” Reynoso says. He estimates that another effort to rezone the neighborhood would necessitate the creation of yet another plan.
He has a whole new plan now and promised, if elected borough president, more meetings on the matter. Like Simon, he wants to reform ULURP and he alludes to an effort he’s involved in with “colleagues that are interested in doing away with ULURP as we know it.” (Reynoso has been talking up a plan to replace ULURP with fellow Brooklyn city councilman Brad Lander since at least 2019. The remarks suggest that Reynoso, like a number of local politicos, are quietly gambling on Lander’s win in the close comptroller’s race in their campaign promise-making.)
Reynoso criticizes his potential predecessor’s run of borough hall as “reactive,” while he promises a “proactive” approach. This will involve assigning community boards more work and having them generate more data about what kind of real estate development they want, an ongoing process that Reynoso estimates will take a decade. It is in these moments that Reynoso’s voice, a generally business-like thrum, develops into a contemplative calm. He is a man who thinks about the future in particular terms, of things that can be calculated now, if we think hard enough. Things will have to be accepted and then more things. The first time I saw Reynoso he was wearing the outfit of a construction worker and was staring impenetrably ahead at a town hall in Bushwick’s MayDay Space, where the neighborhood’s residents had gathered to talk about how much they didn’t want his Bushwick Community Plan. The attire felt fitting. He had gone to hear them; he stared on with a kind of fierce, stoic concentration, and then, largely saying nothing, had left.
The group that held that meeting, Mi Casa No Es Su Casa, told me the process had given them a dim view of the capacity of community boards.
“The systems of bureaucracy that the city has developed are largely for show. Under this system, self-appointed ‘community leaders’ get to have their egos stroked by getting nominated to community boards that do almost nothing, and politicians get to pad their resumes off the backs of voters and volunteers as they advance their political careers, but there is no real meaningful representation of the community in these bodies,” the group said in a request for comment on the race.
Pointedly, neither development plan had impressed them.
“There were two competing rezoning plans debated by the powers that be in this city. One was handed down from the [New York City Department of City Planning] and the other was put together by politically connected non-profit organizations in the name of community input. Both plans would be disastrous for Bushwick, with huge chunks or our community handed over for the development of massive mixed-use condominiums,” they added. Reynoso, like the rest of the candidates, frame zoning disputes as larger straggles to create affordable housing, but the folks at Mi Casa hold that this is ultimately illusionary and that “even the cheapest units costing more than many long-term Bushwick residents could ever afford.”
For Reynoso, their rejection of his plan remains a sore spot.
“There was a small group of people that didn’t want any rezoning up, and, you know, their objections were heard,” he said. “There’s always going to be a group of people that, no matter what we do, are gonna to be against any change.”
There are, however, some developments that Reynoso said he would be open to opposing, but with the studied deference of a Supreme Court nominee, he avers against making any commitments on how he’ll come out on proposals that might come across his future desk, where he will look upon them and make the heavy decisions that fall upon his shoulders.
He brings up a contentious plan proposed by de Blasio and Mathieu Eugene, another city councilman who is running against Reynoso for borough president, to build some ostensibly affordable housing on top of an African burial ground in Flatbush and, also, against this notorious effort to build a 34‑story tower over the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. Not controversial picks – de Blasio, in fact, is also against the latter – but Reynoso comes up with them quickly and speaks of them with the authority of someone who has embraced speaking on behalf of Brooklyn.
“There’s more than enough places to build in this city,” he says. “Maybe some things are sacred.”
A somewhat perennial candidate in local Democratic Party elections, Kimberly Council believes that faith-based organizations could present a way of building new affordable housing without relying so overtly on developers. She recalls, with some fondness, approving comments from Adams when reviewing an apartment building she had been part of developing herself, in her capacity as a minister at the Berean Baptist Church.
“He was like, we need to scale this. ‘This is something that we need to scale across the borough.’”
Like Reynoso, Council speaks energetically about an idea of using the borough president’s office to conduct new surveys that have evaded the imagination of her prospective predecessor. “I think we need to do an annual survey to find out what property the city owns,” she says, concerned about the borough’s potential wealth of unused lots.
Another of the race’s outliers is Khari Edwards, who wants to reform how community boards are elected, an idea that seems to reflect the effect of years of criticism from groups like Mi Casa No Es Su Casa.
“Every time I receive an application for a community board, I want the community to actually vet the person,” he says. He calls his own community board – Community Board 9, in Prospect Lefferts Gardens – “historically bad” in their “ lack of equity and diversity.”
Before he started running for borough president, Edwards had been a former aide to the former governor David Paterson and then a “special aide” to former state senator John Sampson, but fortunately dipped before the latter was sent to jail for embezzlement. (Edwards wasn’t well liked in Albany, either.) Instead, he’s spent the last decade as an executive at Brookdale Hospital.
What unites these characters is their commitment to avoiding the overtness of real estate cash: “I haven’t taken a dollar from developers, and if I find one, I return it quickly,” Reynoso proclaimed to City Limits last month. This is also an interesting development and marks an unspoken criticism of how the office was used under Adams as an aloof fundraising apparatus that gave way to what the folks at Mi Casa No Es Su Casa labeled “absurd theaters that pass for democratic representation.”
Of course, this is not a universal rule; the third city councilman in the race, the Crown Heights politician Robert Cornegy Jr., has been running with the race’s largest war chest and, correspondingly, has also been running the race’s most overtly pro-development campaign. If he ends up winning next week, it could suggest that none of these postures, ultimately, mean very much. In an editorial over in Bklyner earlier this month, Cornegy declared that “reflexively saying no to every proposal, or letting empty lots stay vacant, is the wrong way to approach lifting Brooklyn out of this pandemic recession,” a line that suggests what the language of development will look like in the years ahead.
City Limits estimates that at least 10% of Cornegy’s donors work in the real estate industry. (This is a group that includes George Tsunis, a Long Island lawyer notorious for buying his way into an ambassadorship and then blowing it by admitting he never visited Norway. Tsunis, who now manages a hotel franchise, has put at least $2,000 behind Cornegy.) He’s also being supported, curiously, by a $170,000 advertising campaign paid for by a political action committee backed by the pro-charter school lobby, a group that’s been investing in local elections all over the city this cycle.
But for some, these are small differences.
“Whether it is one politician or another acting as the running dogs of the investor class as they call down the pigs to arrest and murder our neighbors, cleansing the land before they build their aluminum investment pieces, we will continue to work with our neighbors to build community power outside of the state,” the note from Mi Casa No Es Su Casa went on. But perhaps whoever wins on Tuesday will be doomed to remain a walking symbol of the development paperwork they eventually sign.
Mi Casa went on: “f–k Eric Adams.”
Top image photo credit: Andrew Karpan.
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