The City is Ours, if We Take It: Breaking Up With Neo-liberal Politicians

(To preface this article, we reiterate our support for the LIC Coalition’s demands and petition, which can be viewed here: https://www.change.org/p/city-elected-officials-save-the-waterfront-this-land-is-our-land-public-land-for-public-use. However, below, we outline our serious concerns related to the involvement of Jimmy Van Bramer in today’s protest.)

This afternoon (3/3/18) Big Real Estate’s beloved Jimmy Van Bramer will be headlining a rally to protest the giveaway of public land to private developers in Long Island City. His act of doing so will be steeped in the most palpable hypocrisy – on a soapbox, the politician will be enveloped by skyscrapers and development projects that he himself helped conceive of and promote. With luxury condos surrounding Saturday’s “This Land is Our Land” protest, let those present recall that Jimmy Van Bramer was hailed a champion of the LIC BID, received the most donations of any city council candidate (of which over $100,000 from Big Real Estate), was complicit in the destruction of 5-Pointz, is a staunch supporter of the BQX, among many other unforgivable positions.

Many of the developers who own skyscrapers in LIC donated repeatedly to Van Bramer, who, in turn, helped facilitate their development.

Don’t Call it a Comeback

One might wonder why such a stalwart supporter of Big Real Estate has agreed to speak at this protest. The answer simply comes down to opportunism: Van Bramer, a standard middle-of-the-road Democrat, no more “progressive” than De Blasio or Hillary Clinton, and just as neo-liberal, has had his left-wing persona damaged by groups who have fought to bring his record to light. Following his failed City Council Speaker bid and his subsequent announcement that he will be running for Queens Borough President, the politician seeks to reestablish himself as a leader of the “#resistance” and cement support from neighborhood groups going forward. Therefore, after an enormous community effort, he has chosen to support this one cause. But at what price?

Accidentally Selling Out Your Neighbors

In short: The mere presence of Jimmy Van Bramer is an affront to the work so many have done and to all those who are currently getting priced-out and displaced because of his policies.

Politicians, especially ones with Van Bramer’s record, do not do things out of the goodness of their heart. Each move is calculated, with contingencies and hidden clauses, all arranged to promote their political career. If Van Bramer was true to his word, he would call for a city-wide ban on the giveaway of public land to private developers (he won’t – remember, he voted for the Bedford-Union Armory deal). If Van Bramer were really here for his constituents, he would fight for 100% low-income PUBLIC housing, not De Blasio’s public/private partnership through MIH/ZQA. If Van Bramer was a champion of “#queensvalues”, as he proclaims to be, he would have adamantly rejected the BQX (aka the Gentrification Express) long ago.

If Van Bramer was true to his word, he would call for a city-wide ban on the giveaway of public land to private developers (he won’t – remember, he voted for the Bedford-Union Armory deal). If Van Bramer were really here for his constituents, he would fight for 100% low-income PUBLIC housing, not De Blasio’s public/private partnership through MIH/ZQA. If Van Bramer was a champion of “#queensvalues”, as he proclaims to be, he would have adamantly rejected the BQX (aka the Gentrification Express) long ago.

The dangers of allowing Van Bramer to headline any rally related to land use, displacement or gentrification is two-fold: first, when the time comes, he will call in his debts. Secondly, and more importantly, it comes at the price of potentially accidentally selling out your neighbors. For example, Van Bramer has promised that Queens NYCHA developments will not get privatized through Next Generation NYCHA, but what about our friends in the Bronx, Harlem or Brooklyn? As a City Council member, does he not owe it to all NYC residents to push for fair and just housing policy, not just for those who’s votes he conveniently needs? Another example: many have been fighting for Van Bramer to reject the BQX, a position he has declined to take. How does allowing Van Bramer to headline a rally related to gentrification help other causes that are just as important? Instead of collectively strengthening our position, giving Van Bramer a platform does the exact opposite.

Reforms Not Reformism

Queens Anti-Gentrification Project endorses the idea of “reforms without reformism”, meaning that we refuse to work alongside those politicians we see so clearly are our enemies. Instead, we strongly believe that neighborhood groups must come together, independent of politicians, and fight for and demand certain reforms that are so desperately needed – and to do so from a position of strength and solidarity. By remaining independent, politicians can either listen to or reject our demands, which is their alleged job anyway.

History has proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that working alongside neo-liberal Democrats consistently leads down a road that gives them the upper hand. Its time we reject this path and build our own power.

If you are tired of working with politicians like Van Bramer and believe in the need for independent grassroots groups and civic engagement, please feel free to get in contact.

We demand a city-wide ban on the give away of public land!

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Triple Threat Letter to Van Bramer

Dear Council Member Van Bramer:

We are writing this letter to give voice to hundreds of neighbors, small businesses, community board members, and other local stakeholders within our district who are deeply concerned about the future of their communities and who signed a petition urging you to oppose a “triple-threat.”

Every year, it is becoming increasingly unaffordable to live in District 26. As West Queens is experiencing a large building boom, rents and home prices have skyrocketed. In Long Island City, which is now the fastest growing neighborhood in the country, an average one-bedroom now costs $3,237. These high rents not only make it hard for LIC residents to stay but also pressure surrounding neighborhoods. As just one example, in Sunnyside, this past summer, a home sold for a record $1.9 million.

Beyond soaring property values, the overdevelopment of our neighborhoods has also paid a heavy toll on our infrastructure and environment: our subway lines are highly congested (with the 7 train being one of the worst offenders in the city😉 our schools are some of the most overcrowded city wide; our neighborhoods have some of the highest shortages of park space in the city; and our waterfront is endangered by overdevelopment.

This development did not happen by accident, or by the so-called “free-market;” the destruction of our neighborhoods is the direct result of irresponsible planning and public policies that favor luxury real estate developers and those with capital over everyone else. Specifically, these include the 421-a tax abatement that gives tax breaks to the largest luxury developers in LIC like Tishman Speyer and Rockrose, and rezonings for higher density which significantly enriched these same developers by allowing them to build super-tall residential towers that rival Manhattan. This not only includes neighborhood rezonings like the ones we have seen in LIC, but also spot rezonings, like the one you approved to allow the Wolkoff brothers to tear down Five Pointz and replace it with a luxury residential development.

As if this weren’t enough, we have learned that the Mayor has plans to encourage even more development in our communities—development that we know will not be affordable for low-income, or even middle-income New Yorkers. Specifically, he has planned a triple-threat, which if collectively passed would drastically change the future of West Queens. These include:

The BQX Trolley is a private trolley that would run along the waterfront in  Astoria, Queens and run through Long Island City all the way to Sunset Park, Brooklyn, displacing low-income residents and businesses along its entire stretch. This proposal may be in the “planning” phase, but we know enough about the plan to know that we do not need a luxury trolley in our neighborhoods. The plan’s financing is based on a value capture model—which is a euphemism for raising property values all along the waterfront, to be recaptured and help pay for the operations. Furthermore, as explained by Hunter Professor Sam Stein in the recent documentary, The Gentrification Express: Breaking Down the BQX, and a leaked confidential memo from the Mayor Bill de Blasio’s BQX advisory team to Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, we have learned that even the $2.5 billion will not be enough to cover the costs, which are likely to far exceed this amount and come out of our tax dollars. This money could be much better used to address our existing 7 train issues, adding new bus routes to transit desserts, and improving “Access-A-Ride” car services that have dismally failed our most vulnerable seniors and neighbors with disabilities.

The Sunnyside Yards, where the city plans to build a new neighborhood that would comprise mostly of luxury housing. Earlier this year, the city released a feasibility study with various development scenarios. In every scenario, market-rate housing far outweighed any affordable housing or community use. At this early stage, the study predicts that this development could cost as much as $19 billion—that is $19 billion that could be put to much better use, such as covering the severe capital gap in NYCHA public housing, and investing in true low-income housing.

The Long Island City Core rezoning is the city’s plan to encourage more mixed-use, commercial development in LIC. While additional commercial space for existing, Queens-based small businesses and affordable studios would be desirable, given the already high density of LIC, we know that these new spaces will not be affordable. The city also claims that the rezoning would require developers to build additional “affordable units” through the Mayor’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) plan. These additional units would be minimal as developers already have significant incentives through programs like ‘Affordable Housing New York’ which provides a 35-year tax break in exchange for building some “affordable units” in neighborhoods like LIC. We also know that units built through MIH are truly not affordable, as they are for households making an average of 60% of the area median income (approx. $50,000 for a household of three), and can also be for households making well over $100,000.

Furthermore, we are deeply concerned with the planning process itself, which to date has minimized resident participation, with minimal notice given to community residents and discussion formats that limit participation. In fact, during a recent planning meeting, residents were only able to present their thoughts after they demanded a town-hall format and seized the microphone from city planners.

During that town-hall, residents agreed: the only rezoning that should be considered in LIC is a downzoning to correct the mistakes of the past.

We are directing this these concerns to you, because while these proposals may come from the Mayor’s office, all three of these developments will eventually come to you for a vote. We also know that in cases where multiple Council Members are involved (such as the BQX proposal), you wield influence as the majority leader. The real estate industry has much to gain from your votes, and so we were not surprised to see that you raised nearly half a million dollars in campaign contributions–even while running unopposed. That is also why we were not surprised to find through our research (which was confirmed by an independent investigation by City Limits) that you are a top recipient of real estate money, accepting the most real estate dollars, second only to Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito.

 

We have heard you say that you are “concerned” about the triple-threat, and that these campaign contributions you have received from Luxury Real Estate Developers do not influence your decisions. If that is the case, we want you to put those words into action, specifically by challenging the Mayor and openly opposing these developments that will further destroy our communities.

We have also heard you say that these plans are too early in the planning stages, that action will come later, but we know that this is false. Once any of these plans make it to the city’s formal review process, Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP), it will be extremely difficult for residents to influence the final outcomes, which are ultimately decided by the city, and voted on by you, our councilman. That is why Sunset Park residents (successfully) demanded that Council Member Menchaca withdraw his support from the BQX (he now admits that “the BQX is predicated on having a successfully gentrified neighborhood”) and that is why we are calling on you to stop the triple-threat now.

We are also collectively calling on you to fight for full funding of NYCHA public housing, which suffers from a $17 billion capital deficit as well as a city-wide rent freeze. We learned that you have called for a “city-wide rent freeze” in your re-election campaign platform, but we have yet to hear anything from you about how you plan to implement one across all residential and commercial units. Now that you have used this platform to win, we demand to know what is your plan to make this a reality for Queens residents who are in desperate need of housing protections.

To date, over 800 neighbors have joined us in signing a petition, calling on you to oppose these developments. These signatures have been collected collaboratively by Queens neighbors and grassroots groups including: Democratic Socialists of America – Queens Branch; Peoples Power Assemblies; Queens Anti Gentrification Project; Queens Is Not For Sale; and SPARC (Serve the People – Awaken Revolutionary Consciousness). Please find the paper signatures attached to the email, along with these additional online signatures.

This petition is only the beginning. For as long as these developments threaten our communities, we will continue to do the work of informing our neighbors and organizing with them to hold you, and all those in power accountable to do the right thing for the future of our families, neighbors and beloved communities.

Sincerely,

Queens Neighbors

Queens Anti Gentrification Project
Queens Is Not For Sale
SPARC
Democratic Socialists of America – Queens
Peoples Power Assemblies

Van Bramer’s Big Real Estate Problem

City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer claims to be part of the “resistance.”  After the last presidential election, he led a march across the Queensboro bridge to protest Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric.  He then held a “resistance” town hall.  Van Bramer’s track record, however, makes these activities and claims hard to take seriously. A recent analysis of campaign contributions conducted by Queens Anti-Gentrification Project reveals that the Council Member received at least $106,834 from sources related to real estate for the 2017 campaign cycle.  We also found that Van Bramer has appeared as keynote speaker at multiple real estate conferences in Long Island City.

“his campaign received at least $106,834 from sources related to real estate, with 16 donors who sit on the boards of the Long Island City Business Improvement District and Long Island City Partnership”

Donations
Queens Anti-Gentrification Project completed an analysis of donations received by Van Bramer’s re-election campaign as of June 8th, 2017. We found that his campaign received at least $106,834 from sources related to real estate, with 11 donors who sit on the boards of the Long Island City Business Improvement District and Long Island City Partnership, the organizations leading the charge of luxury development in Long Island City. In total, Van Bramer is reporting that he has raised almost half a million dollars – more than almost every other Queens candidate – and is still continuing to fundraise. The full list of donations can be found here.

The $106,834 figure is an estimate based on research of available data; however, the actual number may be higher.  It is impossible to identify many contributors due to increasingly lax campaign finance laws regarding the collection of donor information.  Our research methodology included: a line by line analysis of every donor (as of June 8th, 2017), then summing up donations from developers, brokers, land use lawyers, architects, and family members of these individuals and entities. If it was unclear whether a donation was made by someone connected to real estate interests, research on that individual’s name was carried out. If a matching name was discovered that clearly had links to the real estate industry, they were then included in this analysis along with a link to the website which implicates them.  In several instances, we discovered that names or employer names had misspellings.  We believe this may have been done intentionally. For example, the spelling of David Wolkoff’s name (misspelled Walkoff), or the spelling of the law firm Davis Polk and Wardwell (misspelled David Polk & Wordwell).

Below are a few highlights of real estate related campaign contributions:

  1. The Wolkoff family: $6,500 from David & Gerald Wolkoff, owners of the former 5Pointz graffiti mecca which was destroyed despite community opposition and recently replaced with a pair of high rise towers.  Stephanie Wolkoff also chipped in $2750.  In previous election cycles Van Bramer received close to an additional $8,000 from this same family. (Some of this money was returned)  Read more here.
  2. Modern Spaces Real Estate: Modern Spaces employees donated on 7 separate occasions, totaling $3,700.  Modern Spaces is a major brokerage firm founded in LIC that specializes in luxury real estate.  Real estate mogul Jonathan Kushner has a stake in Modern Spaces.
  3. LIC Partnership Board and/or LIC BID: $11,300 in donations were received from 11 board members of the LIC Partnership and/or LIC Business Improvement District.
  4. Criterion Group: $16,250 in donations were received from individuals related to Criterion Group, including three members of the Manglick family, also connected to Sak Structures LLC, the officer manager at Sak Structure LLC, and Caaminee Pandit, the director of acquisitions and real estate development for Criterion Group, LLC.
  5. Rockrose Developers: $4,500 in donations received from Rockrose Developers(Henry Elghanayan and his son Justin) who, in spite of community opposition, plan to destroy a vital LIC green space in order to build an 18 story building. Read more here.
  6. Plaxall Developers: Leonard Quigley and Paula Kirby(also connected to the LIC Partnership), donated a total of $4,125.

A detailed analysis by Queens Anti-Gentrification Project can be found here.

Van Bramer’s donors directly benefit from the frantic pace of development in Long Island City and have a vested interested in securing the passage of the triple threat – the BQX, Long Island City Core Rezoning, and development of Sunnyside Yards – which Van Bramer is pushing for both publicly and behind the scenes.

Appearances at Real Estate Conferences
These campaign contributions are not surprising considering that Van Bramer has been very vocal in his support for real estate development in Long Island City. The Council Member, by appearing as keynote speaker at real estate conferences, holding numerous meetings with developers, and, generally pushing for policies that benefit developers, has shown very clearly where his interests lie.

On September 23, 2014, Jimmy Van Bramer was the keynote speaker a real estate conference, “Future of Long Island City”, consisting almost entirely of representatives from the real estate industry. One ad touted the conference for “bringing together the top real estate figures in one of NYC’s hottest submarkets. With its booming residential and commercial sector, and its ease of access to Manhattan, there is a huge future to look forward to in Long Island City.” The invitation also promised “plentiful schmooze time,” insinuating opportunities for attendees to network with others in the industry, and speak off-the-record with the influential Council Member.

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The following year, in 2015, Van Bramer was yet again the keynote speaker at an LIC real estate summit hosted by the Long Island City Partnership, in which he was introduced as a “Great Champion of the LIC Partnership.”

During his remarks (Click here for the video), Van Bramer said “I feel the envy from other Council Members all over the city of New York when they talk about Long Island City. They see it from Manhattan, or they drive through it, or they come to an event here, and they say that’s incredible what’s happening there: all those buildings going up, all those cultural institutions, that waterfront park, yes, that 30 million dollar library that is now rising on the waterfront – these are incredible victories that signal an amazing future for this place.” Van Bramer added, “Where Long Island City goes, New York City goes.”

“All those buildings going up, all those cultural institutions, that waterfront park, yes, that 30 million dollar library that is now rising on the waterfront – these are incredible victories that signal an amazing future for this place.” – Jimmy Van Bramer

But who is benefiting from these supposed victories? For those in and around Van Bramer’s district who are threatened by displacement, concerned with the environment, or struggling with the rising cost of living – these buildings do not symbolize “victories,” but tall concrete specters of what’s coming to their neighborhood – unless, of course, they are stopped.

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Again, in 2016, Van Bramer was the keynote speaker at a real estate conference hosted by the same LIC Partnership. This time, the conference was interrupted by a grassroots group, Queens is Not for Sale: “We are here today because we represent the people of Queens that the Mayor’s affordable housing plan has left out.  We are domestic workers, fast food workers, taxi drivers, day laborers, seniors, among others.  Queens is being billed as the ‘new frontier.’ This ‘new frontier’ has been our home for many years. This is about displacement.”

This June, Van Bramer headlined the LIC Summit.  Other speakers included Modern Spaces, Rockrose, and Plaxall.  At the conference, discussions took place regarding LIC’s future as a tech and science hub.

Conclusion
As addressed previously, Trump’s base of power and influence is the real estate industry.  While Trump spews anti-immigrant rhetoric in the news, the diverse, working class immigrant communities along the 7 train are faced with the imminent threat of displacement – driven by luxury real estate developers and their lust for profits.

As shown above, it isn’t the xenophobic president, Donald Trump, however, who is defending these interests in Queens.  It is none other than the self-anointed “resistance” fighter, Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, local stalwart of luxury real estate, who refuses to acknowledge the displacement crisis and refuses to oppose the three looming luxury development proposals in his district (BQX, LIC Core Rezoning, & development of Sunnyside Yards) that would lead to the displacement of thousands of working class people along the 7 line.

Despite their difference in public rhetoric, both Trump and Van Bramer are firmly aligned with a real estate industry that shows no regard for the working class. The difference is that Van Bramer, instead of scapegoating immigrants, uses them as human shields by holding symbolic protests while at the same time taking huge amounts of cash from the same real estate industry that is displacing them.

No matter how many protests Van Bramer conducts, his position is clear when it comes to the people of Queens. Van Bramer’s “resistance” protests are meant to create a progressive public image. We will not let this carefully constructed persona fool us.

Clarifying the nature of Van Bramer’s “resistance” is just one part of a larger fight for basic housing justice in Queens and beyond. Behind Van Bramer’s rhetoric is the assumption that there are only two options, luxury development and luxury development with a small amount of “affordable” housing.  However, the frequently ignored demands for full funding and expansion of public housing, and the creation of low-income housing without displacement are realistic and attainable. As the stock of rent-regulated housing dwindles, thousands are forced to sleep on the street, and thousands more languish on public housing waiting lists, the necessity for such demands becomes more important than ever.

Hey MAS! What are you doing in the name of Jane Jacobs?

Last week, dozens of grassroots organizations and passionate citizens came together to demand the Municipal Arts Society to reevaluate their Jane’s Walk criteria, and halt the controversial developer-led Friends of the BQX Jane’s walk which was scheduled for Friday, May 5th.

The Queens Anti-Gentrification Project instigated a letter campaign, which was joined by Queens Neighborhood United, Queens Not 4 Sale, Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network, the authors of Zoned Out, Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus, UPROSE!(who also led a protest) and many others who called and sent their own letters to the Municipal Arts Society which hosts the annual Jane’s Walk celebration in NYC in honor of legendary community activist Jane Jacobs.

The Friends of the BQX canceled their walk, and the Municipal Art Society released a public statement in which they wrote: “we welcome your feedback that perhaps Jane’s Walk should be a more selective event. We are happy to discuss that suggestion with our international partners in planning next year’s festival.” This is a victory for all who believe that Jane’s Walk should be led by community organizations that live true to Jane’s philosophy of equity and social justice.

In order to get MAS to follow through on their word, we must collectively hold MAS accountable in creating a selective event that prevents luxury developers from appropriating Jane’s name. Let MAS know that if they are going to truly live up to their mission to uphold “community-based citizen planning” they MUST develop criteria to vet Jane’s walk leaders, even if it means a smaller event in 2018.

What is a Jane’s Walk?

Jane’s Walks are “Citizen-led walking tours towards community-based citizen planning” according to the official website. They are held each year in memory of community activist and writer Jane Jacobs who devoted her life to fighting community-killing urban renewal plans. Famously, when she learned that urban renewal czar Robert Moses was planning an expressway to cut through her beloved Washington Square Park, Jane did not stand by quietly: she organized alongside her neighbors, and was even arrested in a public hearing for her vocal opposition. If she were alive today, there is no doubt about what she would’ve done—she would protest the Friends of the BQX and repudiate MAS for allowing them to promote their luxury trolley in her name.

Why do we oppose the BQX?

The Brooklyn Queens Connector (BQX) is a luxury streetcar that would line the waterfront from Astoria to Sunset Park. According to its supporters, the system’s cost would be offset by tax revenue siphoned from an expected rise in property values along the route—in other words, through gentrification. This not only endangers working class renters, but also some of the few remaining manufacturing zones along the planned trolley route. A trolley would create significant pressure for rezonings that favor residential development which is far more lucrative than industrial companies. Express bus lanes would result in comparable improvements in commute time for a fraction of the price, according to Columbia University’s lead transportation David King—without causing gentrification.

If the BQX hurts working class people and manufacturing companies, who benefits?

A private real estate developer, Two Trees Management, conceived the BQX proposal and formed a nonprofit, Friends of the BQX, to support its realization. Its board of directors includes developers like Tishman Speyer, The Durst Organization and Rudin Management. Developers with existing or planned developments along the trolley route, like Park Tower Group, Alma Realty, Toll Brothers and Brookfield Properties, have donated a combined $245,000 to Mayor de Blasio’s now-defunct nonprofit, Campaign for One New York.

What can you do?

  • Send MAS a message demanding that they never again allow developers to appropriate Jane’s Walks for their profit-motivated schemes. MAS must develop criteria for selecting Jane’s Walks leaders, and that criteria should be informed by members of the community. Contact MAS President Elizabeth Goldstein directly at egoldstein[at]mas.org. For additional staff contacts and phone numbers, see the MAS directory.
  • Sign this petition and demand that Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer say no to the luxury trolley that would run through his district. Although Jimmy has expressed concern over the developments, he has yet to express his unconditional opposition, insinuating that it is too early in the planning phases. As vigilant community members we know that this is false. The time to fight community-killing plans is now—not when the City rams a fully baked plan through the community review process.

For Further Reading:

∙         Developers along planned streetcar route donate to de Blasio (NY Daily News)

∙         The Streetcar Hustle (Jacobin)

∙         De Blasio’s Trolley is on a Collision Course with the City’s Manufacturing Sector (Crains) 

∙         Critics say de Blasio’s proposed streetcar will do more to boost real estate values than improve transit (Crains)