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.

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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)