Agents of the City FOIL Response reveals some of the political machinations used to promote the proposed BQX street car project

E-mails show that lobbyists and an official with a developer were receiving inside information about the BQX

By Progress New York Staff

As Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City) was set to deliver his 2016 State of the City speech, the New York Times published a preview of the signature proposal in his annual address : the idea for a street car service that would link the waterfronts of Brooklyn and Queens. A review of the history of the project and newly-released e-mails raise questions about the true intent of the project.

The project, named the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, or BQX, was initially described by the New York Times to stretch from Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to Astoria, Queens. The plan was hailed as Mayor de Blasio’s “most ambitious urban engineering project to date.” However, over five years prior to Mayor de Blasio’s speech, the City Department of Transportation had released a feasibility study of a smaller version of a Brooklyn-only streetcar. Almost a year prior to his speech, real estate interests has incorporated a special interest group, Friends of Brooklyn Queens Connector, Inc., to promote the latest incarnation of the project, and, about six months prior to his speech, trial balloons in the form of a YouTube video were floated to gauge community interest about a street car that would extend from Astoria to La Guardia Airport, Willets Point, and the Belmont Park racetrack. In in a negative review of Mayor de Blasio’s street car proposal, Streetsblog NYC cautioned its readers thusly about the BQX : “It’s an idea that’s surfaced repeatedly in one form or another as developers have transformed sections of the waterfront into new residential neighborhoods.” Therefore, Mayor de Blasio did not give birth to the idea of the project ; rather, he was essentially promoting an amenity that developers were seeking for the City to subsidise.

In the lead-up to the formal announcement of the proposed BQX street car project, mayoral aides and advisers were still trying to assembly their validator lists and quotes, terms given to the individuals or groups that provide elected officials with enthusiastic support on press releases.

On the morning of Mayor de Blasio’s State of the City address, after the New York Times had already published its preview of the proposed BQX street car project, mayoral governmental affairs adviser Michael DeLoach wrote to the lobbyist Jeremy Soffin, outlining a plan of action : “I’m handling electeds. Need your help on outside validation. We also have ABNY.”

Mr. DeLoach was referring to the Association for a Better New York, an organisation that acts as a front group for the business interests of William Rudin, the real estate developer. Mr. Rudin is the chair of the Real Estate Board of New York, a powerful lobbying group. A prominent member of REBNY was identified as an unindicted co-conspirator in the corruption trial against former New York State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), according to a report published by the New York Times. Furthermore, during that trial, a lobbyist for that REBNY member testified under a non-prosecution agreement. Mr. Soffin is a lobbyist with the lobbying firm, BerlinRosen, a firm that has represented some REBNY members or projects involving REBNY members.

E-mails released by the Office of the Mayor in response to a FOIL Lawsuit won by the cable news channel NY1 and by the New York Post revealed that real estate interests had a greater role in shaping Mayor de Blasio’s announcement of the BQX.

BerlinRosen was tasked with getting endorsers, and the endorsers included at least two real estate developers or landlords who stood to profit

In preparation for a proposed press conference to promote the project on 5 Feb. 2016, which was cancelled at the last minute due to a crane collapse, Mr. DeLoach reached out to Mr. Soffin and another individual identified only as “Matt,” to extend invitations. “We are happy to accommodate anyone who would like to attend but unlikely anyone will be speaking,” Mr. DeLoach wrote in one e-mail that was included in a FOIL Response made public by the NY1 cable news channel.

Other newly-released e-mails show that Mr. Soffin, the lobbyist, was out of the office on 16 Feb. 2016, the day Mayor de Blasio re-scheduled the news conference to promote the BQX. Because Mr. Soffin was absent, he copied a co-worker, Cathy Rought, and an official of one his firm’s real estate clients, David Lombino. Mr. Lombino is the chief spokesperson for Two Trees, a large real estate development firm that won the rights to redevelop the old Domino Sugar factory in Brooklyn in the first weeks Mayor de Blasio’s first term. Two Trees is a client of the lobbying firm, BerlinRosen, and Jed Walentas is an owner of Two Trees. Mr. Walentas is a political supporter of Mayor de Blasio, an officer of REBNY, and the incorporator of the Friends of the BQX, the group founded to promote the proposed street car project, according to a report published by the New York Daily News. BerlinRosen has close ties to Mayor de Blasio.

In Mr. Soffin’s absence, Mr. Lombino confirmed that the landlord Doug Steiner of Stein Studios ; the big business group leaders Thomas Greta of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, Tucker Reed of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, and Tom Wright of the Regional Plan Association ; and the veal pen group leaders Frances Brown of the Red Hook East Tenants Association, Jill Eisenhard of the Red Hook Initiative, and Paul Steely White of Transportation Alternatives, amongst others, should be acknowledged in Mayor de Blasio’s remarks at his press conference. Even public housing tenant group leaders were being marshaled to support a transportation plan proposed by the de Blasio administration at the same time when the de Blasio administration was failing public housing tenants over the deplorable physical condition standards at public housing developments. By lining up support in a behind-the-scenes way, it appeared that the real estate development firm Two Trees and its lobbying firm, BerlinRosen, were manufacturing public consent for the proposed BQX project.

Selling an urban project that would benefit developers and landlords

At Mayor de Blasio’s State of the City address, he promised that the BQX project had “the potential to change the lives of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers.” At the press conference that was shaped, in part, by real estate developers and at least one lobbying firm, Mayor de Blasio said, “We project over thirty years, the growth impact of this light rail will be $25 billion in economic activity.”

In the time since Mayor de Blasio’s initial “full court press,” as Streetsblog NYC called it, to promote the BQX, anti-gentrification activists began opposing the project, because activists said that the BQX was “for the benefit of developers, rather than locals” and would lead to displacement of longtime residents since the project was believed to aim to rise property values and rents, according to a report published by Curbed, the real estate Web site. Because the de Blasio administration has kept secret details about a new feasibility study for the proposed street car service, it is unknown how much real estate developers and landlords stand to benefit from the estimated $25 billion in new “economic activity.”

Nowhere in Mayor de Blasio’s initial presentation of the BQX was it mentioned that later phases of the BQX were, at one point, envisioned to reach La Guardia Airport, Willets Point, and possibly the Belmont Park racetrack. If anti-gentrification activists were to become aware that the project could be extended to spread gentrification further into Queens and to benefit the commercial interests of the horse racing industry, the level of opposition that the BQX project could face could escalate.

Real estate interests stood to benefit from the BQX project, and real estate interests were given insider access to shape Mayor de Blasio’s public discourse on the proposed street car service. Furthermore, based on information obtained by Progress New York, it is believed that real estate interests were also given special access to information that was not generally available to the public. Because of this lack of transparency, the BQX project is the subject of numerous, pending open records requests filed by Progress New York.

For this report, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for New York’s southern district did not immediately answer a press inquiry about the possible use, if any, of material, non-public information about the BQX project by real estate interests.

The press office supporting Mayor de Blasio did not answer an e-mail request for an interview for this report ; neither did each of Mr. Soffin, the lobbyist, and Mr. Lombino, the real estate development firm spokesperson.

Reference Document