by Gerard Flynn
July 16, 2013
Queens City Councilman James van Bramer finally went public last week about $8,000 in campaign contributions he has received from family members of 5Pointz developer Gerald Wolkoff.
Campaign finance records show that van Bramer, who represents Council District 26 in western Queens, received $2,750 each from the developer's sons David and Adam Wolkoff, the maximum amount allowed under campaign finance rules for a candidate for City Council. A spouse of the former, Stephanie Wolkoff, who runs the Fashion Week at Lincoln Center, donated the final $2,500, early this year.
Wolkoff Sr. plans to raze the 5-story, 200,000 square foot mural-covered warehouse on Davis St. in Long Island City.
Since the mid-1990s, Wolkoff had been allowing aerosol artists from the neighborhood and around the world to use the famed site as their spray canvas. In 2009, a serious accident forced him to shutter its interior from artist use, but the exterior walls remain a globally known graffiti landmark – and significant tourist attraction for Queens.
Wolkoff intends to replace the building with two residential towers. Zoning rules allow for a bulky development, as-of-right, which would add more than 600 residential units to the immediate area. Long Island City's real estate market has been flourishing with upscale condos and rentals since the area was rezoned by City Hall in 2004. More after the jump...
However, Wolkoff wants to raise a twin-tower complex of 41 and 47 stories, or close to 1,000 units. To get that kind of lucrative jump in density, developers like Wolkoff must first face public scrutiny of projects – the ULURP or Uniform Land Use Review Process.
Usually taking about 7 months, ULURP allows for public review of developments requesting modifications to the NYC Zoning Resolution. As critics have pointed out, ULURP gives the public a limited say in projects of such size, despite the hype.
Borough Presidents and Community Boards offer strictly advisory opinions. Community Board 2 turned down Wolkoff's Special Permit application in June, for being burdensome on the community as well as its lack of an affordable housing component.
Only the Department of City Planning and the City Council can make binding decisions on the Special Permit Wolkoff seeks.
As Queens Senator Tony Avella and Brian Paul of Common Cause point out, City Hall generally, as a matter of protocol, defers to the local member of the City Council, in this case City Council Speaker Christine Quinn's close friend, Jimmy van Bramer.
In other words, according to Senator Avella, Van Bramer's vote is "decisive" and the campaign contributions from the Wolkoff family are significant, even if they are legal.
But Van Bramer told the Long Island City Post that the campaign funds from Wolkoff will in no way buy his vote.
"My integrity is the most important thing to me and I came in to this job with that and I will leave this job with that," he said. "No contribution affects the way I vote or decisions I make."
Avella, however, was doubtful. "Any reasonable person would look at these contributions and say that he is getting this money to approve the project."
He said it "shows bad judgment taking that amount of money from family members for a project you will weigh in on and should be a matter investigative agencies look into."
Van Bramer is running unopposed for the seat and has raked in more than $148,000 in donations so far.
85 percent of more than 642 donations came from small contributions of $250 or less for the culture czar, who chairs the Council's Committee on Cultural Affairs, a position he was appointed to in 2010 by Council Speaker Quinn.
The Wolkoff donations represent approximately 6 percent of total contributions. Of 12 top contributions totaling $2000 or more, eight come from the real estate industry interests in western Queens.
While the born-blue collar boy said in 2007 during a public panel on campaign finance reform that his run for the City Council in 2001 reflected his desire to "talk to voters ... not hobnob with the rich and famous," he has become an increasing favorite of real-estate interests in gentrified Long Island City.
In May he was the keynote speaker at a conference on "The Future of Long Island City," sponsored by major names in the industry. He has also been raising campaign cash through fundraising events hosted by wealthy developer donors.
"Not the Jimmy Van Bramer, I know," said Chair of Community Board 2, Joe Conley, when asked if the donations indicated impropriety. Conley made a $2,000 donation to Van Bramer's campaign and is a senior employee of Med-Mac Properties, which has partnered-up in a development project in the area with Tishman Speyer.
Wolkoff shot down suggestions the contributions reflect a quid pro quo.
He simply likes the candidate and his work in the community. He noted he has given money to candidates before, including Eric Gioia, who received more than $22,000 in donations for his run for City Comptroller in 2009.
Paul said that Wolkoff retains the legal right to not build anything. A land parcel rezoned can fetch millions of dollars more and Wolkoff would have the option of flipping the property. A Special Permit to increase the floor-area ratio of the property from FAR 5.0 to FAR 8.0 means not just a whopping amount of additional density but cash, as well.
Wolkoff however dismissed such suggestions as "nonsense." In announcing his determination to build, variance or no, he said that he is "hopeful" to demolish 5Pointz by the end of the year.
While he is "optimistic" about getting approved for the permit, he declined to say what percentage of the 1,000 units would be affordable, though Conley offered a figure of 20 percent. Guarantees of affordable housing from developers seeking lucrative zoning variances are not uncommon, though and as one tenants-rights activist noted developers are oft to build inferior units, if any at all.
Had more affordable units been offered when the project came up for recent consideration before the community board, "I think the vote would have been different," Conley said of the unanimous decision by CB2 to reject the proposal.
Van Bramer's unwillingness to explain the contributions may not work in his favor. While city politicians normally return calls within a day or two, Van Bramer repeatedly declined interviews with this reporter.
Several days after an intitial request was made, Jason Banrey, an aide, said on Wednesday July 3rd that Councilman Van Bramer was on vacation and could not be reached.
When informed that his boss would be quoted as such, Banrey demanded the names of news publications that had been approached to print the story.
The following week, Banrey contacted the Queens Chronicle and Gotham Gazette, calling the editors about "overly aggresive" tactics by this reporter in attempting to secure an interview. Banrey declined to say if he had been prompted to approach either publication on behalf of his boss.
The next day Van Bramer went public with the disclosures to the Long Island City Post.
Speaker of the City Council Christine Quinn declined to answer questions concerning the donations to Wolkoff.
Gerard Flynn is an award-winning investigative journalist who has written for City Limits, Broadcasting and Cable Magazine, The Villager, Gay City News and many other community newspapers and trades.