Friday, November 18, 2011

Articles 11.18.11

A Primer on Walking in the City

Any time I get stuck behind a group of tourists crawling three abreast down Fifth Avenue staring up at the skyscrapers and stopping every 10 feet to take pictures, I think to myself that every tourist should be given a primer on how to walk in New York. The next best thing would be to give them all a copy of the article "A New Walking Code of Conduct".

Vacant by Design

A recent article in the New York Times told the story of property owners of four five-story walk up buildings in Harlem who have rented out their ground floor retail space but have boarded up the upstairs apartments and are leaving them vacant. The reason: the rents they were getting for the apartments barely covered their costs. It made more sense to keep them vacant then to rent them out. Housing advocates have decried this situation because of the blight it causes on the neighborhood and would like to find a way to encourage the landlord of these properties to offer more low and moderate income housing. What the advocates fail to realize is that the cost of operating residential real estate is not just a function of the usual operating costs such as fuel, taxes and insurance but, in New York, includes the cost of complying with volumes of building regulations, rent regulations, and dealing with a court system that makes it virtually impossible to evict nonpaying and illegal tenants (even those who blatantly flaunt the laws by operating their apartments for illegal uses). My suggestion: make it easier for owners to operate low income and moderate income apartments by eliminating many of these regulatory obstacles and make it much easier to evict illegal and nonpaying tenants.

Electric Cars

As these two photographs demonstrate, the infrastructure is beginning to be created to allow electric cars to operate around the city.

The Virtuous Cycle of a Successful City

I recently attended a symposium celebrating the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the 1961 Zoning Resolution. There were some terrific presentations made. Of particular interest to me was a description by former First Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff of what he called the "Virtuous Cycle of a Successful City" which he described as follows:

Invest in the city
More people come
More money

A very simple but insightful analysis.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Articles 09.16.11

Leadership (RIP August 25, 2009)

August 25, 2009. That is the day when leadership in our country died. Not uncoincidentally, it was also the day that Ted Kennedy died. Regardless of whether you agreed or disagreed with his politics, Ted Kennedy was a powerful leader. He was able to rally Democrats around his causes and forge the alliances with his Republican rivals to achieve significant legislative victories. His death has left a serious power vacuum in Washington. Our country is suffering terribly as a result. This is not either Democratic or Republican issue but a malaise that has infected both parties. Our current crop of politicians are more concerned with making their adversaries look bad than they are with doing right by our country. And as election season gets into full swing it will only get worse. At a time when our country is suffering from a stagnant economy and lack of job growth while fighting two separate wars; and while a number of our allies in Europe are close to economic collapse we need leaders from both parties to step forward and call upon their colleagues to cease the politicking and to get to work to forge the policies necessary to address these numerous crises. Who do we have the blame for this? Only ourselves. We continue to elect and reelect these political hacks. It is time for us to hold our elected representatives accountable and tell them that it is time to stop the nonsense and to start to lead. We can do this by supporting and electing those politicians who have the courage and the foresight to work with members of the opposition to do what is right for our country.

How to Rattle A Company's Cage

We've all suffered from awful experiences with products and services (if any of you have flown recently you know what I am talking about!) Most of us simply get annoyed, mutter to ourselves and go home and kick the family dog, but little else. This article provides a pretty good framework for how to complain effectively and get the results that you desire.

Washington Square Park

Growing up in the city I adored hanging out in Washington Square Park. It was a great refuge from the asphalt jungle and there were always some cute girls to flirt with and interesting activities going on.

Unfortunately, the Park fell into a terrible state of disrepair and became a hangout for derelicts, drug dealers and degenerate chess players. The grassy areas had become bald patches of dirt, the swings and benches were damaged beyond repair and the fountain no longer worked. Worse, the majestic symbol of the park, the Triumphal Arch that would greet you at the end of Fifth Avenue and welcome you into the Park, had become a pockmarked, graffiti covered eyesore. After several years of renovations I am pleased to see that the park is once again a beautiful oasis. It is a great place to hang out and watch kids play in the fountain, listen to musicians perform and to people watch. Take a look.

The Silver Spoon Dilemma

The title of this article says it all.

The Looming Crisis

Government debt, overheated economy, lofty valuations for loan collateral, too many people living in poverty, great disparities in wealth; sound like America circa 2008? No, this is China 2011. Is the largest country on the planet setting itself up for an economic collapse? If so, what does this mean to the United States and the ability of China to continue financing our country through the purchase of our debt?

Adventures in Parking

Are parking garage attendants soon to be obsolete? Take a look at this video "Auto motion Parking".

Speaking of Obsolete

Is our current mail service going the way of the pony express? This summer my 17 year old son worked in my office. He was asked by one of my brokers to address and mail out some flyers for him. My son did so but was shocked when all the envelopes were returned to our offices within the week. The problem… he did not stamp the envelopes. When I asked him why, he admitted to not realizing that stamps were required. He had never physically mailed a letter before!

Social Media and the :-) Face

Texting, Facebook and other forms of social media have now taken the place of verbal conversation as the preferred means of communication particularly among those who grew up with computers and cell phones. While I applaud any technology that allows us better access to each other I wonder if communicating this way is causing us to become emotionally detached. This form of communication does not allow us to communicate well our emotions and feelings. There is a lack of depth to the conversation that results from the lack of the nuance of tone of voice, facial expression and the like. The happy face icon that now seems to punctuate over written communication is a poor substitute for genuine human emotion.

Monday, September 12, 2011

In Remembrance

I spent the morning today in Central Park thinking about 9/11. This morning's weather reminded me very much of the weather of that day. Vibrant and clear with a crispness in the air signaling the end of summer and the beginning of fall; a perfect September day. Far off in the background I could hear the melancholy tones of bag pipers playing a tribute to those who died. Their somber tones were a sad complement to the feeling of lost that I was experiencing. I felt an overwhelming sense of loss that day. I love my city, New York, very much and felt her pain that day as if I was the one who had suffered a painful and serious injury. Even though I was not close to anybody who died in the attack, I continued to experience a profound sense of loss for weeks, if not months, after the attack. There were constant reminders. Foremost, was the profound change in the city skyline. No longer was downtown dominated by the icon of the Twin Towers. Where once they proudly stood, there was nothing but a gaping hole, the skyline, once a beautiful smile, now permanently marred by the loss of its two front teeth. Then there were the missing person posters with the question "Have you seen this person" written over a photograph of a person missing in the attacks. These posters appeared all over the city, on lampposts, mailboxes and temporary kiosks erected for that purpose. And the photographs on them, typically of a person smiling at the camera often with a child or pet in their arms, gave a very human face to the tragedy we experienced. The victims were not just numbers but were real people that stared out at us from these posters imploring us to find and return them to their families. The hope, but really the despair, expressed in these posters was palpable, and I couldn't but help but think of the families who posted these signs and the all-consuming and always present anguish they were experiencing of not knowing whether a person they loved had perished that day. There were other images that I'll never forget as well. The men and women emerging ghoul like from the mist of the fallen Towers their clothes, hair and faces covered with a fine dusting of soot most with rivulets of blood spreading down their faces like slow trickles of water, not running, but walking heads down in anguished defeat. And then there was the smell. Acrid and vulgar, the smell of loss and destruction. It lingered over the city for many months, an ever present and inescapable reminder of the events of that day.

The city became very quiet the weeks following 9/11. Horns did not honk, once boisterous and loud voices were now replaced with muted and hushed whispers. Bus rides, typically a cacophony of conversations and cell phone calls, became eerily quiet. It was clear; we were a city in morning. Morning the people who worked in the Towers and died in the attack, morning the brave policeman, fireman and other first responders who selflessly sacrificed their lives to help others, morning all those who lost somebody they loved, and morning our lost as a country of our sense of safety and security. Our lives had been forever changed that day.

Our spirit had been tested that day by a horrible evil but through our courage and sheer will our city and country came together as a community and demonstrated to our friends and enemies alike our resolve to emerge from this tragedy better, stronger and wiser. Yet despite this, it is only appropriate that we set aside some time today to reflect on the events of September 11, 2001 and to offer our condolences to all those who suffered a loss on that day.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Articles 07.11.11

How to Be a Good Manager

For any of you who must supervise or manage a group of people, I'm sure that you frequently feel like you're “herding cats” (not Katz -- that would be more like a Bar Mitzvah). The number of people in my office has grown substantially over the past several years and one of my toughest tasks is to make sure they are all being managed properly. It's always useful to read how other companies have successfully managed this process. I found the article "Google Rules" very useful.

How Well-intentioned Laws can stifle Productivity and Personal Growth

Several months ago, an employee told me about his desire to work hard and learn the real estate business. He was hired as an assistant property manager and had no experience in that area. But he was eager to learn and wanted to work after hours and on weekends to learn the trade. "Wonderful, I thought" but my HR department quickly snuffed out this flicker of ambition. Apparently, allowing him to do so would run afoul of federal labor laws that prohibit employers from allowing employees to work overtime without paying them additional wages (not just at their base rate but at a premium rate to reflect the fact that they are working overtime). It doesn't matter that it was the employee's desire to work overtime. Apparently, this is a requirement that cannot be waived. Further, it wasn't that the employee would've wound up working for less than minimum wage. He was paid well enough that even with the extra hours that he wanted to work he still would've been paid in excess of the minimum wage rate. As much as he wanted to work and learn as much as he could, and as much as I wanted to see him do so, there was no way of making this happen without opening up a huge can of worms. How stupid!

Wal-Mart Versus Your Local Bodega

The opponents of Wal-Mart (mostly unions and their supporters) are sounding the alarm that if Wal-Mart is allowed to enter the City it will gobble up all the local grocery stores and bodegas. So what?! Visit the neighborhoods that Wal-Mart is seeking to enter. These are neighborhoods that are in neighborhoods that are severely underserved by the larger supermarket chains. As a result, residents of these neighborhoods are doomed to shopping at their local bodegas and mom-and-pop stores. While the image of a bodega and mom-and-pop store can often be quite quaint and conjure up an image of a hard-working family operating a store with pride, the truth is often that many of these bodegas are ripping off their customers by selling overpriced and outdated products in stores that are filthy and unsanitary. It is no wonder that recent polls of New York consumers showed overwhelming support for Wal-Mart. Perhaps injecting a little real competition into the system would be a wake-up call and cause the grocery stores and bodegas that are not properly serving their communities to close and be replaced by better quality merchants.


For those of you who regularly follow my blog you've undoubtedly noticed that I often focus on articles and discussions about creating communities in an urban environment. Here's another article that I found intriguing about the use of good urban design and architecture to transform a sterile urban college campus into a true college community.

Blatant Self-Promotion (A Word From Your Sponsor)

I recently wrote an article entitled "Turnaround tale-A Building Management Case Study" which outlines the steps that Sierra took to turn around an office building that we took over management of last year.

Dodging a Bullet?

Many in our industry feel that we may have dodged a bullet with the recent modifications to the rent laws because the changes could have been far worse. However, before we all breathe a collective sigh of relief, we must bear in mind that the Governor has stated quite emphatically that he supports strengthening the rent laws and that much can still be done by way of administrative changes through the DHCR. Don't be surprised if we start seeing rulings that are unfavorable to property owners. Also, while these laws have been extended for four years, our "victory" may be very short-lived. The fact of the matter is that as soon as there is a democratic majority in the senate, we can expect that the laws will be revisited and substantial modifications will be made. Elections are only 15 months away.


Regardless of your politics, patriotism should never go out of style. We are blessed to live in this country and enjoy the freedom and opportunities that it gives us. I particularly enjoyed the recent article "100 Great Things about America". I'm sure that each of us could come up with our own list as well.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Articles 05.31.11

The Paradox of the Modern City

The central paradox of the modern city is that as the cost of connecting over long distances has fallen proximity has become even more valuable. What will now happen as the cost of connecting over long distances starts to increase as energy and transportation costs continue their upward trend? My guess: central business districts will become even more valuable as places for businesses to operate. Stay tuned.

More on the Value of Proximity

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal highlights how artists and musicians working in close proximity with each other helps facilitate the flowing of the creative juices. Incubator space is an important facilitator for small businesses. This can work not just for artists and musicians but also for any industry or business that depends upon the exchange of information and ideas and on the sharing of physical resources such as artist studios, research facilities, medical uses, light manufacturing, food preparation etc. For incubator space to succeed it's necessary to create a critical mass of related and synergistic uses and to provide an infrastructure and an atmosphere that encourages cross-pollination and the sharing of ideas. Converting obsolete industrial and commercial space into business incubators is a terrific use of these assats and a great way to promote job growth.

Local Idiosyncrasies

It’s amazing how virtually any place you visit has its local idiosyncrasies many of which flow from the stupidity of local politicians. I recently spotted a sign in a Tucson taxicab that specified not just the rates but also the designation "35 psi". I thought that a little odd. Apparently, a local Ordinance requires cab drivers to post the required tire pressure for their vehicles so that passengers can check to make sure that the tires aren't underinflated. Under inflation results in the meter charging too much. I didn't ask, but I was wondering if every cab driver was also required to carry a tire pressure gauge to allow a passenger to actually to check the tire pressure.

How Many “In Boxes” Do You Have?

Think about it. Add them all up. You probably have far more than you think. Include all your various phone mail accounts (don't forget your home phone-you probably forget to check that all the time), various e-mail accounts, BBM’s, instant messaging, Facebook, linked in, Four Square, any other social media, texting, tweeting (or, as I call it, "twitting"). Oh, and let's not forget the old school way of communicating, regular mail (although, for the life of me, I can't remember the last time I actually received anything that was hand written, not even a parking ticket), Federal Express, faxing (yes, it still exists). Is it any wonder that despite all the various advances that have been made in the area of communication it is getting even more difficult for us to communicate with each other?

Only on the Upper East Side

No joke, I actually spotted a sign posted in a garage on the Upper East Side of Manhattan advertising bicycle parking for "$137 per month". I guess if you own a $15,000 bicycle, you wouldn't hesitate to pay $137 per month to park it. Although, if I spent that type of money on a bicycle I would display it in my living room as a piece of artwork.

iPod syndrome

I use this term to describe how the electronic media has affected our attention spans. It used to be that you would buy a record (you know, that 12 inch vinyl disc that you play on a turntable) and listen to an entire side before either flipping it over or putting on another record. Now, on your IPod you're lucky if you even listen to an entire song before skipping to the next.

Electronic readers are now doing to books what the IPod has done to recorded music. I am a voracious reader and would typically read one or two books at the same time. Now that electronic readers has made carrying an entire library of books with you at all times, I now read 8 to 10 books at the same time and rarely finish any.

Listening to the radio in my car has also evolved in much the same fashion over time. Worse, now with XM radio, I constantly skip from station to station to find a song that I like. And even if I find a song that I like I'm still seeing if there's another song playing that I like even better.

Five Minute Management Course

Rather than spending two years your life in graduate school and over $100,000 in tuition, read this amusing article. It will teach you everything you need to know to succeed in business.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

While this Wall Street Journal article ("Long Arm of the Law") about "noodlers" is pretty funny you need to take a look at the photograph to truly understand the stupidity of this activity. I guess they figured that sticking their legs into the mouth of a catfish was too hazardous and that using their arms was a better idea.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Articles 04.07.11

Why New York City Still Rocks!

Great article about why New York is such a unique place. For those of you who are diehard urbanites I also suggest the recently published book "Triumph of the City" by Nathan Glaeser, a Harvard economist. A quick and thought provoking read about the advantages of city living and how public policy has failed our cities over the past five decades.

Tips for Saving Time

Probably the best tip is to stop reading blogs! However, this article has some good ideas. I recently started using the web tool "Dropbox” as a way of being able access my files from any computer and to share them with others.

Quick Solution to New York City's Rat Infestation Problem

3 words.

“Neutered feral ferrets.”

If the city were to release these vicious little rat killers into the subway system the city's rat problem could be solved in less than a year. Not exactly the most politically correct solution but certainly effective!

Public Buildings, "Super Development Rights" and an Affordable Housing Solution

Creating affordable housing in New York has been an serious issue since the Dutch settlers first discovered Manhattan (good opening sentence but a bit of an exaggeration). Some of significant obstacles to the creation of affordable housing include high acquisition and construction costs, high real estate taxes and a limited supply of appropriate sites. Many programs have been devised to attempt to address these concerns but the problem still exists. A proposed solution: There exist a large inventory of excess development rights associated with city and state own properties throughout the city. To allow each governmental entity to realize the maximum benefit from these excess development rights and to also encourage the creation of affordable housing, the zoning resolution should be modified to create a "super development right" that would permit these excess development rights to be transferable to any property within a certain radius of the subject site so long as they are used for the construction of affordable housing. This would help average down the acquisition costs associated with the creation of affordable housing, increased significantly the number of potential sites and, if coupled with real estate tax abatements etc. would help reduce the operating costs of the buildings.

In addition, if developers were allowed to vacate older tenement style buildings and replace them with larger buildings (by either using the "super development rights" described above or other available techniques to increase density) containing an equal or number of affordable units this would increase significantly the number of sites available for affordable housing. For example, a developer should be permitted to demolish a 20 unit walk-up tenement style building and, by utilizing a combination of the excess development rights associated with that building and the acquisition of additional "super development rights,"to construct a 100 unit property containing 20 affordable units and 80 market rate units.

In order to accomplish this, the developer would have to be allowed to relocate the rent regulated tenants within these buildings. Not only would this result in the replacement of old decrepit housing stock with new, it would significantly increase increased the city's tax base. In addition, it would also generate additional revenues to the city or

the state from the purchase of the "super development rights" by the developer.

Means Testing and Rent Regulations

Perhaps one of the most perplexing questions about the current system of rent regulations is why there is no system of means testing to ensure that those who are receiving the benefits of the rent laws are actually those in need of affordable housing. The argument always made in support of rent regulations is that it is needed to preserve affordable housing. However, without a means test the system does not guarantee that regulated housing necessarily goes to those in need. In fact, it is truly ironic that many of our elected officials (US Congressman Charlie Rangel, City Council President Christine Quinn, former Governor Patterson, to name just a few) occupy rent regulated apartments while trumpeting the need to maintain the rent laws to preserve affordable housing for the needy.

To eliminate the hypocrisy in the system and to create a fund for the creation of additional affordable housing a means test should be established for rent regulated housing . For those current tenants whose income exceeds the threshold, the landlord would be permitted to not renew their lease, deregulate the apartment and then charge a market rent provided that the landlord makes a contribution to a city fund that would be utilize to the finance the creation of affordable housing. The amount of the

contribution would be a formula based upon the amount by which the landlord was able to increase its rent upon the vacancy.

Are you


Closet Republican?

I think this billboard on the West Side Hwy. says it all.

The Madness of City Real Estate Taxes

Surprise! Even as the net operating income of City properties declined over the past several years, our tax assessments have increased, in some cases quite significantly (see the article "The Madness of City Property Taxes"). Of course , on the face of it, this makes no sense but a careful analysis of the system of calculating real estate taxes makes it clear that tax assessments are a significantly lagging indicator. The reason, the determination of real estate taxes are based upon income and expense statements owners have to file about their properties. The information on these forms are from a previous year and are the basis of the calculation of tax assessments for the current year. The result is that tax assessments lag the market. This works the disadvantage of property owners in a bad market but to their advantage in an improving market as tax assessments decline even as the income of the building is going up.

The World Loves New York

In a world that seems to be going mad, New York is viewed as an island of stability (maybe it's because of all the schist on which our buildings are built!) The most recent example of this is the purchase of the former NBA store at 666 Fifth Avenue by a Spanish retailer for over $8000 a foot. Foreign money is fueling a resurgence of the real estate investment market in our city. The foreigners (who often have a much better world view than us) appreciate the political and economic stability that New York City offers relative to the rest of the world.

Negotiating 101

For some useful negotiating tips take a look at the article "Five things you should never say while negotiating." Strangely, "I love you" isn't included.

Web Site

As part of Sierra's rebranding of an office building that we took over last year, we created a website that has generated a tremendous amount of interest in the property. Last year the property suffered with a vacancy rate in excess of 30%. Today, the building is 98 % leased in no small part due to the rebranding of the building. Take a look at the website at

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Articles 03.22.11

Two interesting articles --