Behind New York City Development, Land Use Attorney Jesse Masyr

Jesse Masyr

Attorney Jesse Masyr brings unique expertise from the public sector to help developers navigate the City’s public review process. CityLand spoke with Masyr at his Midtown office about his career in land use law.

Masyr, who grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, attended Tulane School of Law in New Orleans. Masyr majored in American history as an undergraduate at Harpur College (now SUNY Binghamton) and was fascinated by the antebellum period. Masyr figured that if he did not complete law school, New Orleans would be a great place to continue studying history. Masyr’s backup plan was unnecessary, and he earned his J.D. in 1975. After returning to the City, Masyr acted as Carol Bellamy’s press secretary during her run for City Council President. Bellamy’s election was certain after the primary, so Masyr joined the campaign of Andrew Stein, who was still facing a general election fight in his bid for Manhattan Borough President.

Deputy Borough President. Once elected, Stein asked Masyr to stay on as legal counsel. A government job was the last thing on Masyr’s mind, but he accepted the position. After a year, Stein in 1979 named the 29-year-old Masyr Deputy Borough President. The City’s Board of Estimate had yet to be ruled unconstitutional and wielded enormous power as the final arbiter of land use decisions in the City. The eight-member Board’s voting structure gave the Mayor, Comptroller, and City Council President two votes each and the five Borough Presidents one vote each. As Deputy Borough President, Masyr was in a position to influence major land use decisions. He explains that at the time, the Board’s decision- making was largely staff-driven and the Borough Presidents usually deferred to their local counterpart.

Masyr describes the time as one of dynamic change for the City. Having withstood the financial crisis, the City experienced a new wave of real estate development, particularly in Manhattan. Masyr credits the Board of Estimate with stimulating development in Manhattan’s underutilized west side midtown core. According to Masyr, the shifting of incentives from the east side led to development along Seventh and Eighth Avenues. Masyr thinks that the Board may have allowed for less parochial land use decisions. Masyr, however, does not suggest the Board of Estimate should be viewed nostalgically. He mentions that for certain projects that were thought to be in the City’s general interest, but were unpopular with local constituencies, the Board had a habit of pushing back the vote at public hearings later and later until the crowd had thinned out.

Private practice. During his time at the Borough President’s office, Masyr says he had effectively avoided the practice of law. However, his experience with the Board of Estimate taught Masyr how to understand both the land use process and its technical aspects. So, after leaving the public sector, Masyr decided to focus his private practice on land use. One of Masyr’s early clients was Stephen M. Ross of the Related Companies, and he has continued to work with Related since on projects such as the Gateway Centers at the Bronx Terminal Market and in East New York, and Ikea in Red Hook.

An Ikea in Red Hook? Conventional wisdom was that Red Hook could not be developed because the neighborhood was too fractured and lacked public transportation options. Masyr says that Ikea was an enlightened client determined to have a flagship presence in the City. The Ikea Red Hook project created a publicly accessible six-acre waterfront esplanade overlooking Erie Basin which was two times the required size. Additionally, Ikea preserved the site’s gantry cranes, and provided customer access by ferry service and extended bus lines. Masyr says that Ikea responded to every idea with a “yes.” Although the project faced opposition initially, it ultimately garnered community support.

Masyr believes that community input can be extremely helpful. He notes that listening to criticism is not simply about trying to be a good neighbor, it is a smart business decision. Masyr has found that no matter how much money is spent on professionals to analyze projects, local residents know best how their community works. There is no shame in someone else having a good idea, Masyr says, the shame is if you are so arrogant that you refuse to listen.

Big-box stores. The siting of big-box retail stores in the City has been a contentious issue. While recognizing the potential impact of big-box stores on the City’s character, Masyr believes that consumers have already made their choice. According to Masyr, progress does not come without a price, and although the City may lose some of its quaintness, it cannot be a good public policy to ignore benefits such as access to low prices and increased tax revenues.

Parking. Masyr believes that parking requirements for retail development in the City are a deterrent to growth and a bad use of land. He notes that at many retail developments the parking lots are underutilized even at their highest peak. He points out that Ikea Red Hook has an approximately 1,400 parking space lot that has never been more than 60 percent full. Masyr says the current model overlooks the resourcefulness of City shoppers, who often walk or take public transportation to stores and if needed use livery cars or car-sharing to return home. Masyr notes that the overwhelmingly majority of shoppers to BJ’s Wholesale Club, a warehouse shopping store in the Bronx Terminal Market, come by foot.

ULURP. Masyr thinks that the City’s land use review process itself is fine, but that the pre-certification stage can be frustrating because the designated lead agency sends comments to the applicant in multiple series without any set end date. Masyr says that his clients understand the huge risks involved in development, but the uncertainty in the pre-certification stage drives them crazy. He suggests the single best change for the pre-certification stage would be to limit the designated lead agency to one set of comments unless the applicant’s response begets further comment. — Frank St. Jacques

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