Leonard Wasserman Discusses Economic Development

Leonard Wasserman

Early in his adult life, Leonard Wasserman thought he would pursue a career in urban planning. His perspective changed, however, when he realized he was “better with words than colored pencils.” After college, Wasserman spent a little over a year at the Housing and Development Administration (the agency that later split into Buildings and HPD), but decided to take a leave from the ranks of the employed to attend Brooklyn Law School to focus on the legal aspects of urban planning and development. Upon graduation, he served as a law clerk in the Southern District and spent time in private practice. Wasserman then moved on to the Law Department, and became schooled in the art of public/private real estate transactions. In 1985 he was named Chief of the Economic Development Division. Since then,Wasserman has continued to support City Hall in its pursuit of its economic development goals.

It’s about jobs. When asked to describe the role of his Division, Wasserman first discussed economic development in general. He pulled out a copy of the state’s Not-for-Profit Corporation Law covering local development corporations, and explained that these corporations, principally the New York City Economic Development Corporation, are the arms through which the City often carries out its economic revitalization plans. Wasserman summed up the lengthy statutory section by simply stating “it’s about jobs.” Specifically, it’s about how to retain, attract, and grow jobs. In his view the importance of having a job cannot be overstated. Wasserman links jobs to the overall stability of a person and their community; without a job a person’s world “disintegrates,” and this can weaken the overall fabric of the community.

And it’s about the urban landscape. Wasserman explained that the mechanisms the City uses to create jobs are public/private partnerships, which usually involve the re-imagining and reshaping of the urban landscape. Through these partnerships, the City alters the urban landscape to improve the community and attract jobs. As an example, Wasserman pointed to the revitalization of 42nd Street. By the early 1980s, Times Square had become what Wasserman described as “a wasteland.” People avoided Times Square for fear of getting their pockets picked – something Wasserman experienced firsthand – or worse. The area was not providing quality jobs, and, by reason of its intimidating character, not a popular tourist destination. The City, through its Economic Development Corporation and with the state’s Urban Development Corporation, engaged in a concentrated effort to physically reshape the neighborhood. This effort led to the creation of a subsidiary corporation of the UDC tasked with reshaping the 42nd Street community by inducing private investment, and the creation of a not-for-profit corporation tasked with overseeing the restoration and preservation of the area’s theaters by partnering with private developers. Times Square’s revitalization is well documented, and according to Wasserman, a measure of the project’s success is the fact that one can hardly avoid getting knocked off the sidewalk because of the area’s pedestrian traffic.

When asked to talk about the Bloomberg administration’s development goals in comparison to previous administrations, Wasserman stated that there has been a definite increase in initiatives. He credits this to the vision of City Hall, particularly former Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Daniel L. Doctoroff. Wasserman believes Doctoroff and other members of the administration recognized and embraced the government’s role in reshaping languished portions of the landscape to dramatically enhance the City’s economic fabric. Examples of this vision have emerged across the City, including the planned Hunter’s Point South Project, the proposed East River Waterfront Esplanade and Piers Project, and the Willets Point Project.

Building relationships. Once the City identifies a development project, Wasserman and his attorneys begin the job of crafting a deal acceptable to both the City and the private party(s). While these projects usually involve City-owned property, Wasserman stressed economic development agreements are more than just ordinary real estate transactions. These deals often include financial incentives, such as tax-exempt bonds and payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs), to entice private developers to partner with the City.

Wasserman emphasized that the role of the Economic Development Division attorney goes beyond having an expert grasp on land use practices, real estate transactions, and complex financial instruments. The attorney must also focus on what Wasserman described as relationship building through harmonizing the inherently competing interests of the City and the private party(s).

Wasserman explained one curious subspecies of his Division’s work. When a project involves the granting of capital budget funds, it is imperative that the private party understand that capital funds are “sacred tax dollars” and that they come with strict responsibilities. Wasserman stressed that the funds are not loans; the City does not expect nor does it want to be repaid with interest. The City grants these funds with the expectation that the private entity will achieve the defined public purpose. It is Wasserman’s job to make sure that the restraints and responsibilities are made clear, while at the same time effectively steering the private entity and the City toward a harmonious agreement.

Wasserman noted that under the current economic forecast the incentives used to make these public/private partnerships work are likely to become more sophisticated. With a successful track record behind them, it is clear that Wasserman and his colleagues are up to the challenge.

— Peter Schikler

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