New York City

Update: Sabotaging Westview Plan: Who’s Doing The Dirty Work?

Who’s sabotaging the Westview plan for exiting Mitchell-Lama into affordability? Four full years after tenants overwhelming approved the plan, it’s lost in Cuomo’s Albany. Two years there and two more RIOC wasted screwing around with ownership here before voting “Yes.” So, who’s doing the dirty work now?

By David Stone

Roosevelt Island News

Update: Correction and Apology, 9/25/20

We don’t always get our stories exactly right, and regarding our story Sabotaging Westview Plan: Who’s Doing the Dirty Work Now?, Westview’s Ownership Representative, David Hirschhorn, contacted The Daily to say we didn’t quite hit the mark. Here is his statement.

On behalf of the Westview Ownership Group, I would like to take a moment to address some of the items raised in today’s article, Whose Sabotaging Westview. The short answer is no one.

As someone who has followed the transformation of Island House and Westview over the last 10 plus years, you well know how difficult the process has been to fairly balance all of the legitimate competing interests of the many stakeholders involved. Only through a collaborative public/private partnership was this possible. I was pleased to see you recognize that Island House is now “a high functioning privatized building” grounded in an affordable structure. And the answer to the question you pose at the end of your article is a resounding YES, Westview will most assuredly follow suit and in relatively short order.

We are now in the final stages of the offering plan process. Because the laws governing communications to residents during an offering process are severely limited, it is understandable that some residents are frustrated and concerned that things have stalled. However, this is not at all the case and the affordability terms for both home ownership and residents who continue to rent, remain unchanged from what was negotiated. Just as we did in Island House, we have and continue to work in close partnership with the Westview Taskforce and their attorneys, in moving forward with the offering. We look forward to continuing to work closely with Task Force leadership who were strong advocates for the Westview residents (improving upon the original affordability plan) and now pulling on the same oar with us as Westview moves into the next phase –homeownership.

While any offering involves a lengthy process, Westview is an unusually complicated structure with an enormous amount of documents needing to be reviewed and processed. The Attorney General’s Office has been a great partner in this process and has been diligent and timely in their review. While the COVID shutdown certainly has not helped, I am confident that together with tenant association counsel, we and the Attorney General’s Office will soon be able to conclude the offering plan process culminating in a Black Book.

Note: This is good news for Westview, and we apologize for getting our story wrong and for unfairly criticizing the Attorney General and Governor Cuomo.

End of Update

Intro

“Westview is preserved for 30 more years,” wrote New York State HCR press secretary Charni Sochet. That was August 12th, 2018, and it came two weeks after RIOC’s board approved the plan in an emergency meeting.

Westview
Westview is a cornerstone of Roosevelt Island’s pioneer WIRE buildings. Residents living there in October, 2016, voted in favor of privatization, but a rocky road awaited.

Sochet answered my inquiry, two weeks after the landmark RIOC board vote, and relief vibrated across the community.

Attached was the formal announcement and a long list of endorsements, including Governor Andrew Cuomo’s.

Before reading further, fix that in your mind because New York is a state without checks and balances. What Cuomo wants done gets done. That’s your first and only necessary clue.

Sabotaging a Westview Plan That Seemed So Simple

“It’s quite frustrating that the Gov’s office and various elected officials were quick to take credit for this deal before residents had a formal offer in hand,” wrote a concerned reader.

“Frustrating” may not be strong enough.

In the first days of October, 2016, Westview’s volunteer task force announced resident approval for the Mitchell-Lama exit plan. They’d worked it out with ownership, and now, everyone was onboard..

An impressive 92% voted in favor, and everyone was happy.

Sherie Helstien

Well, not everyone.

At a RIOC committee meeting set up to consider the plan, Sherie Helstein, a Westview resident and, then, RIRA vice-president, savaged what she called “a sham.”

She threatened taking her case to the state attorney general and strongly advised peppering State Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright and City Council Member Ben Kallos with telephone calls.

Kallos has nothing to do with Westview oversight or HCR, the state agency controlling RIOC, but Seawright does, if indirectly.

We love the plan, publicly that is, but behind the scenes…

“I’d like to thank Governor Cuomo for his leadership, Westview owners and tenants for their patience, and the Island’s elected officials,” said RIOC’s then president/CEO Susan Rosenthal.

This was August, 2018, and all parties had signed on. That followed two years of wrangling between RIOC and Westview’s owners.

But something was missing, and it wasn’t Cuomo.

Pointedly, she did not thank or even mention David Hirschhorn, representative for Westview’s owners, who she kept in knots for two years, and she wasn’t alone. Although Hirschhorn was a driving force in maintaining affordable housing on Roosevelt Island, he disappeared in the political tidal wave of self-congratulation.

In the end, the whole act proved phony.

“Today’s announcement is a big win,” sang HCR commissioner RuthAnne Visnauskas. But was it a Freudian slip? The announcement, she said, was a big win, not the deal.

Politics…

Elected officials praised Cuomo for his “tremendous leadership,” and that’s a tag that should stick. It was all on the governor when it looked good, and it’s all on him now. When it doesn’t.

“I commend Governor Cuomo,” repeated Seawright, “state agency officials and devoted Westview residents for their hard work in reaching this just and fair agreement.”

Seawright helped the task force, bringing in insightful, experienced advisors, and they played a big role in the winning deal.

But when things went wrong, she ducked, unwilling to take any risk of pissing off Cuomo.

And what happened to his “tremendous leadership?”

What happened in sabotaging the Westview plan…?

During the two years that elapsed between the residents’ vote and the board okay, RIOC led Westview’s owner and task force down a winding road of deception. Read Are Westview’s Owners Being Set Up For Blame If Affordability Fails?

While it’s impossible unmasking the powers pulling strings from Albany — Cuomo rules through invisible surrogates upstate — Rosenthal fronted negotiations. That included reneging on deals done and repeatedly raising the bar.

In one memorable incident, after reaching agreement and even signing a letter notifying the state, Rosenthal left a voice message for Hirschhorn. It was late on a Friday afternoon, and renegotiating the done deal was on her mind.

According to reports, Hirschhorn was flabbergasted.

In the end, public pressure forced the state to make a deal at the last minute. Financing Hirschhorn arranged as owners’ representative would expire the day after RIOC’s board met in emergency session.

They finished it just in time, and then, the big stall… All the self-congratulating politicians vanished into the woodwork, the plan they all praised smacked into the bureaucracy. For two long years and still counting.

In context, it’s not all that surprising that the same connivers held things up for another two years.

And the elected officials? In retrospect, they conceded on the deal when it made them look good, but once that opportunity disappeared, so did they.

Conclusion: Still Sabotaging the Westview Plan

“My sense is the Gov’s office is invested in this deal coming to fruition,” our reader wrote, but that’s wishful thinking, not reality.

Keep in mind Cuomo’s “tremendous leadership.” He displays it in other areas, like managing the coronavirus response and getting after President Trump.

And realistically, he shows it here too. RIOC’s letterhead has him on top, and his picture hangs in every office.

Cuomo appoints RIOC’s board, without consulting locals, and his team approves all hires and fires. The law enabling RIOC says the board does all that, but the Albany brain trust maneuvers around it.

And in a state without checks and balances, who’s going to do anything about it, anyway?

Where does it sit now…?

At last reckoning, the Westview Plan resided somewhere in Attorney General Letitia James’s office.

But blame shifted elsewhere. And guess who’s taking the heat…

Westview’s volunteer task force, a team that worked for over five years in getting this far. A team without real power in Albany or any way of defending themselves.

And, of course, the owners are the enemy, too, but amazingly, no one in the Westview Google discussion group blames Cuomo or James.

Seawright recently fueled that flame, responding to tenant complaints by… wait for it… sending a letter to the task force. She insisted that they provide more information, which they don’t have.

No mention of the AG, the key to the hold up, or Cuomo’s “tremendous leadership.”

Finally…

This echoes what happened with Island House. As their task force managed the process locally, they faced the same obstacles in Cuomo’s Albany. Getting the deal over the finish line required a final hard push.

But they got it done, and the result is a high-functioning privatized building.

Will Westview’s plan finally succeed too?

Westview’s ownership is certain it will, hopefully sooner than later.

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