On Tuesday of this week I participated in a panel discussion at Hofstra University on the subject of social media and its impact on real estate development. The premise sounded fairly innocuous and the invitation was extended to me by Gary Lewi of Rubenstein Associates, a man whom I admire greatly, and phrases things in such a way that you can actually feel yourself getting smarter as he speaks. Gary served as moderator for the discussion, and the room was a veritable “who’s who” in the real estate world on Long Island replete with names such as Blumenfeld, Breslin and Rechler.
As a graduate of Hofstra, a friend of Gary and an acquaintance of several people in attendance, this was sure to be a home game. I have also never met a microphone I didn’t get along famously with.
The subject matter, however, was anything but innocuous. My co-conspirators on the panel were serious professionals, and the audience of nearly 200 people was fully engaged. Everyone in that room had a stake in the future of Long Island development, and the stakes in this economy are high and rising. Though I had certainly prepared for the discussion, it occurred to me that I was probably the only one on the panel without a Facebook page, LinkedIn profile or Twitter account. To make matters worse, my real estate experience isn’t much to brag about unless you count the home my wife and I purchased at the height of the market. Somehow, I don’t think my peak residential investment in Glen Cove was going to impress the likes of Wilbur Breslin.
Seated next to me was Adam Isserlis, the director of digital media for Rubenstein and a colleague of Gary’s. Adam is exceedingly bright and well-spoken, leading me to frequently make the “I wholeheartedly concur” face, accompanied by the patented “that’s what I was going to say” nod. Each of the panelists had unique insights into the issue of NIMBYism on Long Island and how social media amplifies the cries of “no” and “never,” giving additional heft to anti-development activists.
From the outset it was clear that the failed Avalon Bay project in Huntington Station had become the official “smart growth” martyr, and we panelists were presenting to a well-heeled lynch mob looking for someone to hang. More than the Lighthouse project, Pilgrim State, or (insert idea here) in Calverton, the fall of Avalon has stung this community in a way I wasn’t fully prepared for.
Predictably, the prevailing sentiment in this room was that the elected officials in Huntington buckled under pressure from local NIMBY activists who were highly organized online and brandished social media and anonymous posts on local media sites as weapons of micro-destruction. Familiar calls for fewer layers of government and greater political courage were sprinkled throughout the discussion, but the prevailing sentiment was that social media was the dangerous new tipping point in the fight against development.
This was a rich discussion that only scratched the surface of the myriad issues that plague the Island. You’ve heard them all before: Creating transit-oriented development requires changes to zoning that affect residents in an area targeted for re-development. Building affordable housing units with any significant density might require expensive upgrades to the sewage treatment infrastructure. More housing could mean more families, which increases the number of children in a school district and school taxes as a result. Vertical development is an aesthetic affront to those who migrated from urban communities for the promise of trees, lawns, and privacy. Open space is limited and cherished. These are only some of the focal points of the debate over development on Long Island.
The upshot of the forum was that social media is indeed a significant part of the mix, but it is not a panacea for either side of the development divide. Because the discussion was lively and lasted more than two hours, it is impossible to encapsulate in this column. Besides, the real meaty discussions typically happen after the fact as people are more comfortable talking about white elephants when the microphone is off and guests are filing out. It was during this time that more than one person commented to me that the real problem with Long Island was the prohibitive zoning and that developers in other parts of the country often built first then applied for permits later.
Is our zoning infrastructure burdensome and confusing? Sure. More often than not, applying for a permit makes you feel like you’re being punished for doing the right thing. It’s a maddening process. Are there too many fees, hidden taxes and hurdles impeding our ability to create meaningful “smart growth” communities? Of course. Is it bizarre/troubling/ridiculous (I could go on) that Nassau County Fire Marshalls carry firearms? Don’t get me started. Was the death of Avalon Bay’s Huntington project a shame? Personally, I think it was. Did the political leadership in Huntington Town demonstrate a higher than normal level of cowardice by acquiescing to a small, vocal minority? Again, I believe so.
But none of that excuses a culture of asking forgiveness instead of permission. We’re three million people sandwiched on a thin strip of land buttressed by water. For the landlocked, it’s called an island. It might be okay to take certain liberties in parts of the world with wide open spaces (Alaska, Texas, Siberia), but when you’re living in close quarters there are going to be more parameters than usual. And something like erecting a building will entail a few more regulations than plunking down a big box store in the middle of the desert. You don’t have to be the mayor of anywhere on FourSquare to know that. Even Facebook requires permission to see someone’s profile. Or so I’m told.
For more on the demise of Avalon Bay, check out the Press cover story penned by colleague Spencer Rumsey: