Scenes From REBNY's Revamped, 'Less Stuffy' Annual Party
After two years of pandemic-enforced hiatus, New York City's biggest real estate players were back working the room Thursday night at the industry’s annual party — this time with a new venue, a new dress code and a whole new format.
“I've run into a few people who I'm like, 'Wow, I've never met you outside of a Zoom box,’” Real Estate Board of New York President James Whelan told Bisnow. “I just got to tell you, I'm getting rave reviews from folks about the whole dynamic.”
Guests gathered at the Glasshouse, an event space in Hell's Kitchen, with officials such as Gov. Kathy Hochul, Attorney General Letitia James and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli alongside real estate's biggest names.
For decades, the REBNY Banquet has been held as a midwinter, black-tie, sit-down dinner in the heart of Midtown. But this year, emerging from a pandemic that has left a huge imprint on the industry, the event was changed to a summer cocktail party. Instead of formal tables, chefs like Daniel Boulud and Michael Lomonaco provided cocktails and canapés.
The industry's awards — recognizing brokerage, management and philanthropy, among others — were presented at a VIP ceremony in front of a smaller crowd, before the event transitioned into a bigger party.
“Everybody was tired of the old way,” Durst Organization Chairman Douglas Durst said.
John Banks, Whelan's predecessor as head of REBNY, said a shakeup had been in the cards for a while.
“We were looking for ways to try to refresh the event and make it better for everybody," Banks said. "And I think they've succeeded."
There were nearly 2,000 people in attendance for the event, which was titled "New York Forever: A Celebration of Our City," and marked the 126th occasion of the soirée.
Many who gathered at the waterfront, outdoor space said they preferred the more relaxed, tuxedo-free event — while some griped about long lines to get into the venue and the fact the VIP awards ceremony wasn’t open to all. Most agreed, though, a fresh approach was a positive change.
“It's a freedom of just walking up to people that we didn't have before — everybody's standing, nobody's sitting. You don't feel like you're interrupting anything,” said JRT Realty CEO Jodi Pulice, who recently launched the MWBE Unite platform. “It’s much less stuffy.”
With her at the outdoor terrace was Cushman & Wakefield Vice Chairman Joanne Podell.
“I think that moving here was a great idea," Podell said. "I love the idea of it being less formal."
Parties, a key piece of the New York City real estate dealmaking and networking dynamic, have been sorely missed over the course of the pandemic. Guests told Bisnow of the relief they felt to be back out, rubbing shoulders with colleagues in person once more.
But despite the festive atmosphere, there is plenty weighing on the minds of the industry, from concern about the future of the city's economy, a looming recession, rocketing interest rates and what many consider real estate’s "PR problem."
“The real estate industry is struggling because we are not the bad guys," Newmark Managing Director Leslie Harwood said. "We are the good guys. We have an identity crisis.
“We really are very hardworking, smart New Yorkers," she added. "I think our PR image needs to, we need to up our game, because I really think this is a very wonderful group of people that brings a lot of energy, economic value, money and tax dollars to the city.”
Hochul was quick to point out in her remarks that the industry means a lot to the state — even as her government failed to find a way to extend the treasured Affordable New York tax break, better known as 421-a.
“We're coming back next session, we're going to make sure that we get the changes we need to support this industry, because you create thousands of jobs, you give people their homes,” she said. “Thank you for bearing with us through some tough years, and I'm telling you, my friends, the best is yet to come.”
Certainly, the room was buoyant with real estate’s trademark optimism — but a fair bit of angst as well.
“The fact is, building rental housing is not economically feasible without a tax abatement. So we are selling a lot of land today, but that land is mainly in Manhattan and that land is all for condo construction,” said JLL’s Bob Knakal, who was at the event for the 38th time. “In all the time I've been brokering, I've never seen a higher level of correlation between politics and business and politics and the real estate market. And so people are taking into consideration what the environment is like where they want to invest their dollars.”
The slow return to offices, rapidly rising cost of living in the city and a stubbornly high crime rate were also all topics of conversation.
“The difference between long-term success and short-term success is going to be able to bring the city back,” Cushman & Wakefield Chairman of Global Brokerage Bruce Mosler said. “I am excited that we have a mayor like Eric Adams, who I think is the hardest-working mayor in the country, who is out front speaking about the need to control crime. We need to give him time — the reason I bring it up is to say we should all be patient or allow a mayor time to succeed.”
Others are thinking more about the impact of macroeconomic events than politics. Kramer Levin partner Daniel Berman expects deal flow to slow down as interest rates rise.
“It's been a long time that I think people have been wondering when it's going to happen, but there's so much money out there to be invested,” he said. “It may be that there's more distressed transactions that happen because people can't refinance the way they used to.”
With so many questions and uncertainty, for some, the party was even more important.
“There's a lot going on, everyone's trying to figure it out … and there's no doubt challenges, everyone's talking about the rates going up and what's that done, of course, there’s going to be a little bit of a pause in the market,” said Avison Young Head of Tri-State Investment Sales James Nelson. “But this is why we come together. We're all looking to learn from each other and hear what's going on."