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Inside REBNY's 124th Annual Banquet As Real Estate Faces Fraught Times

The 124th edition of the New York real estate industry’s grandest tradition was held Thursday night, with close to 2,000 brokers, builders, buyers and everyone in between gathered at the Grand Hyatt in Midtown, dressed beautifully and smiling consistently, just as they are every year.

Developers Larry Silverstein and Gary Barnett at the 124th REBNY banquet Jan. 16, 2020.

But this year, the real estate industry feels under attack. And as they gathered for the Real Estate Board of New York’s annual banquet, known as both "Liar's Ball" and "The Oscars of Real Estate," there was no denying the underlying tension beneath the gowns and tuxedos. 

When Douglaston Development Chairman Jeffrey Levine was asked what his favorite part about the event was, he answered, “The unmitigated enthusiasm that people exhibit in spite of the reality.”

JLL Chairman of Investment Sales Bob Knakal and Douglaston Development Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Levine at the 124th REBNY banquet Jan. 16, 2020.

Since the start of 2019 when the newly Democratic-controlled state legislature was sworn in, the industry has been on its heels. It lost a battle over new rent regulations, which have reportedly slashed values of rent-stabilized apartment buildings by 30% to 50%.

The same legislature reconvened for its 2020 session last week, but this time, REBNY has a new prizefighter: James Whelan, who took over as president when his predecessor, John Banks, retired less than two weeks after the new rent laws passed.

James Whelan and John Banks, the current and former president of REBNY.

With those struggles no longer his responsibility, Banks was relaxed and smiling at the REBNY banquet, bedecked in a white boutonniere and seated on the dais with Whelan and REBNY’s prodigious board of governors.

"I’m enjoying it that much more now that all I have to do is say hello," Banks said.

Like in years past, the 124th REBNY banquet was held in the Grand Hyatt hotel in Midtown Manhattan.

It was Whelan’s first REBNY banquet as top dog, but he is not new to the organization, serving as one of Banks’ chief lieutenants and working under Steve Spinola before that. And the Queens native is not naïve to the task before him.

“It’s a challenging political environment,” he said. “We have to get into the discussion ... because there are some bad ideas out there.”

He cited the potential revival of the pied-à-terre tax, which levies an annual charge for condo owners who aren’t regularly in their apartments. Whelan said it would “destroy that part of the market.” 

The honorees at the 124th annual REBNY banquet: L&L Holding Co.'s Henry Celestino, KRW Realty Advisors' Kevin Wang, Newmark Knight Frank's Robin Fisher; REBNY President James Whelan; JRT Realty Group's Jodi Pulice, REBNY Chairman Bill Rudin; and Vornado's David Greenbaum.

As Whelan made his way through the gathered media at cocktail hour, he took care to note the reason for the event.

"This is a night to celebrate the people who stand out in the most critical industry in the city," he said.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks at the 124th REBNY banquet Jan. 16, 2020.

The REBNY banquet’s purpose is to honor industry veterans and come together over cocktails, not talk politics — for the most part. Sen. Chuck Schumer reprised his role as a guest speaker.

"My goal is to be the first New Yorker ever to be majority leader of the Senate," Schumer said after thrice shushing the infamously talkative crowd. If the Democrats take the Senate in the November election, "we will get Gateway built and restore the full deduction of state and local taxes. Not to get political, but don’t forget who took that away — a New Yorker some of you may know."

Red Apple Group CEO John Catsimatidis at REBNY's 124th banquet Jan. 16, 2020.

Schumer flew up from Washington to give the speech after signing his oath earlier in the day in the Senate impeachment trial of that New Yorker, President Donald Trump. Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who signed the rent reform package into law, didn’t attend.

Schumer also paid tribute to three prominent REBNY members who died over the past year: service employees union leader Héctor Figueroa, posthumously awarded the Kenneth R. Gerrety Humanitarian Award; former REBNY Chairman Burton Resnick; and Jay Kriegel, the former Related executive and city official, who was posthumously given the John E. Zuccotti Public Service Award.

Newmark Knight Frank CEO Barry Gosin at REBNY's 124th banquet Jan. 16, 2020.

In honor of Kriegel's fashion sense, the entire REBNY board on the dais wore stark white scarves. When REBNY Chairman Bill Rudin introduced Schumer, he draped the senior senator from New York with his own white scarf.

"[Kriegel] was a little like his hair," Schumer said when honoring the man he called "one of my dearest friends," whom he met when Kriegel worked for former Mayor John Lindsay. "Unique, creative and even when everything was out of place, it all came together."

Vornado's David Greenbaum was honored with The Harry B. Helmsley Distinguished New Yorker Award at REBNY's 124th annual banquet Jan. 16, 2020.

The other honorees were Vornado Vice Chairman David Greenbaum, with The Harry B. Helmsley Distinguished New Yorker Award; JRT Realty Group founder and CEO Jodi Pulice, with The Bernard H. Mendik Lifetime Leadership in Real Estate Award; L&L Holding Co. Vice Chairman Henry Celestino, with The George M. Brooker Management Executive of the Year Award; KRW Realty Advisors owner Kevin Wang, with the Louis Smadbeck Memorial Broker Recognition Award; and Newmark Knight Frank Senior Managing Director Robin Fisher, with the Young Real Estate Professional of the Year Award.

"It's pretty humbling, especially when you're recognized by your peers," Pulice told Bisnow before the dinner.

REBNY Chairman Bill Rudin, the CEO of Rudin Management, at REBNY's 124th annual banquet Jan. 16, 2020.

It was Rudin's third and final year as chair of REBNY, which he called "bittersweet." The head of Rudin Management Co. and patriarch of one of New York's oldest real estate families has been attending the banquet for more than 40 years, he told Bisnow.

But his work is not over yet. This year, REBNY will try once again to stem the tide of anti-real-estate policies being bantered about in Albany, and advance priorities of its own, such as an expansion of the Relocation and Employment Assistance Program benefit.

"In the last year, REBNY has grown, bringing in Jim Whelan, creating initiatives for diversity," Rudin said. "We want to build on the incredible leasing year in the city and keep growing the economy."