Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer Talks About de Blasio, Developers, and How She Learned to be Tough

Gale Brewer in her office.

By Carol Tannenhauser

It was the late 1970s, early 1980s, the dawn of the “crack era.”

“Crack was everywhere,” recalled Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, in a recent conversation in her office at 1 Centre Street. “Parents were dying left and right.”

Gale (which is what she prefers to be called) was living on 82nd Street at the time. “Of course on the West Side,” she said, as if anywhere else were impossible. An early feminist, she was president of the New York chapter of the National Women’s Political Caucus, founded by Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, Gloria Steinem and others, to encourage women to enter politics. She also sat on the boards of a drug treatment and a youth program.

“My husband and I were a certified foster-care family,” she said. “Sometimes crack-addicted parents would go through the programs and rather than put their kids into the official foster care program, I would take them, because, otherwise, it’s very hard to get your kids back. There were tons of kids coming through who were involved with the criminal justice system—or their parents were—and I would take those kids, too. Once you have foster-care kids, more show up. That’s how it works.”

In all, Gale and her husband Cal Snyder, an author, fostered 35 children. They are still in touch with most of them today.

“This went on from the late 1970s, all the way through the 80s and early 90s,” she explained. “We’d have two or three kids at a time. No babies; everyone was at least 10 years old and already in trouble. We had one kid whose parents thought he was gay, which he was, and they threw him out, so we took him, too. We took all different kinds of kids.”

Known to be praise-aversive, Gale shifted the focus of the conversation to how the experience rewarded her.

“All the challenges, the good and the bad, you learn a lot,” she said. “You learn about the traumas these kids go through. You learn to sleep with your pocketbook under your pillow, because otherwise it might be gone in the morning, and you learn how to be tough. As a result of that experience, I can handle anything. There’s nothing that bothers me.”

Except real estate developers.

“I’m involved in so many fights with them,” she sighed. “It makes my blood boil.”

Not surprising when you consider that one of her main responsibilities as Manhattan’s 27th Borough President is to weigh in on land-use matters.

“There’s only one issue in New York City that’s so challenging,” she contended. “It’s real estate, real estate, and real estate. The schools, you enjoy working on. Health care, you enjoy working on. You may disagree about how to get there, but we all want to be healthy and educated. The same with transportation; we all want to fix the subway. But with real estate, we don’t all want to have tall buildings with condos for people who don’t live here, but developers do. I fight every one, but it’s so hard.

“The owners tell me, ‘Gale, we’re gonna pay taxes. Don’t you want our money?’ My answer is, ‘We have a crisis of affordable housing, why don’t we treat it like a crisis? Why doesn’t every new building have affordable housing in it?’”

Affordable housing covers a broad range of income levels, she explained. Not only does it include housing for very poor and low-income people, but what she calls, “workforce housing.”

“Two cops, two teachers, two sanitation workers, two professionals, maybe, $100,000 to $120,000 household income. They’re being forced to move out. They can’t find anything. It’s either this gazillion-million-dollar level, or it’s a $40,000-income cap and they’re way in between. All I can do is fight it case by case.

She’s “disenchanted” with Mayor de Blasio.

”I thought that he would pay more attention to governing,” she said. “Some people don’t like government, they like politics. I like the government side. There’s a big difference. In good government, you pay attention to affordable housing, individual schools, what’s going on with the buses, people’s health care, sanitation, school lunches, rats! You have to take care of all that stuff of daily life. It’s sometimes boring and time consuming, but that’s governing.”

Consider the latest issue involving the contested skyscraper being built at 50 West 66th Street. Recently, the developer, Extell, has been granted variances from the Department of Buildings, allowing them to work on weekends and late into the night.

“People need to sleep,” Gale said, “but the mayor has continued the practice. It’s not just there, it’s all over the city. We write letters constantly about it and we get answers, but you still have to have somebody at the top who says, ‘No.’”

Next: Gale on retail vacancies, term limits, homelessness, the Upper West Side, and her plans for 2021.

HISTORY, NEWS, REAL ESTATE | 38 comments | permalink
    1. Michael says:

      “You may disagree about how to get there, but we all want to be healthy and educated.”

      I’ve been fortunate to sit with “Gale” and discuss health care issues as they relate to new mothers in New York City. She invited me to her office and while we may have disagreed with the best way to move forward, she is nothing short of bright and compassionate.

      The forefathers of this country had immense faith in their fellow man. The current population however holds no such inclination towards their leadership. More polititians like “Gale” could change this perspective – unfortunately people like her don’t generally go into politics.

      I dream of a day that the nice guys and heroes will get more ink than the evil ones. Thanks for writing a terriffic profile on a truely special person.

    2. ScooterStan says:

      Re: “She’s “disenchanted” with Mayor de Blasio.”

      Aren’t we all !

    3. Rob G. says:

      She has been no friend to the West 90s which, under her watch, exploded with dangerous homeless shelters and housing for mental patients and drug addicts, mostly shipped in from other neighborhoods. But her anti-skyscraper obsession keeps her blind to what’s going on at street level.

    4. Jeffrey C says:

      When she says “Why doesn’t every new building have affordable housing in it?” it’s clear she doesn’t get the basic supply and demand issue that she is causing. If she would stop opposing every new building and demanding to micromanage who lives there, construction costs would be much lower and we would have more housing.

      • Jen says:

        These pseudo-economics again. The supply of super expensive condos doesn’t contribute anything to the regular folks’ housing supply. Not only it doesn’t do that, it drives middle-income housing out of the neighborhood. It does make a dent in high-end housing market and that’s that. As it is clear to everyone whose money not in high-end real estate.

        These rhetorics about supply and demand are annoying and don’t convince anyone.

        • AC57 says:

          Jeff is right though, Jen.

          Brooklyn Point’s most expensive apartment at $3.5M is on par with most UWS apartments and has better, well, everything. Better views, amenities, transportation access, local resources, the list goes on and on, and yet it’s comparable, in price, to basic new UWS apartments

          That’s because Brooklyn Point houses 458 apartments: 4x that of 200 Amsterdam, and 6x the size of most other UWS projects. And that’s the most extreme example.

          I can list a whole slew of super luxurious projects that start at or below that of UWS projects. The commonality is that they offer so much more, so they must differentiate between the higher and lower apartments. And these bigger projects often garner some affordable unit. Look at Waterline Square for example. 270 affordable units out of 1132. Not great numbers, but the number of affordable units in 3 buildings out numbers all new housing in the last couple build years in 10024, if I’m not mistaken.

          Supply and demand (the lack of supply more specifically) isn’t the entire reason for this crisis, but it’s definitely one of the crucial reasons.

          • Jen says:

            I appreciate that you disagree and provide your point of view in a polite manner. Nice contrast to a lot of anger and bashing that are very common in this forum.

          • Jen says:

            The size is not the only or main issue, @AC57. You can’t compare Brooklyn and UWS. Don’t they say “Location, location, location”? We are not going to compare the price of skyscrapers built let’s say in Ohio to UWS. Out of context, ugly super tall ruin our city forever. There’s absolutely no need for them to exist in residential areas other than line the pockets of developers while affecting quality of life for the residents. It doesn’t have to be that way in order to provide more luxury guilded cages at the expense of the regular folks and the city itself. Just look at other major cities in the world where nice balance still exists. But we don’t want to look and feel like Dubai.

            • AC57 says:

              Thank you for keeping this civil Jen.

              I agree supertall towers don’t belong in the UWS. As much as I love them, they don’t work. I will rephrase what I said earlier: building up is important, but good things can be accomplished with more moderate heights (30-40 stories).

              If you want me to go local (because using Brooklyn Point as an example may not have been the best idea.) let’s look at Riverside Center/Waterline Square. 5 buildings, 2100 apartments, with 512 of them are affordable. The buildings are between 34 and 43 stories, and the luxury apartments start at $1.5M, the second lowest starting rate in the neighborhood. I would argue that those towers are closer to what we should strive for. Are they perfect? No, but it’s much better than most of the other projects that are rising.

              Another example would be 1865 Broadway, which currently offers the most units in a single building not associated with a megaproject (160). That building has apartments ranging from $1M to $6M, which for UWS development, is a bargain. Extell frequently starts their prices fairly low, and I would gamble that 50 West 66th Street would start around $2M. That building contains 127 apartments. 200 Amsterdam starts at $2.9M and has 112 apartments. The Chamberlain and Dahlia are the only projects above 72nd Street that compare in terms of starting prices. What I’m getting at here, and what I was trying to get at using Brooklyn Point as an example is that apartment buildings with more apartments, on every level, result in lower starting prices, and looping Riverside Center into this example as well, and the presence of affordable housing (More affordable housing there than total housing above 72nd Street), one can see that the more apartments there are, the cheaper they start. So going back to Jeff’s point, he’s spot on that aspect of his argument.

              Side note, the existing buildings that open up lotteries are often much larger, which explains why there hasn’t been any affordable housing above 63rd Street.

              200 Amsterdam Avenue and 50 West 66th Street, while being beautiful designs, in my opinion, are not much better than the projects that rise to the north. Both have an abysmally small number of apartments, and the latter’s void is atrocious. (651 feet for that tower would be just fine.). I would like to see them rise, but not without modifications (cutting down the void, and including more housing, utilizing the skeleton to it’s fullest.) I think that if we can communicate more with developers, encourage them to build with stipulations, then real progress can be made.

      • George CPW says:

        Ignorant nonsense. By the way, how does one “cause” this supply and demand issue? And how does she affect construction costs?

      • Sherman says:

        Hi Jeff

        You’re 100% correct.

        These “affordable” apartments that are in new luxury buildings are the result of massive tax credits to super wealthy developers. Needless to say this is foregone tax revenue that NYC residents badly need – for schools, mass transit, etc…

        Therefore, these apartments are not “affordable” but rather subsidized.

        This scheme of providing “affordable” apartments in new buildings is – by all accounts – a wildly expensive and inefficient method of providing housing.

        Unfortunately, politicians like Brewer promote this nonsense and actually make the city unaffordable for the cops, sanitation workers and teachers she speaks so glowingly about.

    5. Wow Gale,
      Have we gone through the battlefields!!
      You deathly deserve the Purple Heart 💜🥇
      It’s our 51st Anniversary this year…(1968)

      Feliz Cinco de Mayo 🇲🇽

    6. Ann Lurie Berlin says:

      Thank you. Good to hear your views.

    7. Milton Kass says:

      Great interview with Gale.

    8. B.B. says:

      I’ll say this again; idea of putting “affordable housing” in luxury buildings has been the wish list dream of liberals/progressives for decades.

      Such inclusive housing also is where a good part of federal funding now goes instead of building “projects” that basically become warehouses of the poor.

      Idea is to give the poor every advantage of the better off by allowing them to live in the same buildings/areas as wealthy. This to counteract the widely acknowledged failures of integration back in the 1960’s onwards.

      Senator Goldwater was correct when he stated “you can’t legislate morality”. And as he and others predicted middle class/educated whites largely fled urban (or any other area) as new civil rights laws forced changes in communities.

      That flight took not only white persons but their money, industry and quite a lot else besides. This is why hospitals, schools, parks, and so much else is (or was) better in the suburbs (or mainly white/well off)areas.

      Idea behind mandatory inclusive housing is to get those who otherwise never would get a foot past front door into our very best buildings.

      Some of you may not remember or otherwise don’t know that affordable housing lotteries have been around since the 1980’s. Difference was back then developers were allowed to do luxury in one area (usually Manhattan below 96th street), and put the affordable elsewhere (usually way out in one of the outer boroughs, and in a poor neighborhood at that).

      Why doesn’t every new building have an affordable component? Well quite simply not everyone is enlightened and or broadminded. Why should they pay four thousand per month while someone else pays only $1500? More to the point the latter isn’t part of the same socio-economic group as former and or other demographics all together.

      Other fly in ointment is that even with all the tax subsidies market rate tenants are paying more to carry the “affordable” tenants; and they know it.

      Current administration has tried to force developers to include more affordable housing for certain developments. Only to see push back as developers point out the numbers just don’t work.

      • dannyboy says:

        “Senator Goldwater was correct when he stated “you can’t legislate morality”.”

        B.B. You must know that we are a nation of laws specifically to legislate morality.

        But your Goldwater button is showing.

    9. dannyboy says:

      “But with real estate, we don’t all want to have tall buildings with condos for people who don’t live here, but developers do.”

      As do plenty of WSR Commenters. Meet the NEW UWSers!

    10. Marcia Kayeq says:


    11. Gilbert Garshman says:

      msterdam ave. It is blocking passage for a large number of tenents many of rhem using walkers, cains baby carriages who now have to walk an extra 6 to 8 blocks to go shopping. They protected cars but noy people. Nobody seems able to help us. I am certain that the Democrats in power will be reminded of how we have been forgotten on Election Day.

      • Sean says:

        No one is special. Construction will end. In the meantime make lemonade.

        • dannyboy says:

          “tenants many of them using walkers, canes,or baby carriages who now have to walk an extra 6 to 8 blocks to go shopping.” do deserve “Special” treatment.

          • Sean says:

            No. They can use another route. Maybe the management or the board of their building can arrange golf carts to ferry them about. Lincoln Towers bears some responsibility. It is a temporary situation.

    12. Liz Mayers says:

      Gale is great and always has been. Loved reading the interview.

      I supported deBlasio and I think disenchanted is too gentle a word.

      Looking forward to the next interview.

    13. Neal H Hurwitz says:

      She is a failure on development in Manhattan. Sad.
      We need stronger leadership!!!

      Those supertalls are her legacy. Sad.

    14. Neal H Hurwitz says:

      and de Blasio is also a failure, owned by the RE Board of NY.
      Good riddance asap.
      I know the Extell story on W 100 Street— a scam by ex-Mayor under Bloomberg— disaster for the skyline man— who went to Extell and told them how to build oversize there…
      Thanks to Micki Fleigel btw=== Westsiders for Responsible Development— we need that NOW again!!!
      I am in RE and construction—the greed is a problem among those ruining NYC… esp NY NY.
      It is a shame… Sad.
      Thanks, Neal H. Hurwitz NY NY Medellin Israel
      (So far, we are OK above 97th Street, even with the ugly stuff they build and wanna build…)
      I am on West 115th and deal with Columbia/Barnard RE and housing. Another story.

    15. Lear Levin says:

      Why can’t everyone in New York City Government be cloned from Gale Brewer?

    16. Irene Natividad says:

      Gale Brewer is a true PUBLIC SERVANT!! Whatever government role she has, her concern is always on improving constituents’ lives for the better. We need more politicians like her whose focus is on governance.

    17. AC57 says:

      I want more tall buildings.

      But seriously, placing more restrictions is not gonna help matters. In fact, it’ll only make things worse. Development and growth is crucial to a neighborhood, but those little <20 story buildings going up are doing nothing – again, they're taking up space where affordable units could go.

      Waterline Square, Riverside South and Hawthorne Park were all fought, and yet now they're the only developments that have included any affordable housing for the neighborhood in the last several years (I would even gamble and say decade plus) and those few lotteries going up in existing buildings haven't crossed past 63rd Street.

      200 Amsterdam and 50 West 66th Street are not ideal projects. I agree. They're beautiful designs encasing missed opportunities, and examples of developers looking for every legal corner they can find, rather than going through ULURP with a little more. But that also sheds light on how bad the process is. It can take up to a year, that's far too long. ULURP shouldn't take more then 6 weeks.

      Restrictions aren't gonna help. Communicating and talking will. Encouraging developers to build more with affordable housing is what's going to fix this problem. Upzone sections of the neighborhood (between Amsterdam and West End Avenues, and along Broadway and two-way side streets), with benchmarks for MIH requirements and height caps that are far above what currently exists. Encouraging the development and creating a climate where developers aren't inclined to seek out the legal extremities is also crucial. We need to grow up. Maximize the usage of space with more apartments per floor (which will also lead to cheaper units. More units = lower starting prices). Simplifying and shortening special permit processes, making it easier for everyone to get involved.

      One more thing: supertall is classified as 300m/984ft. No proposed building is within 200 ft of that. Please stop using the term when referring to this neighborhood, it's misleading, and exaggerated.

    18. paulcons says:

      Take a guess which building has a better tax base for the city, a 600 unit supertall for the 0.75%ers, or a 300 unit building for middle income folks? Wanna bet what the average tax rate there is for the 600 unit’s owners (who were just handed huge additional tax breaks last year)?

      • dannyboy says:

        But which of the 2 types of projects offers the most opportunity for money laundering?

        …and the bribery that accompanies it.

      • Jay says:

        That’s easy; the 600 unit building will have the highest local taxes.

        • dannyboy says:

          Wrong again.

          paulcons just about gave away the answer when he wrote: “Wanna bet what the average tax rate there is for the 600 unit’s owners (who were just handed huge additional tax breaks last year)?”

          You need to read the Comment before Replying.

    19. Nancy Cole says:

      I was en route to motor vehicle on 125 street early one morning and stopped at the state building on 125 Street searching for my phone in my pocketbook. 2 gentlemen came near me and showed as I looked around one snatched my bag and ran with passport and every other identification, etc., as you know motor vehicle needs points. I was confused, shocked, violated, etc. The police came did their duties that was it.
      I walked into Gale’s office they greeted me like a family, listened and helped me get the New York Identification. Wrote a letter and that helped me greatly. She very compassionate, attentive, caring and understands the needs of New Yorkers. Gale, you are truly one of a kind. Thanks for your awesome staff. You are the lady that gets the job done.Thanks so much.🙏🙏🙏