Claudia Irizarry Aponte and Greg B. Smith, THE CITY
Lobbying records indicate Ruben Diaz Jr. is on a six-month $120,000 retainer to lobby the city on behalf of Dynamic Star LLC, the developer behind Fordham Landing. At 40 acres, the anticipated $2 billion development along the Harlem River waterfront dwarfs Hudson Yards.
Former Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. is getting paid $20,000 a month to press for a massive real estate project at the foot of Fordham Road — a project lobbyists had sought his ear on through his final months in office last year.
Fordham Landing is an anticipated $2 billion, 40-acre mega-development, proposed by a Greenwich, Conn. firm called Dynamic Star LLC linked to the inner circle of former President Donald Trump. Facing the Harlem River across from Inwood, its 5 million square feet would include nearly 2,800 apartments four train stops away from Grand Central via the University Heights Metro-North station.
State and city lobbying records show that on March 23, Diaz signed a contract with Dynamic Star that commits his firm Nuevo Diaz and Associates LLC to “provide governmental relations services in the City of New York” and potentially other services from March 10 through Sept. 10 — a stint worth $120,000 to the former borough president.
Diaz is lobbying on the Fordham Landing project for “Determination regarding real property,” city lobbying records show. A state filing indicates he expects to lobby the city departments of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and Transportation (DOT) on municipal land use.
Joint Commission on Public Ethics records also show that a second lobbying firm working for Dynamic Star, Kasirer LLC, reported targeting Diaz during the final two months of 2021, related to “approvals and permits at 320 W. Fordham Road, Bronx.”
City ethics rules include a lifetime ban that bars ex-public servants from appearing before the city or receiving compensation for “services rendered” on any matter in which they had “participated personally and substantially” while they were on the city payroll. That includes decisions, approvals, recommendations, investigations and “other similar activities.”
But Diaz also championed the development of The Bronx’s western waterfront during his dozen years as borough president. In his 2015 State of the Borough address, he declared: “A complete metamorphosis of the Harlem River waterfront is coming.”
Among the highlights: “To the north we have Fordham Landing. This site could host up to one million square feet of mixed-use development, including housing of all types, community space and additional waterfront and park amenities.”
“This is a great site for a public/private partnership, and we will work with the owners and future developers to activate and revitalize the northwest Bronx.”
He elaborated on his vision at an October 2017 New York Building Conference breakfast, saying: “I would love for the west side of The Bronx to have contiguous waterfront accessibility, sort of like what you see on the west side of Manhattan.”
Dynamic Star isn’t the only big Bronx player paying the former borough president. Diaz is still a full-time executive at Montefiore Medicine, where he has served as senior vice president of strategic initiatives since February.
And on Monday, the consulting firm Actum announced that Diaz will be joining as co-chair “in an advisory capacity,” Actum partner Rachel Noerdlinger said in an interview.
He will also be keeping his own firm, Nuevo Diaz Associates LLC, Nordlinger said.
A person who answered the number listed for Nuevo Diaz Associates did not respond to a request for comment. Diaz did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.
Dynamic Star principal Brad Zackson did not respond to a request for comment.
Diaz incorporated Nuevo Diaz Associates LLC in April 2021 even though he had another nine months to go as a public servant. And he did so in Albany County, many miles from his stomping grounds in The Bronx.
This arrangement with Dynamic means at the time the developer was paying a lobbyist to seek Diaz’s support for his big development, he was already intending to become a lobbyist.
This appears to put him perilously close to violating city conflict of interest laws that bar city workers from receiving compensation regarding a matter with which they’d “participated personally and substantially as a public servant through decision, approval, recommendation, investigation or other similar activities.”
The extent to which Diaz interacted with the developer of Fordham Landing before leaving office is unknown. Borough presidents have a say on land use issues, and Fordham Landing is no exception.
Dynamic Star had paid the firm run by veteran lobbyist Suri Kasirer to beseech multiple public officials, including Diaz, during his final months as Bronx borough president. Zackson, the firm’s co-founder, told Norwood News in November that its executives had met personally with Diaz and his staff while he was still borough president to discuss Fordham Landing.
Although it’s clear Diaz has participated in discussions with the developers, it’s not clear whether he took any official action in regard to this project, which has yet to receive land use approval from new Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson.
“This project is in the very beginning stages of conversations and as Borough President, it is my responsibility to ensure that any development at Fordham Landing is inclusive of community input and engagement,” Gibson said in a statement via a spokesperson. “Affordable housing must be a real priority and include home ownership opportunities to build economic wealth and pathways to the middle class for our residents and families.”
Bigger Than Hudson Yards
Diaz signed his lobbying contract with Dynamic Star director of development Brad Zackson, whose long history in New York real estate had him working closely with two intimates of Trump.
Zackson got his start leasing apartments to tenants in Queens on behalf of Fred Trump, Donald’s father. The elder Trump had years earlier settled a federal civil rights case after investigators determined Trump buildings discriminated by rejecting Black applicants. More recently, Zackson collaborated with Paul Manafort on real estate investments, before Manafort became Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign chairman.
Dwarfing Hudson Yards, Fordham Landing as proposed would be the largest real estate project in the city since that West Side development.
Spanning a swath of land straddling the University Heights bridge along the Harlem River all the way up to the Target in Marble Hill, the estimated $2 billion project is slated to include 2,800 apartments, 30% of which would be affordable, a 700,000 square-foot science center, esplanades, an e-sports amphitheater and a music venue, Norwood News reported last year.
Fordham Landing is still years away from breaking ground. The project must go through a public review process known as Universal Land Use Review Procedure – or ULURP – that would begin in 2023 at the earliest.
Bronx Community Board 7 District Manager Ischia Bravo said that she participated in a “brief” informal meeting with the developer in 2020 but that the board has not had any formal meetings.
“There’s always a concern when there’s a project of this magnitude changing the dynamics of the community, and we want to make sure that there are resources that are attached to that, especially when you bring in a certain amount of residents,” Bravo said. “We’re looking at resources like transportation, schools — the typical concerns.”
Local Councilmember Pierina Sanchez, in a statement to THE CITY, urged that the project take seriously the larger community’s many needs. If she is still serving when the project goes through ULURP, she will likely have influence over any final approvals or concessions to the local community.
“The proposed $2 billion Fordham Landing project is the largest proposed new development project in recent NYC history, taking place in one of the city’s most economically distressed neighborhoods…. We have never had true access to the Harlem River waterfront, and also struggle with a high rate of traffic incidents and fatalities,” she said.
“Any proposed development must center the most urgent needs of our Bronx community to earn my support. In the coming months, I look forward to supporting an independent community input process that centers our community needs.”
Last week, the city Department of Buildings disapproved a permit associated with 320 West Fordham Rd., the project’s southernmost lot.
That site, just south of the University Heights Bridge, will reportedly bear a 17-story, mixed-use building. Dynamic Star purchased the property for $31.5 million in 2019. An additional site — 2475 Exterior Street, purchased for $31.75 million in 2020 — is slated to feature a mixed-used building including rentals, student housing, a public school, a research center, retail and office space.