Property owners in the path of planned redevelopment tied to a Penn Station makeover are pouring tens of thousands of dollars to help elect a candidate for state Assembly who has vowed to stop the project.
Real estate mogul Arnold Gumowitz is the sole funder of Support the West Side, an independent expenditure group that has devoted $49,000 so far to support just one candidate, Layla Law-Gisiko — one of four Democrats vying to succeed retiring Assemblymember Dick Gottfried.
Additionally, Law-Gisiko’s campaign has received more than $18,000 in individual donations from Gumowitz, two companies associated with his real estate business, and his son Gary, state Board of Elections records show. In all, Gumowitz and owners of a nearby restaurant account for half of the $145,000 raised so far in support of her candidacy.
Gumowitz is the longtime owner of 421 Seventh Ave., a 15-story office building on the corner of 33rd Street, distinguished by a Sbarro’s pizzeria on the ground floor.
The state’s redevelopment proposal identifies the Gumowitz property and neighboring parcels as “Site 6” in the redevelopment plan formerly known as Empire Station first proposed by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, with 2.1 million square feet of office and retail space. Where it can’t reach a deal with an owner to buy property, the state has declared its intention to use eminent domain to force sales.
As detailed by Gov. Kathy Hochul, the plan – now called the Pennsylvania Station Area Civic and Land Use Improvement Project – looks to use revenue generated by eight large-scale development sites ringing Penn Station to fund upgrades to the transit center, where the Long Island Rail Road, NJ Transit, Amtrak and MTA subway lines converge.
But not if Law-Gisiko or her backers can help it.
As a longtime member of Community Board 5 and chair of its land use committee, Law-Gisiko has been a vocal opponent of the state’s proposal to ring Penn Station with large-scale new development.
Because the project is being run through the Empire State Development authority, it’s controlled by the governor — but as in the thwarted effort to bring a massive Amazon campus to Long Island City in Queens, state lawmakers do have potential leverage via the obscure Public Authorities Control Board, the candidate contends.
Law-Gisiko told THE CITY she welcomes the support of fellow Penn project opponents — and says she wants to see Penn Station improve, just not the destruction and supersizing of the neighborhood surrounding it.
“Over the past two years, I’ve met and organized with hundreds of local stakeholders who oppose the proposed Penn Station development,” Law-Gisiko wrote THE CITY in a statement.
“I’ve been leading the fight to make Penn Station a 21st Century transit hub as well as to stop ex-Governor Cuomo’s giveaway to developers who are looking to cash in by building ten massive luxury towers around Penn Station, while destroying six city blocks and displacing hundreds of people.”
Slice of the Neighborhood
Gumowitz told the New York Post last year that he has no plans to leave, and vowed to fight the planned development.
He told THE CITY in a statement on Friday that he “strongly” supported improvements to Penn Station but said the current plan would “unnecessarily devastate my neighbors.”
“This plan is opposed by a large, diverse coalition of transportation and housing advocates, community and anti-corruption groups, and elected officials,” he said. “I am proud to join them in the fight for a better future for the Penn Station area.”
Gumowitz is not the only Penn project opponent investing in the Law-Gisiko campaign, which has raised more than $95,000 in donations — less than two of her three opponents.
State Board of Elections records show Law-Gisiko’s campaign also received $4,700 from the owner of NY Pizza Suprema, a beloved eatery on Eighth Avenue slated to be razed under the state’s plan and replaced with a hotel, offices and retail.
Last year, local elected officials opposing the plan handed out slices from the 57-year-old pizza joint at a press conference calling for more community input.
Restaurant owner Joseph Riggio did not respond to requests for comment.
Gottfried announced his retirement late last year after serving the West Side since 1970 — making him the longest-serving legislator in New York State history.
He has expressed concerns over the plan, saying it needs more housing and fewer offices.
His chosen successor is Tony Simone, 52, who most recently worked as director of external affairs at Hudson River Park Friends and formerly worked for former Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who has also endorsed him.
Simone said he was inspired to run for office during the pandemic, and is focusing his campaign on affordability in the community, from housing to health care.
“Too many of my friends and neighbors have been priced out of the homes they grew up in Hell’s Kitchen and Chelsea and Midtown,” he said in an interview with THE CITY. He said he is opposed to the current Penn Station concept.
“It’s a development plan, not a transportation plan,” he said. “It needs to be reworked, we need more affordable housing in the plan.”
Another candidate, Harrison Marks, 34, worked as a consultant on Cuomo’s Reimagine New York Commission to help the state recover from the pandemic, according to his campaign website bio. He said his experience there is part of what pushed him to run for office.
“I served in the Obama Administration and was the staff lead for the Reimagine New York Commission’s work to support our state’s workforce, small businesses, and the arts during the pandemic,” he said in a statement.
“My campaign has a singular focus: solving the problems that impact our community, especially street safety and housing affordability.” He told THE CITY that he is also opposed to the Penn Station project as it is currently proposed.
Chris Lebron, a lifelong resident of the district who previously worked in the City Council, said he’s running to protect his community from further redevelopment and said he was opposed to the state’s plan for Penn.
“I grew up on 47th Street, purchased my first guitar from Sam Ash on 48th, Music Row — that’s gone now,” he said. “I don’t want to see any more of my history disappear.”
He found Law-Gisiko’s campaign donations “really troubling.”
“I’m incredibly disappointed that this kind of money has entered the race,” he told THE CITY.
“The 75th District is incredibly important, no matter what corner we’re talking about. It’s incredibly important to the economy of our state and the economy of our city.”
At a candidate forum in April, Law-Gisiko vowed to not take any money from real estate developers – and asked her opponents to make the same pledge. Gumowitz works mostly in real estate management, she said.
“As I run for Assembly, I am not accepting contributions from real estate developers. And as Assemblywoman, I will continue to represent the community to fight this corporate giveaway,” she said in a statement to THE CITY. “Once seated, I will work with the executive chamber, the Corporations, Authorities and Commissions committee, the PACB and our federal partners to kill this real-estate project, while making sure Penn Station itself becomes a 21st century transit hub.”
Empire State Development’s board will vote later this month to approve the environmental impact statement and certification, according to a spokesman. In late July, ESD will present its financial terms on the project plan to the PACB.
“ESD is continuing to work closely with elected officials and community members to strengthen Governor Hochul’s plan ahead of it being presented to ESD’s Board this summer,” a spokesperson for the agency, Matthew Gorton, said in a statement.
He pointed to the agency’s two years of community engagement on the plan and more than 100 meetings with community members and local officials — and argued the proposal will greatly improve the area with improved pedestrian safety, plazas, new sidewalks and protected bike lanes.