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Trump picks fellow NYC developers to oversee infrastructure spending

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From luxury residential to $1 trillion worth of roads, trains, and bridges

The view from Vornado’s 220 Central Park South, one of the most expensive buildings in New York City
Photo by Viktor Thomas/@vic.invades

Although the names Richard LeFrak and Steven Roth may not be recognizable to those outside of the New York real estate bubble, they are two of the U.S.’s most powerful developers with projects in cities all over the country. Now LeFrak and Roth are teaming up to execute President-elect Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan.

According to the Wall Street Journal, LeFrak and Roth will manage a “council of 15 to 20 builders and engineers” convened by Trump’s team to advise the as-yet-unannounced infrastructure program. (Like the infrastructure plan, details on both the council and the developers’ roles are vague.) Both longtime Trump friends, LeFrak and Roth have a long history of managing giant developments in New York—including several of Trump’s own properties.

“They’re pros,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal. “That’s what they do. All their lives, they build. They build under-budget, ahead of schedule.”

The fact that LeFrak and Roth are professionals is not up for debate: The developers have amassed fortunes working in real estate. Very expensive real estate.

LeFrak is known, most recently, for his giant planned communities like the SoLe Mia, a $4-billion luxury development in North Miami with giant artificial swimmable lakes. He’s also responsible for hundreds of projects throughout Florida, New York, New Jersey, and California, including two dozen towers in Jersey City that are transforming the city’s waterfront as part of the $10-billion Newport development.

New York residents may have noticed the Prospect Park ice skating rink is named for his parents. Like Trump, LeFrak’s father was also in real estate. Among his luxury projects, he built an affordable housing development, LeFrak City, in Queens, which has been sued for alleged discrimination by Orthodox Jewish tenants and a woman living with AIDS.

Roth is CEO of Vornado, one of the most powerful developers in the country, with residential and commercial properties that include 220 Central Park South, which is on track to become the most expensive building in New York City. The 66-floor, $1.3 billion tower cost a mind-boggling $5,000 per square foot to build and is home to a $250 million condo that could become the priciest apartment in New York City. He also has stakes in Trump’s Manhattan and San Francisco office buildings, properties which Trump has not yet revealed how he plans to divest from.

Vornado’s public-private partnership to build a new Penn Station might be the reason Trump tapped Roth to oversee infrastructure
Rendering by SOM, via Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Office

The problem with naming this team to oversee a $1 trillion infrastructure initiative is that LeFrak and Roth don’t actually work in infrastructure. Both developers have zero experience managing traditional infrastructure projects like trains, roads, water systems, and bridges—and the equity and environmental issues that go along with them.

The closest relevant work sample might be Vornado’s involvement in New York City’s Penn Station revamp, the kind of public-private partnership touted as an “innovative financing tool” by Trump’s transportation secretary nominee Elaine Chao during her confirmation hearing.

Last week, outgoing Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx made an impassioned plea to his successors, calling for a more nuanced approach to this big-budget infrastructure plan. “What I’ve been trying to urge is for the transportation committee to pay as much attention to the policy as to the funding,” he said on Recode’s Decode podcast. “If we don’t get this right, we’re going to have a lot of infrastructure, but it may not be the infrastructure that’s going to help us move forward.”

Indeed, a “council of 15 to 20 builders and engineers” seems to be missing some critical voices: transportation planners, policy analysts, social workers, urban designers. And when headed by two luxury real estate developers, it sounds particularly tone-deaf to the needs of Americans.