Just who are these Yimby lobbyists behind the push to rezone Soho and Noho?
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s call to rezone Soho and Noho seems more like Blaz’s desperate, last-year-in-office, attempt to appease his real estate developer donors more than it does any sincere step towards providing truly affordable housing to working New Yorkers.
And this rushed push to upzone two industrial, historical and particularly unique downtown Manhattan neighborhoods has found its ultimate cheerleader in Yimby [“yes in my backyard”] group Open New York.
But who exactly is Open New York, aka ONY?
Self-describing as an “all-volunteer group advocating for abundant homes and lower rent,” ONY certainly presents itself benignly enough as it implores, with sad dog eyes, for you to be its neighbor.
But the barest scratch beneath the ONY surface reveals a laser-focused real estate development agenda steered by a vigorous yet small troupe of garrulous and snippy professionals who are mostly men, mostly younger than middle-aged and majority white.
Initially naming itself “More New York,” Open New York was “started in a basement in Murray Hill in 2016” by “Quantitative Real Estate Investor” Ben Thypin, and grew into an incorporated nonprofit in January 2020, making it eligible for tax-exempt status with New York State (although no 990 filing appears to be currently publicly available regarding the group’s not-for-profit viability).
Perchance to strategically distance himself, founder Thypin has since stepped down as a founding ONY board member, but on paper only, as the optics of him having such a seat might begrime that ONY fallacy of equitable housing and “lower rent.” Born into steel industry wealth, Thypin arranges multi-million-dollar real estate deals as a developer with a penchant for Lower Manhattan properties, like his company Quantierra’s management of the $30 million sale of 64 Washington Street.
And what exactly is Yimby?
Yimby is the pro-gentrification movement and clapback to its older Nimby opposition, composed of what used to be the 1960s/1970s “not in my backyard” racist Archie Bunker stalwarts opposing any potential real estate development in their area. The Yimby movement, not just in NYC but nationally too, claims to be about housing equity thus the potential insidiousness lies in its promoters flying under the radar as well-meaning “housing activists” who portray themselves as cute, fun and accessible. Twitter usernames include avocado emojis (“hey! healthiness!”) and/or bike emojis (“hey! small carbon footprint! awesomeness!”) to enhance this manipulated semblance of niceness and/or normalcy.
These members and supporters work diligently, while not always that successfully, to present a neutral and friendly front despite their thick, obvious, and undeniable ties to the real estate industry which belie their alleged better intentions; their act has fallen so flat with others that the frequently-employed avocado has been viewed as a “political emoji.”
A false narrative perpetuated by Yimby is that all Nimbys are wealthy, elderly, elitist and racist homeowners, but in truth the modern Nimbys’ cultural alignment has morphed more into what the hippy artistic 70s Yimbys of yore used to be: Nimbys now are politically progressive, socially open and include many renters, including older, working-class-income creatives with stabilized leases.
I first came across ONY, and subsequently Yimby, only last year during the spring and summer of 2019 when its membership had cultivated and promoted the campaign of Long Island City resident and ONY member Justin Potter, an openly pro-AmazonHQ2, pro-development candidate for Queens District 12 State Senate, challenging infamous “Amazon Slayer” Michael Gianaris. Potter, a 20-year-voting Republican, had changed parties so to run against Democrat Gianaris but the former’s quiet and inconsequential campaign ended with Potter dropping out even before the race’s June 2020 Democratic Primary.
But what had stuck out most in Potter’s lackluster crusade were his honkingly loud Yimby supporters, including the real-estate-industry-aligned consortium ONY: a Greek chorus of earnest urbanists mocking Jane Jacobs; advocating to turn NYC into a modern Asian municipality and scoffing at concepts like “neighbor character” and “historical value.”
Although mostly not from NYC, ONY affiliates nonetheless claim that New Yorkers “view themselves as separate from and superior to other Americans.” They even have a snarky book club where they enjoy “salty” discourse about supposedly “characterless” brownstones: they even publicly cheer when NYC brownstones are demolished.
I was stunned to read such discourse.
My NYC childhood had been heavily peppered with the squawks of adults who had never gotten over what had been the recent destruction of the old, iconic, airy Pennsylvania Station, occurring the year before I was born. The former Penn Station’s demolition horrified NYC (and rest of the world), and birthed the local landmark and preservation movement the year after I was born. I have always been in love with New York City and have long felt protective of its old, glorious structures, appreciating their history, significance and beauty along with the fathoming that once something beloved is gone, it is gone forever.
I had figured preserving New York history, especially its architecture, would never be threatened again.
But then along came NYC Yimby Daddy Nikolai Fedak.
It was Fedak who coined the concept that NYC preservationists were selfish: “There’s a lot of hatred of development out there,” he declared about Nimbys in 2014. “But generally it comes from selfish people who don’t want to lose their views.”
Selfish is a purposeful and deliberate word choice and is also the hook upon which every Yimby persists on hanging their primary argument: they are “hated!” by “selfish people!” By alleging it is not sentimentality which endears people to their environment and physical surroundings but rather narcissism, self-absorption and an absence of empathy, Yimby attempts to pivot the aesthetic appreciation argument to a character flaw. The tactic depicts Nimby as lacking decency, being morally inept, even racist, simply because Nimbys enjoy and celebrate specific places and neighborhoods; this enjoyment is viewed as selfish and perpetuating prejudiced practices.
This is the only way Yimby and ONY know how to defend their argument for development: their opponents are immoral while they, themselves, are not.
The argument against aesthetics is an unworthy argument. Winston Churchill celebrated the delight of humans experiencing architecture: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”
Because aesthetic appreciation, or the lack thereof, is a matter of taste, not morals. It is a perception, not a moral flaw, by where one conceives of preference and of appeal: aesthetic inclination is more opinion than feeling; it is what a person likes and to which they are drawn and cannot be utilized in good faith against any person because none of us have any control over what we love.
We cannot help to which we react, to which we are attracted, those sights we love, the places which inspire us. ONY and Yimby strive to use that against us. So if you find yourself fancying a building for your entire lifetime or being awed by the expanse of sky or feeling a strong, primal attachment to a geographic area, you are perceived, strategically and deliberately, by this small group as “being selfish.” An intentional and purposeful strategy: you are selfish while they, by default, are not. The Yimby “I’m good! You’re bad!!” strategy also allows for the morphing of the accusation of “selfish” slapped onto Nimbyism to start wearing more sinister coats: “horrible” is commonly used by this faction as well, as are “immoral,” “racist,” and “classist.”
A fight for the city’s architectural posterity is neither “woefully out of touch” nor an “extremely myopic prioritizing [of a] sense of aesthetics over other New Yorkers’ housing.”
It is not selfish nor trite nor superficial to experience aesthetic appreciation: it is human. But ONY narrowly depicts its Nimby opposition, as all “wealthy homeowners who… seek to maintain ethnic and class composition [while] selfishly trying to thwart development… over parochial concerns like aesthetics and shadows.”
It is bad faith to either blame, or read more into, the human inclination of the appreciation of beauty.
But bad faith is all that Yimby, and Open New York, bring to the table.
It shouldn’t matter that ONY and their supporters are, like Potter and Thypin, mostly in their 30’s, most male, mostly white and mostly not from NYC, but that materiality is nonetheless their own glaring reality. Composed solely of highly educated, multi-degree-earning individuals, ONY is deeply aligned with NYC real estate development although it hotly protests not to be. Thypin even plays defensive victim crying poor when confronted on his background and financial success.
The smokescreen ONY creates, and then hides behind, is an alleged advocation of housing and a claim there are not enough homes for NYC residents, which is complete balderdash. They pretend not to be wealthy and privileged while whiningly accusing any opposition of being exactly that: wealthy and privileged. Deliberately and strategically, they falsely characterize Nimbys to be old, white, wealthy, cheap, immoral, selfish and racist: all Nimbys are the same to them, one big tenet in their quite flawed argument.
And with ONY, it isn’t just their insincere platform: it’s their conduct. Bad faith arguing is born out of desperation, which can be tough to discern when the manner of conduct is so brash and confident.
ONY board members include the easily annoyed Jake Schmidt, good cop/bad faith debater Will Thomas, native Illinoian Dan Miller and recent Columbia University public affairs grad Kyle Dontoh. Its more vocal members are the sanctimonious and damning Pennsylvanian native Mike Cherepko, the aforementioned New Jersey native founder Thypin, Southern Californian transplant Spencer Heckwolf, Philadelphia-raised Stephen Smith, aka Twitter urbanist celebrity Market Urbanism (who is also Thypin’s employee), and their lawyer, Sullivan and Cromwell land use attorney Charley Dorsaneo.
As a lobbying entity, ONY presents a threat to New York City historical landmarking and preservation as they aim to abolish landmarking preservation in the name of racism. But ONY’s motivation goes way beyond standing up to racism just like the issue of racist housing practices spread way beyond redlining and historical preservation.
It is the behavior, comportment and type of engagement exhibited by the ONY crew which screams louder than their anti-racist rhetoric: they are, as individuals and together, a group of purposefully impatient, condescending, exaggerative (dishonest) bullies with no productive, civic or good faith engagement.
Cherepko, long known for his bad attitude (of which he is quite proud) and his moral judgment, doesn’t care if the proposed Elizabeth Street Garden replacement housing stays affordable in the future: which is odd for the guy who’s fighting for it, all in the name of affordable housing.
ONY board member Miller’s piece to support urban density rests on his sole argument that Nimby objections to gentrification should be answered with a toddleresque and astonishingly obtuse retort of “tough.” No logic, no facts, no math: just “tough.”
ONY knows me, too: founder Thypin grumbled about my speaking at the January 2020 Manhattan Community Board 2 meeting and took issue with my presence at the meeting but had no comment on what I had specifically stated; I was faulted solely for having attended. Waterfront developer Thypin had no defense for what I said, he was only angry that I said the words, that I showed up.
I had also dared to confront ONY board member Schmidt on Twitter about a resoundingly abhorred project in Sunnyside, Queens, the notorious Phipps proposal at 50-25 Barnett Avenue, only to experience the signature and oft-practiced pile-on of a dozen Yimbys jumping in to accuse me of hating poor people and of being an immoral person. It was a conversation which started at 9am and lasted through the whole day until after 8pm: that is how they operate; they’ll take hours working on one person, trying to exhaust them, trying to get a bad reaction out of them, deliberately and habitually.
City officials have also sparred with ONY members. Lower Manhattan District Leader Paul Newell’s tweet thread on Thypin’s history and behavior is gloriously thorough and revealing. Committeman Ben Yee called them out for the same pile on treatment I received.
ONY and Yimby are intrigued by the idea of being perceived as thought leaders and world changers and they are eager for a substantial win: knocking down the Elizabeth Street Garden is seen as important and urgent to them. They don’t care how much the community loves this space: they care about winning; they crave a psychological conquest and they want to be victorious over Soho. This has never been about what the community wants for them: they loudly advocate that the community shouldn’t even have a voice (they feel they should have a voice but not the residents who actually live in the area).
One challenge we do not need now, especially as we endure the covid19 pandemic, is a Yimby apocalypse. The last thing we need are more new buildings, more empty luxury tax-break structures and more of the exasperated youthful white males who support their construction.
We face extraordinary times and we need perchance very un-American approaches, like a socialist methodology for emergency housing needs along with rent and mortgage forgiveness and universal basic income. These are uncomfortable constructs: I appreciate how traditional capitalists balk at such concessions but we still need to consider them because rampant construction has never been the answer.
ONY and Yimbys come up short on any answers for NYC, especially regarding its historic districts. ONY’s flimsy claims about creating less racist living standards are revealed as false by expiration-dated affordable housing which will revert to luxury units within one generation. The effort to upzone Soho by angry young transients is not what NYC architecture and history needs or even deserves.
Open your eyes to Open New York: New York City can do so much better.
Postscript: It seems I misunderstood Ben Thypin’s mention of his “ancestral homeland of LIC:” how foolish of me to have drawn the conclusion that he was, indeed, from Queens. Mr. Thypin, is in fact, not from New York but rather New Jersey, a detail which I have amended above. But the fact that Thypin, along with the rest of his small knot of Yimby proponents, is not from NYC even more weakens and diminishes his argument to destroy this city in the name of his own profit.