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Here’s a Chance to Be the City’s Hero, Trump

By Sydney H. Schanberg

First published in Newsday, March 10, 1987

Over the years, I have written a number of columns critical of Donald Trump — for his harassment of tenants, for his self-promotion, for his fibbing, for his glitz and hype, for his grandiosity and for his expressions of concern about the homeless while doing nothing to help them.

I have tweaked him, cajoled him, satirized him and just flat-out berated him. And still he doesn’t seem interested in using his considerable talents on behalf of the homeless or in amelioration of any of the other social problems that he says trouble him. So now it’s time to challenge him.

I say let’s dare Donald Trump — real estate developer, impresario of tall buildings and taller publicity — to be as successful at helping the city as he has been at helping himself. And I want to make clear at the start that this column is not written tongue in cheek or as a putdown.

Virtually everyone — not just Donald Trump — says that he’s a world-class deal-maker. There are those who point out, with some justification, that he has engineered a very large number of headlines out of only a small number of major projects, but even these non-cheerleaders acknowledge that he is someone who can put big things together and bring them to completion.

Just take a look at your favorite newspaper or television station on any given week. There’s Donald Trump announcing something, winning something, being asked his opinion on something.

Last Thursday night, for example, he appeared on national television in the miniseries, “I’ll Take Manhattan,” playing himself and helping out poor little Valerie Bertinelli (who needed some cash in a hurry) by buying back her apartment in Trump Tower for $6 million. Later that evening, he appeared on “Nightline” giving his thoughts on what it will take to put the Reagan presidency back together again. (He said the president had to “be very assertive, be very strong, be very open.”)

Yesterday, he bought another gambling casino in Atlantic City, Resorts International, to add to the two he already has there, Trump’s Castle and Trump Plaza. The price tag was $79 million, but that was no problem. He had the money virtually hanging around — because he had made clear, swift stock profits of about $70 million in two recent takeover attempts aimed at other casino companies in Atlantic City.

And when he’s not making money on real estate of casino deals, he’s sponsoring a parade for the Stars and Stripes yachting crew who regained the America’s Cup trophy this year from Australia. Or he’s being mentioned as a potential political candidate or as a kingmaker for another candidate. Or he’s upstaging Mayor Edward Koch — by taking over the botched Wollman skating rink project and restoring in a few months this ice arena in Central Park that the city had floundered for six years at a waste of $12 million.

That’s the way it’s done, Ed, said the 40-year-old builder to the mayor, who did not take kindly to having his place in front of the TV cameras usurped.

Thereupon has followed a sniping war between Koch and Trump, with the developer saying he could run this or that city protect better and the mayor answering first with critical personal jabs and then, interestingly, by inviting Trump to prove his stuff by building housing for homeless people. 

“Donald,” the mayor said rhetorically at a forum, “right now I’m giving you an offer: Build us housing — residential or interim — for the homeless. Why don’t you come in, Donald, and show us how good you are.”

Donald Trump’s piqued response was designed as an offer the mayor had to refuse. Trump said: “When Ed Koch admits he is unable to build housing for the homeless, when he totally admits, when he totally concedes his inability to do this, then I’ll be glad to get involved.”

What you have here is the sound of two huge egos crashing into each other. The sour sound of stalemate.

But the idea is a terrific one. Donald Trump could step in, build the housing for the homeless or the apartments for low-income working people that other developers say can’t be built because of present costs — and he would walk away a hero. For he not only would have delivered a boon to the city but in the same stroke would have polished his reputation for all time.

The man who made his name by brashly and boastfully erecting towers to house the super-rich would have produced a breakthrough for the homeless and the working poor. It would confound his most tenacious critics.

Better still, if Trump were to do this, lead the way, the other master builders in this town — Zeckendorf, Macklowe, Silverstein, Kalikow, Tishman, Lefrak et al — would have a very hard time hanging back. They would have to either duplicate his effort or admit he is better than they are.

So, Donald Trump, that’s about it. We know you’re not really interesting in getting into the mess and hassle of low-income housing. There’s no profit, no glamour.

But what a coup it would be — for you and for the rest of us.



Trump for Mayor

btkf - Donald Trump, in the mid 1980s, in front of a building - Town & Country via AtticmagBy Sydney H. Schanberg

First published as an Op-Ed column in The New York Times on June 4, 1983

It was only a small item in the paper. About a year ago. And then a small follow-up item last Sunday. They were so unremarkable in size that you probably missed them both. But they contained stunning news.

What these few paragraphs said was that Donald Trump — master builder, real estate impresario, accused by many of caring only about glitter and money — had offered to house some of this city’s downtrodden homeless in a building he owns on posh Central Park South where he has 14 empty apartments.

The city government reacted suspiciously to his offer. These misguided officials believed — heaven forfend — that Young Trump’s purpose was Machiavellian. Endowed with distrustful natures, they thought he wanted to install the down-and-outers at 100 Central Park South (across from the St. Moritz Hotel, full views of Central Park) for the sole purpose of driving out the rest of the tenants so he could demolish the building and put up another Trump pyramid.

Donald Trump acknowledges that he does indeed want to get the present tenants out in order to put up a new luxury building, but he insists that’s not why he’s offering shelter for the homeless.

”Some people think I’m just doing a number on the people in the building,” Mr. Trump told me. ”That’s not true. I just want to help with the homeless problem. It’ll take two or three years to get everybody out, and in the meantime I’ll have more and more vacant apartments for the indigent.”

The city’s response came from Robert Trobe, a deputy administrator at the Human Resources Administration. He wrote to Mr. Trump: ”While we greatly appreciate your offer, it does not seem appropriate to house clients in a building slated for demolition.”

Mr. Trobe was more candid in a later interview: ”In light of the temporary nature of his proposal and his interest in moving out some other people, I’m left with an uncomfortable feeling and therefore am not pursuing it.”

I don’t think these bureaucrats grasp the full extent of the Trump good will. When Young Trump initially made his offer, he mentioned only that the free apartments would have heat, hot water and ”beautiful views.” Officialdom never gave him a chance to elaborate.

Now, he says, ”I’ll also pay for nurses. And I’ll pay for any medical supplies that are needed.” It’s enough to sweep you off your feet. But still the city, Scrooge-like, says nothing doing.

Consider the possibilities. There’s the dazzling Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue and soon there’ll be a brilliant Trump casino in Atlantic City. And now he’s offering us the Trump Chateau For The Indigent overlooking Central Park. A place in the sun for the forgotten.

Young Trump says the building in its present status, because its apartments are rent-controlled or rent-stabilized, is being misused by ”people of great wealth” who are paying minuscule rents for ”the best location in the city.” ”I have multimillionaires living in rent-controlled apartments.”

This building, says Trump, is a symbol of the bizarre anomalies imposed on the city’s critical housing supply by the rent-regulation system. He contends that if we could abolish the system, at least for the plutocracy, and charge fair market rents to all those with a net worth of over $1 million, buildings throughout Manhattan would produce significantly higher tax revenues for the government — and instead of pinched city budgets, we would have bulging surpluses. ”We’d have money for cleaning our streets,” he promised. ”Money for more cops. The city would be healthier.” Maybe if he weren’t so busy emptying and putting up buildings, he could run for mayor and save us.

Before we allow ourselves to rejoice, however, there seem to be several nagging problems with both his specific proposal for 100 Central Park South and his larger solution for the city.

For example, while some of the tenants in the 15-story Central Park South building are quite rich, many are elderly people living on fixed incomes, such as Social Security checks, who have made their homes there for 20 years or more.

Further, although he is right that the building-as-is produces little if any profit and generates only a modest property tax check annually for the city, Mr. Trump knew all that when he bought the place two years ago. He didn’t mind then, because he thought he could empty it swiftly and erect a big profit-maker in its place.

His several court suits to get tenants out have so far failed — one judge suggested that his case was frivolous — and the tenants have accused him in turn of harassment and cutting of the building’s services.

And finally, if this young P.T. Barnum of real estate is so concerned about our pinched city budgets, why is he then suing the city for a $20 million tax abatement for the Trump Tower, a building on which he has already turned a profit of over $100 million — with more to come?

Yes, one can see there are hitches. But shouldn’t we look at the larger picture? While other landlords — just the bad apples, of course — bring in goons and dogs and arsonists to drive out tenants, Donald Trump is only bringing in derelicts. ”I am sincere,” he says. ”I just want to help get some of these people off the streets.”

We should be grateful. We should consider him for mayor.


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