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.