SOHO POLITICS: Jeanne Wilcke

Few people who "suddenly" arrive on the political scene provide as much promise for SoHo and Downtown as the new President of Downtown Independent Democrats, Jeanne Wilcke.

As past Chair of the Zoning Committee at Community Board #2, she handled some of the most contentious issues that sometimes pitted residents against the pressure from development interests. Her approach was always even-handed and conciliatory. While residents did not always get what they wanted, they were treated fairly and considerately. Developers, builders, investors and attorneys who represented them knew that they would get a fair hearing. 
 
Downtown, for example, has been a "hot market" for at least the last decade and has had “wild west” opportunities due to its as-of-right zoning. There is still little that the Community Board or activists can do to thwart over sized developments like Trump SoHo. While Trump SoHo pre-dated her role at Community Board #2, Wilcke handled numerous contentious issues carefully within the context of the Board's mission as an advisory body. 
 
Although Wilcke became more involved in private business matters after leaving the Community Board, she was consistently involved in local politics. Her membership in D.I.D. kept her in close contact with other activists and elected politicians—as well as the process of vetting those who wished to run for office. Her ability to sense the mood  Downtown and choosing the right moment to enter the political fray is prescient. She has few antagonists and many friends. All of them in the right places.
 
Jeanne Wilcke is now poised to fill a role that is critical for SoHo and for Downtown. While the Community Boards have been criticized for being short on concern for SoHo and too politicized in its make-up, their powers are limited and their voices are muted. Even the Chair of a Community Board must be careful in stating opinions that are not the view of the Borough President or the City of New York—which “employs” every Board member at its discretion. Wilcke represents a political club and the residents directly. She has the right and the obligation to present issues and opinions which directly support the will of the people. And, in consultation with D.I.D. members, for example, political hopefuls who wish to run for office on the road in the Democratic election process—will have to speak to Jeanne Wilcke about their intentions and reliability with respect to their promises.
 
It is our opinion that Jeanne Wilcke, along with the Executive Committee and members of D.I.D., like past-President and Treasurer Sean Sweeney, Jim Stratton and Adam Silvera—now have a new and critical role in shaping the politics of SoHo, Downtown and even Manhattan.
 
The SoHo Journal strongly believe that Jeanne Wilcke is a very important new politician to watch Downtown.  
 

Her BonaFides:

BUSINESS
Jeanne Wilcke is the principal and founder of a privately-held New York real estate company and has invested in buildings and portfolios of coops/condos and conversions. Ms. Wilcke acts as principal in transactions, and has been particularly successful at distressed turnaround situations, calling upon her nearly three decades of structured finance and investment banking expertise to successfully rejuvenate properties. She sits on numerous coop boards and has first hand experience managing and running cooperative corporations.  
 
Ms. Wilcke reduced her real estate exposure significantly from 2003 to 2005. As quoted in Wall Street Journal in 2005, she decided “it’s time to get out of the way” and “better to sell on the way up than not be able to sell on the way down”. Currently Ms. Wilcke focuses primarily on her private portfolio and consulting on distressed properties for others.
 
Before founding her real estate investment company in the early 1990's, Ms. Wilcke worked as an executive at some of the most recognized financial institutions including CIT Group and Dean Witter. She negotiated leveraged leasing/finance transactions with a wide variety of industries including utilities, oil & mining, airline, and transportation companies among others. She also headed the U.S. loan syndication department for a European bank, and spent a number of years on Wall Street in various investment capacities, including the management of a bond research group.
 
COMMUNITY
Ms. Wilcke has been a well recognized and high-profile member of the local community board and neighborhood associations. 
 
Ms. Wilcke has 20 years of diverse community experience. In April of 2010 she became the new president of the Downtown Independent Democrats, an influential and oldest progressive Democratic club in downtown Manhattan. She is a strong advocate on tax and credit card issues, ethics reform, mentoring young people for political involvement and reach out to elected officials on regulatory issues. 
 
She has served as Chair of Zoning for Community Board 2 in Manhattan, Vice-Chair of the Environment Committee, and held the position of Treasurer. Ms. Wilcke is currently co-chair of the Friends of NoHo Architecture and is involved with local issues of preservation, land use and planning.
 
EDUCATION
Bachelor degree in mathematics from SUNY Binghamton and an MBA in Finance from NEW YORK UNIVERSITY. 
 

In Her Voice:

NEW DEVELOPMENT
Infrastructure improvements must be in tandem with  new development. Our city does not have true city planning-more reactionary planning. As CB 2 zoning chair—we begged for improvements in infrastructure to go side-by-side with new development. But the city had blinders on. 
 
We were told sewer capacity was built to withstand the once in a hundred years flood as the criteria. Well, after several 100-year floods in SoHo and the West Village in just a couple of years, it made me think how this city plans, how things get done, and has shaped my activism. 
 
PLANNING
We need a city planning agency to guide growth and change and keep diversity. And I don’t mean a planning agency beholden to big real estate interests. We need urban planners, small business interests, and the like as part of a team.  
 
Planning now is top-down. We need more bottom-up input. You have to have walked the walk on a daily basis, avoided crossing at certain intersections when you have children in tow, can no longer find the small service businesses you need, only then can you understand how concrete barriers for a bike lane has a domino effect and plan accordingly. 
 
NYU threatens a megalomaniac plan almost as large as the Empire State Building (flattened out), within a few blocks in Greenwich Village. This is exactly what the downtowners have been asking them NOT to do—for the past twenty years. 
 
The City should be addressing controlled growth hand-in-hand with our major institutions on an ongoing basis . 
 
Then again, we surmise they have, but it’s been back room dealings. That’s not true city planning. 
 
We are hoping our Councilmember Margaret Chin backs us on this one. She has fought for neighborhood preservation for years. A vibrant tourist destination, center of bohemian culture and arts, and center of LGBT movements - the history and future will vanish if this plan goes through. 
 
Hundreds of residents, business associations, even NYU graduate students, have stepped up to the plate to fight this plan. The Jane Jacob’s moment has arrived for NYU and I am part of that fight.  
 
TRAFFIC 
The WTC site is expected to be the most-visited tourist site in the world. It is beyond comprehension that NYC chose to site the 3-district sanitation garage not far away. To make matters worse, near the Holland Tunnel. The tourist traffic and buses will greatly impact downtown, including SoHo. 
 
Adding to the mix is the travesty of the Verrazano one-way toll which traffic avoids by bypassing through downtown. 
 
When I was vice-chair of CB2 Environment Committee, we knew the EPA monitors sited on Canal Street were conveniently always “broken” for a reason – because the air was so bad it would skew the average air quality results. Traffic that avoids tolls, tourist buses, increased sanitation vehicles, the closing off of Park Row - we are in for one big traffic jam and increased asthma statistics.
 
The community came to the City with an amazing innovative and eco-friendly redesign. Officials should be ashamed of the short shrift they gave to community input. Instead, they should have embraced the forward-looking design that the entire community supported. I am disappointed that our own officials did not come out swinging. 
 
We must wholeheartedly support the court appeal just filed by Tribeca and SoHo residents. 
 
RENT CONTROL AND STABILIZATION
No politician has the courage to touch this hot potato. But instead of an overhaul of the system, tweaking can be done. 
 
Elderly or disabled should have flexibility to move to apartment units on lower floors or are more accessible for their needs. Make it a win-win situation – structure owner tax abatements for allowing these tenants to move. It can be cheaper in the long run than the home care and increased medical needs that comes with living in such circumstances. 
 
SMALL BUSINESS
It does get tiring hearing how our officials will help small businesses. But ever talk to a small business owner and ask them what concrete help they have ever received? While Council Speaker Christine Quinn has tackled streamlining the permit and license process, we need more. 
 
The programs to bring relief are cumbersome, not well publicized, and have a lot of overhead costs. The city needs to think out of the box. Ideas such as Incentivizing owners with a lower property tax on their overall property that encourages renting to such businesses. It would be a direct, easier to follow benefit. The city keeps stores in business, the landlords get a benefit. The city loses tax revenue, but the benefits are great—local stores that benefit citizens, landlords incentivized, savings from reduced bureaucracy costs from the myriad of other plans that simply just don’t work. 
 
COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT
Community involvement often transitions into political awareness. Six months ago I became President of the Downtown Independent (DID), a volunteer position. DID offers a platform to fight for the community on many levels. 
 
The organization was founded almost 40 years ago and led the grassroots fight to legalize artist work/live lofts in SoHo. We must go back to that grassroots activism - to get to the future. 
 
Time has marched on, the issues have multiplied, population downtown has boomed, schools are overcrowded, 9-11 happened. We need to change too, but keep that spirit and determination that those who fought for our neighborhoods had. 
 
Now I am in a position, with a great team of volunteers, to advocate to elected officials and put the pedal to the metal to get good candidates elected. It is my job and our members to be a watchdog over our electeds. 
DID can laser focus on issues and choose where we can be the most help and raise the intensity level. We can serve as an advocate for our Community Boards and neighborhood groups, as with our positions on hydrofracking and the cultural center and mosque. 
 
I also strongly advocate on what I term the “orphan issues” that affect us all but don’t have a venue to be addressed or are not widely understood. 
 
Two examples if orphan issues on my list are credit card reform in NYS and NYC water rates. 
 
CREDIT CARD REFORM
Out-of-state credit card companies can charge 28-30% interest rates. If Federal Law does not allow us to change this in New York, let us set policies that a portion of our NYS and NYC investment funds get moved from these banks and put with banks that don’t charge these rates. This helps everyone. 
 
Massachusetts is doing it and inter-faith coalitions have called for this.  The differential in interest received on investments will be small compared to the  relief it gives our citizens. Instead of paying an out-of-state bank usury rates, that money can go to food, clothing and can be the difference between needing public assistance and not. 
 
I have talked with State Senator Daniel Squadron on credit card reform and he in turn has reached out to our State Comptroller. 
 
UTILITY RATES
Water rates have increased 70% over the last years. It is a back-door tax. 
 
NYC charges its own agency a ridiculous amount of rent - $350 million - for services (police, fire). Lowering this rent would have cut the last double-digit water increase more than half. If you are going to tax citizens, do it to our face, not through sleight of hand. 
 
Comptroller John Liu and others have taken up this issue. I remain dogged on water rates as it affects many rent-stabilization increases, the squeeze on middle-income coop/ condo owners, the pass-throughs to small businesses.

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