FORT GREENE — Letitia James received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions last year from two real estate entrepreneurs hoping to build a hotel on city land in Brooklyn — and just three days after pocketing their donations, she penned a glowing letter on their behalf to city officials deciding on the proposal, records show.
DNAinfo New York obtained a copy of the Jan. 14, 2013, letter in which James, then a city councilwoman running for public advocate, praised the proposal by David Belt, the head of Brooklyn-based development firm Macro Sea, and Craig Greenberg, the president of boutique resort chain 21c Museum Hotels.
Macro Sea and 21c were competing against other developers for the right to build on land in Fort Greene overseen by the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Macro Sea and 21c proposed constructing and operating a boutique hotel with a 24-hour contemporary art museum on the site known as BAM North II.
In James' missive, written on her City Council letterhead, she addressed Belt but sent it to then-HPD commissioner Mathew Wambua, whose agency would ultimately choose the wining proposal. The letter was included in Macro Sea and 21c's proposal package, which they formally submitted to HPD on Feb. 1, 2013.
James also sent a copy of the letter to Robert Steel, the city's then-deputy mayor for economic development, and to then-Borough President Marty Markowitz.
"A 21c Museum Hotel, with its unique sense of design and community involvement, would be a great addition to New York City and the borough," wrote James, who as a councilwoman represented the area up for development.
James added that the hotel "would bring a new energy to the burgeoning creative character of the surrounding area, and will support neighborhood institutions." She also wrote that the hotel "would bring much needed jobs to the local workforce."
Just days before sending the letter, James received $3,000 from Belt on Jan. 10 and Jan. 11, according to campaign finance records. Greenberg also donated $1,000 to her campaign on Jan. 8, records show. Belt also gave $1,000 to James' campaign on June 23, 2012.
James spokeswoman Aja Davis said in a statement that the public advocate did not make choices based on campaign donations.
“The Public Advocate’s actions in government are never determined by individuals who choose to support her campaign," Davis said.
Under the city's Campaign Finance Act, individuals trying to do business with the city are normally placed on a list limiting their maximum campaign donations to a citywide elected position to $400. But a clause in the law empowers HPD to use its discretion in determining whether individuals should be placed on the list.
HPD told DNAinfo that the agency doesn't consider individuals responding to its request for proposals as doing business with the city and doesn't place them on the list. The agency added that while letters of support are included in proposal packages, they are not taken into consideration in the evaluation process.
Belt runs a series of development companies with projects locally, nationally and internationally. In spring 2013 his firm Macro Sea became an anchor tenant of a revamped manufacturing facility in Brooklyn Navy Yards that received $18.5 million in public funding.
Campaign finance records show he has given generously to citywide campaigns. In 2011 he donated $4,950 to then City Council Speaker Christine Quinn's mayoral campaign. In July 2013 he contributed $2,475 to her. He also raised more than $48,000 in contributions for her as an intermediary, records show.
After Bill de Blasio won the mayoral primary in September 2013, Belt donated $4,950 to his campaign and raised nearly $20,000 for him as an intermediary.
Belt and 21c did not respond to requests for comment.
HPD announced a request for proposals for the BAM North II site in November 2012. The agency described the project as an opportunity to develop a 12,439-square-foot former parking lot on a "prime parcel in the Downtown Brooklyn Cultural District."
James was apparently sold on Macro Sea and 21c's proposal, describing it in her letter as a chance to "bring a world-class hotel and contemporary art collection to the community and provide Brooklyn residents with access to incredible cultural amenities."
The 21c Hotel proposal ultimately lost out to real estate firm Jonathan Rose Companies' plan to build a mixed-use development, offering affordable housing and cultural space. Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the winning proposal in October 2013.
James' support for the hotel was surprising because the need for more housing in the city had been a central theme of her campaign.
She had also been a vocal opponent of the $130 million BAM South development, another HPD development in her district, which she said didn't provide enough affordable housing.
Shortly before the City Council voted in June 2013 to approve BAM South, James pushed the developers, Two Trees Management, to increase the percentage of affordable housing in the project. She failed, but she managed to gain some affordable housing concessions from the city on other BAM North sites.
James' spokeswoman Davis said the public advocate has proven herself as an advocate for affordable housing.
"She has a longstanding record of taking on powerful developers based on her principled support for only fair and responsible development,” she said.