Behind the Crazy Upheaval at CB5 as an Open NY Rep Becomes New Chairman

Chelsea News, MICHAEL ORESKES, March, 24 2024 

A mysterious caller warned Community Board 5 back in October that the board had been “secretly infiltrated” by representatives of Open New York. Then in a chaotic week, Samir Lavingia, an Open NY staffer, catapulted from first vice chair to chair.

The disembodied voice emanated from a black zoom screen, the video off.

You are, the voice warned, being “secretly infiltrated.”

This chilling scene was not the opening of some sci-fi horror film. It was at an open meeting last October at the usually collegial Community Board Five on the West Side.

In the moment, last October no one reacted to the speaker. The meeting moved on. But within months the Board had descended into chaos, the chair and various members had resigned, and the gavel was passed to a new chair, Samir Lavingia who is a staff member of the very group the disembodied voice had warned against, Open New York.

The swift and surprising unraveling of CB5 has sent people back to the video of that October meeting in search of an explanation of what happened, or perhaps an understanding of a warning missed.

“I just wanted to speak to you today with a crucial message about an organization that has secretly infiltrated your community board all under the guise of advocating for affordable housing,” said the caller, who gave his name to the board as Mark Williams.

No one now seems quite able to say who Mark Williams is. But his message was succinct:

“Open New York, a group that claims to champion the cause of housing, has strategically placed several of its members on CB5 to further the interest of high-end property developers. Let me be clear. These individuals from Open New York are not here as volunteers like the rest of you, who genuinely care about our community. They are well trained developer advocates strategically positioned to push a pro developer agenda while pretending to advocate for housing.”

Open New York is part of what has come to be called the YIMBY movement–for Yes, In My Backyard, a counterweight to community resistance to projects like the ill-fated Amazon headquarters in Queens.

Its principal funder is the Open Philanthropy of Dustin Moskovitz, a co-founder of Facebook, and it is also supported by Trinity Church, which has made housing a major focus of its giving.

“Our City’s housing crisis has become undeniable to the majority of New Yorkers and their elected leadership,” said Open New York’s Executive Director, Annemarie Gray. “Open New York is a grassroots- and philanthropy-funded advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that every New Yorker has access to a safe, stable, high quality home they can afford.”

Open New York members and staff have been appointed to Community Boards in several boroughs. Community Boards are largely advisory yet influential. Most development and land use decisions in New York must pass before them.

CB5 has four members affiliated with Open New York.

“The problem is, when you have four people for a lobbyist group, they can really sway a vote,” said a member of Community Board 5, Charles Ny. “It’s really disappointing. We’re meant to be diverse and having four people with the same affiliation and ideology is not diversity.”

Open New York’s supporters stress that its goal is to make it easier to build new housing, not to benefit particular developers. The group, for example, is strongly advocating for legislative changes to make it easier for faith groups to develop housing on their property.

But the caller last October to CB 5 focused on how the Open New York affiliated members on the board had fought against landmark status for the Howard Building on Fifth Avenue and 47th Street, a venerable cornerstone of the Diamond District, that the Extell Development Corp. wanted to clear away as part of construction of either a hotel or luxury office tower.

“You may recall their work last month when they strongly advocated for the demolition of a potential landmark, clearing the path for Extell to erect yet another luxury supertall tower,” Williams reminded CB5. “Let’s not be deceived. Extell is not in the business of building affordable housing. Their argument that tearing down a potential landmark would somehow alleviate our housing crisis is not just absurd, it’s a deliberate distraction from their true agenda of enriching high-end developers.”

Lavingia, the new chair of CB 5 is a 29 year-old former software engineer at Google and Twitter and now the Campaign Coordinator for Open New York.

“While I did not expect to be thrust into this role, I will do my best to represent the residents, workers, businesses and anyone who otherwise passes through the district,” Lavingia wrote in a message to the Board. “My duty is to the business of the board of CB5.”

Connie Murray is a sceptic. She is an activist in western Queens and a self-described thorn in the side of Open New York.

“I’m probably one of the biggest critics of them here in New York,” she said. Thy are really anti-community and anti-tenant and one of their agenda points is to abolish the community-voice. Literally to remove aspects of democracy and to take over community boards.”

“This has been in the works for a long time,” she said.

Charles Ny says that he has tried to find Mark Williams. Williams, Ny says, did return to some subsequent meetings since his prophetic warning last October. “I hope he comes back in April,” Ny said.

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