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How Stephen Ross Became the Most Powerful City-Shaper Since Robert Moses

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19.02.2019

“How do you get people to move to this wasteland?” asks Stephen Ross, speaking rhetorically in what I would come to think of as his PowerPoint mode. We’re on the 24th-floor sales office of 10 Hudson Yards, and I’m trying to not be too distractedly beguiled by the floor-to-ceiling view of this soon-to-open pop-up metropolis he’s building all around us in what was, not so long ago, a blustery infrastructural trainscape, a place you’d probably go only if you needed to catch a Bolt Bus to Boston.

Ross, the 78-year-old founder and chairman of the real-estate-development firm the Related Companies, is the man behind the curtain in this Oz. Hudson Yards is the largest and most expensive real-estate project in America — 28 acres, at almost a billion dollars an acre. A strenuously engineered and resourcefully financed marvel, it was set in motion by the Bloomberg administration, which saw the northern terminus of the High Line as a good place for residential high-rises and office towers. But it was Ross who built it into what my colleague Justin Davidson refers to as a veritable nation-state, making Ross, just possibly and for this moment, the most powerful man in New York, a Robert Moses for our age of concierge mega-urbanism.

“Ross and Related were the only ones who could pull this off,” says Dan Doctoroff, the former deputy mayor for economic development under Mayor Bloomberg, who helped negotiate the deal for the site. (Doctoroff now runs the Google-owned techno-urbanism venture Sidewalk Labs, which happens to have its offices in 10 Hudson Yards.) He has his Ross theories. “Steve is a relentless optimist. He’s just building a new house for himself. He’s 78 years old. And he’ll enjoy it until he can’t.”

As far as billionaire Manhattan real-estate developers go, Ross is no Donald Trump, no dissembling, gold-plated media-hog princeling putting his name on things he doesn’t own and watching his company totter in and out of bankruptcy. (The two know each other, of course, though Ross declines to discuss him. “I don’t like Donald, okay, we can stop there. We’d be here all day.”) Rather, he’s what Trump used to play on TV: a vastly wealthy — he’s worth $7.7 billion, according to Forbes — notoriously obstreperous — one former city official I spoke with called him “the toughest developer I’ve ever had to deal with” and didn’t mean that admiringly — and obsessive real-estate deal-maker.

He got here in part by building things that other developers found unglamorous, like affordable housing and big-box retailers. He has also, by many accounts, created a development machine unlike any the city has ever seen: highly competitive, vertically integrated, and international. He modeled his corporate culture on Wall Street, where he worked for two years without much success. (He was quickly fired, twice.) “They were able to introduce investment-banking-level human capital into the real-estate business,” says Jed Walentas, CEO of Two Trees, which is developing its own not-quite-as-mega megaproject on Williamsburg’s waterfront at the Domino Sugar site. “They recognized the talent. Before that it was a couple people in an office. They give a shit about what they are doing, and they’re in it for the long term.” Ross incentivizes his top people with partnerships.

He has a banker’s knack for financing, whether it’s from working the various government tax subsidies for affordable housing or seeking overseas cash. (Related has raised over $600 million for Hudson Yards through the controversial EB-5 visa program, which gives foreign investors residency status.) He’s also a lawyer and as meticulous about contractual details as he is about what wood is used in the lobby trim.

Even his seeming vanity projects are........

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