The Real Deal New York

The composer of smart cities

In his debut book, developer Jonathan Rose lays out a grand vision for metropolises

November 01, 2016
By Elizabeth Kim

Johnathan Rose (Photo by Catherine Gibbons)

Johnathan Rose (Photo by Catherine Gibbons)

In 1963, Rose Associates, led by its second-generation patriarch, Frederick Rose, was closing in on a huge triumph: the completion of 280 Park Avenue, an Emery Roth-designed building in Midtown that was to be the company’s first office tower and would later become the headquarters of Bankers Trust. Amid all the hubbub, an 11-year-old Jonathan Rose was focused on a much lower-profile project. Just 10 miles north but worlds away from the gilded environs of Park Avenue, Rose Associates was working on an affordable housing complex, built under the state’s Mitchell-Lama program, called Bronx Evergreen Gardens. To the young Rose, who had regularly visited the construction site and observed the hopeful faces of the many low-income families walking into the leasing office with their housing applications, this was the development that mattered and excited his boyhood sense of possibility. 

“I felt it was making a bigger difference in people’s lives,” he said recently during an interview with The Real Deal.

That youthful appraisal turned out to be a sign of things to come. Today, the 64-year-old developer is one of the most respected for-profit builders of sustainable and socially conscious designs in the country. Most recently, he was one of the developers of an $83 million charter school and affordable housing development in East Harlem that opened last fall. Jonathan Rose Companies, which he founded in 1989, is also an active investor. This past January, it purchased Forest City Ratner’s stake in 47 affordable housing communities as part of an $80 million deal.

Now, Rose — whose vast policy credentials include being part of the team tapped by the Clinton administration in the 1990s that coined the term “smart growth”— has added the role of author to his résumé.

“The Well-Tempered City,” published in September by Harper Wave, surveys the long history of city planning — from Mesopotamian times to the present — and the challenges facing cities. Rather than focus on his own endeavors, Rose is targeting a broader audience of urbanophiles. As the book jacket states, his goal is to join the urban planning canon that includes Jane Jacobs’  “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” and Edward Glaeser’s “Triumph of the City.” It’s a gutsy aspiration, and “The Well-Tempered City” — which takes its title and inspiration from Johann Sebastian Bach’s tuning and music manual “The Well-Tempered Clavier” — delivers in terms of dizzying breadth. In roughly 400 pages, Rose weaves in history, scientific doctrines, current events and policy examples from New Delhi to New York. Early on, he argues that city dwellers these days have a right to have high expectations, reeling off a list of nearly 30 urban policy achievements — Finland’s public education system, Copenhagen’s biking culture, New York City’s arts and culture and Hong Kong’s subway system, to name a few. “Each of these aspects of a well-tempered city exists today, and is continually improving,” he argues. “Put them together as interconnected systems and their metropolitan regions will evolve into happier, more prosperous, regenerative cities.”

Well-Tempered-CitySuch optimism comes at a good time. We are still in the throes of a love affair with cities, but it is at risk of succumbing to disenchantment. In recent years, there have been reports that millennials are not so much enthralled by cities as they are stuck in them because of an inability to save and the lack of job opportunities elsewhere. Yet retreat is not the solution. While they may be plagued with inequality, urban centers are ultimately the engines of economic growth. Today, more than 50 percent of the world’s population lives in cities, generating more than 80 percent of the global GDP, according to the World Bank.

As Rose states in the book, “Cities are the nodes of civilization.”

But while he lays out a grand vision, he tempers it with the cold hard facts of modern realities. The truth is that the odds are increasingly stacked against the success of big cities, which are faced with what he refers to as “megatrends” such as rising inequality, terrorism, overpopulation, resource constraints, and climate change. These are heady problems indeed, which require smart and progressive governments willing to set long-horizon goals.

By approaching cities from such a sweeping global and historic perspective, Rose inevitably gives short shrift to his own experiences as a developer and planning consultant, although there are fortunately several passages on his project in the South Bronx called Via Verde, which is considered a national model for mixed-income green housing. The development involved a sustainable and architecturally appealing design that also addressed the community’s persistent problems of asthma, obesity and lack of fresh produce. A longer case study would have been interesting and enlightening. But it’s an admittedly tricky position for a first-time author striving to write a book that is about ideas rather than himself.

Still, even with that constraint, the work nevertheless feels deeply personal. Having been an evangelist for green building in the 1990s, Rose has since expanded his gospel to focus on creating mixed-income communities, with an eye toward balancing financial goals with good social outcomes. A child of the Civil Rights era, he was clearly shaped by the country’s entrenched racism and how different communities in the U.S. dealt with remedying it. He cites the paths of Detroit and Louisville as compelling examples of how inequality works against cities.

During the early 1970s, the two cities took polar-opposite approaches in addressing federally mandated school desegregation. In Detroit, suburban whites rioted and fled the city in droves, and the city’s busing plan was ultimately overturned in a landmark Supreme Court decision. Meanwhile, Louisville, led by two prominent families, urged integration. Today, the city boasts both racial and economic diversity as well as a quality school system, according to Rose. Detroit, meanwhile, wound up more segregated and economically depressed. In 2006, the city’s public school population was 91 percent black and 3 percent white.

Last month, from his offices inside the landmark Fred F. French Building at 551 Fifth Avenue, Rose, whose demeanor resembles that of an impassioned history professor, recounted the story of Louisville as a triumph of altruism. He himself grew up with a Republican father who was famously philanthropic, built affordable housing out of social responsibility, and a Democratic mother who regularly drove her station wagon to bring blacks to voting booths in Westchester, and worked on improving literacy in the inner cities. At the time, none of this seemed especially remarkable. Repeating the title of a section in the book, he said, “We’re all in this together.”

There’s a risk of sounding Pollyanish with such a plea. But given the times, it feels fitting and genuine, made by a developer who as a boy saw a housing complex for the poor as more important than a Park Avenue office tower.

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