Kenneth Patton, who lead the Real Estate Board of New York and for many years served as Harry Helmsley’s right-hand man, died last week. He was 87.
The nearly 50-year industry veteran played an instrumental role in some of the city’s most iconic developments including Yankee Stadium and the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Until 2009, he worked at New York University‘s Schack Institute of Real Estate, at different points serving as both dean and an interim special advisor. Before that, he was the chief operating officer of Helmsley Spear — where he was said to have brokered more than $1 billion worth of deals — and president of REBNY. He was also the founding administrator of the city’s Economic Development Corporation.
Bob Shapiro, a current member of REBNY’s Board of Governors and the founder of City Center Real Estate, knew Patton since he joined New York City Mayor John Lindsay’s administration in the late 1960s.
“John Lindsay called him up and said, ‘I want to hire you to save New York and start the Economic Development Corporation,’” Shapiro recalled. Under Patton, the EDC designated 2,000 acres of land for urban industrial parks, and oversaw the construction of the 60-acre food distribution center Hunts Point Cooperative Market and the South Street Restoration.
“He was a walking historical encyclopedia of New York,” Shapiro said.
Larry Silverstein, chief executive of Silverstein Properties, echoed Shapiro’s memory and said he first met Patton when he was serving as the president of the REBNY in 1973. In the 1990s — after a 13-year stint at Helmsley Spear — Silverstein brought him on to lead the NYU Real Estate Institute. Under Patton, the program, which came to be known as the NYU Schack Institute, tripled in enrollment.
“He was a man of all seasons and all capabilities when it came to real estate,” Silverstein said.
Patton didn’t always think real estate was his calling. The Teaneck, New Jersey-native graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and sought to be an engineer before switching fields, according to his wife, Helene Patton. His first foray into civic life was in the late 1960s, as a local activist in Brooklyn. He served as president of one of the borough’s first block associations and was the founding chairman of the Brownstone Revival Committee.
Two years ago while visiting France, Patton suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed on his left side. Until that point, Patton and his wife split their time between France, Florida and New York, where they lived on the Upper East Side.
Helene — who was raised in Cannes, France, and moved to New York as an architect — said she first met Patton at a dinner party in Brooklyn Heights in November 1959.
“We talked at the dinner, he said ‘Do you ski?’ I said ‘yes, I am a skier.’ And he said ‘my ski club is having a cocktail party,’” Helene recounted. “And that was it.”
The couple married in 1961, and had two boys soon after. To cater for a growing household, they moved into a Park Slope brownstone with a two-car garage, for which they paid $25,000, Helene said. Now aged in their 50s, the couple’s sons each have two children each of their own.
“He was able to foresee problems and say, ‘No don’t do that, because this, this and this will happen,’” Helene said. “And that would always help anybody.”
His willingness to mentor others was reflected in his civic commitments. Even after he retired from full-time work, Patton continued to serve on as many as 20 boards and had time for anyone who sought wisdom, according to Victoria Bailey, the executive director of the Theatre Development Fund.
When the nonprofit was looking to build the iconic red stairs in Times Square as a way to bring attention to its new TKTS Discount Booth, Bailey said Patton, a board member, was key in navigating the intricate politics of building something in the middle of the city’s most famous intersection.
During its construction, while the city was in the throes of the 2008 financial crisis, the pair would often split a sandwich at a nearby deli, Bailey recalled. She said that one day they were walking past the former Lehman Brothers building at 745 Seventh Avenue when she expressed concern about the future of the city.
Patton told her: “Look around, New York’s not going anywhere.”