Dismantling the boys’ club

A roundup of some of the most influential women in NYC real estate investment and development

Mar.March 01, 2013 07:00 AM

Wendy Silverstein

The New York City real estate community took notice when news broke in late January about MaryAnne Gilmartin’s expected promotion to CEO of Forest City Ratner. While women — including the Corcoran Group’s Pamela Liebman, Douglas Elliman’s Dottie Herman, Eastern Consolidated’s Daun Paris and CBRE Group’s Mary Ann Tighe — hold key leadership positions in the city’s residential and commercial brokerage worlds, New York still has very few female developers or development firm heads.

“If you think about how traditional [deals have been done], it’s through relationships — an old boys’ network,” said Brittany Bragg, the chief operating officer of Crown Acquisitions.

One reason for that is a lack of female mentors in the traditionally male-dominated field of development, she said. And many developers start out in construction — another industry that has historically attracted few women.

But Gilmartin and a wave of other powerhouse women are dismantling this long-standing boys’ club. From veterans like Amy Rose of Rose Associates to newcomers like Bragg, female executives are beginning to break new barriers in the development arena.

Development “is a tremendous opportunity for talented women,” said Laurie Golub, HFZ Capital Group’s general counsel and COO. “The glass ceiling is only there if you look for it.”

This month, The Real Deal talked to some of the most influential women in the New York City development and commercial investment world to find out how they got where they are and what challenges they’ve faced along the way.

Wendy Silverstein

executive vice president and cohead of acquisitions and capital markets, Vornado Realty Trust

With a portfolio of over 100 million square feet, Vornado is one of the country’s largest owners and managers of commercial real estate. And Wendy Silverstein has been a head honcho there for nearly 15 years.

Silverstein (who is not related to real estate mogul Larry Silverstein) told TRD she met Vornado CEO Steven Roth while working in the real estate group at Citibank in the 1990s and eventually joined him at Vornado.

As Vornado’s cohead of acquisitions and capital markets, Silverstein’s specialty is negotiating the debt and equity elements of deals.

In one especially profitable deal she spearheaded, Vornado and four other partners in 2010 recapitalized the struggling LNR Property, one of the largest commercial loan servicers in the country. The four partners invested a total of $417 million in LNR, with Vornado contributing $116 million and retaining a 26.2 percent stake in the company. The servicer was sold in January to Starwood Property as part of a $1.05 billion deal, netting “a substantial profit” for Vornado, Silverstein said.

(Vornado said in a statement it expects to receive net proceeds of $241 million from the transaction.)

Cushman & Wakefield’s Nat Rockett said she is “very well respected.”

“She’s a very smart person [who] knows her business very well,” he said.


Amy Rose

Amy Rose

copresident, Rose Associates

Amy Rose may be copresident of Rose Associates, her family’s property management and development company, but she had to work her way up.

Rose Associates was founded 88 years ago by Amy’s great-uncle, David Rose, and grandfather, Samuel Rose. Amy spent her childhood visiting the company’s leasing offices with her father Elihu, who is now Rose Associates’ vice chairman. She also interned in the company’s co-op and condo department while in college at the University of Michigan.

But Elihu “had a firm belief that if you came to work here, you had to have a real job,” Amy recalled. So when she graduated, she was hired by the company as an assistant project manager in construction. Twenty-four years later, she heads the firm with her cousin, copresident Adam Rose.

Amy oversees the company’s leasing, property management, development and marketing. Adam, lately, has been managing Rose Associates’ 70 Pine Street development. Rose acquired 70 Pine Street (American International Group’s former headquarters) in August from Nathan Berman’s Metro Loft Management and is reportedly converting the 66-story building into some 1,000 rental apartments.

As for Amy, she said of herself, “The thing I’m most proud of in my career [is] working on those ground-up development projects that shape the New York skyline.”

Indeed, she’s been heavily involved in the development of the Larstrand — a 181-unit, 20-story rental development at 227 West 77th Street. Construction began there after Rose Associates received a $125 million construction loan in October 2011. Rose reportedly plans to charge between $80 and $90 per square foot for market-rate units, while 37 of the units will be designated as affordable housing.


Laurie Golub

general counsel and COO, HFZ Capital Group

Laurie Golub was a child when she was first exposed to the world of real estate, attending showings with her mom, a real estate agent in Westchester County.

But after graduating from Boston University, Golub went on to law school at New York University. It was while she was working on real estate deals as a corporate attorney at law firm Morrison Cohen that her interest in development began in earnest. So she took a job as associate general counsel at Forest City Ratner.

While there, Golub led negotiations for the $400 million deal for the naming rights of the Barclays Center. She worked closely with Gilmartin, who oversaw the project (see related story, “MaryAnne’s moment”).

Golub then moved to Lev Leviev’s Africa Israel, where she was general counsel and managing director of business affairs. She was tasked with paring down debt at major properties such as the 589,617-square-foot former New York Times building at 229 West 43rd Street, the 267,000-square-foot Clock Tower at 5 Madison Avenue (which was formerly occupied by Metropolitan Life Insurance) and the Miami Marquis at 1100 Biscayne Boulevard in Miami.

“Those were hugely complex deals,” Golub said. Indeed, the former New York Times Building became a “poster child of the recession,” she noted, after Africa Israel paid a stunning $525 million for it in 2007, then saw its value plummet during the downturn. The company planned to convert the property, but instead ended up selling and leasing portions of the building.

In May, Golub jumped to Ziel Feldman’s development and investment firm HFZ Capital Group, where she is working on about 15 projects in various stages of development. In January, HFZ purchased the prewar rental building the Chatsworth at 344 West 72nd Street for $150 million.

The company is planning an “ambitious renovation” of the historic property, according to a statement released by Eastern Consolidated, which represented the seller, Chatsworth Realty, in the transaction.

HFZ also recently acquired an office building at 11 Beach Street in Tribeca, which it’s planning to convert into residences.

Feldman described Golub as an “integral part of the company.”

He hired her because of her “ability and knowledge of the law with respect to acquisitions and real estate,” he said. “She presents a very good face for the company.”


Veronica Hackett

chief development manager, Lightstone Group

Veronica “Ronne” Hackett is perhaps best known as cofounder of the Clarett Group, a well-known Manhattan development firm that ceased operations in 2011.

Now, however, she is chief development manager at the Lightstone Group, where she is overseeing the firm’s high-profile 770-unit rental development overlooking the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn.

Hackett, who declined to comment for this story, reportedly got her start in real estate in 1970 at Citibank’s real estate group.

After stints at Chemical Bank and development firm Park Tower Realty, she and the late Neil Klarfeld, Park Tower’s executive vice president, struck out on their own, founding the Clarett Group in 2000. The company is known for projects such as the Brooklyner, a 491-unit rental building at 111 Lawrence Street in Brooklyn, which is currently the tallest building in the borough.

But the firm ran into trouble during the economic downturn with projects such as the Forté at 230 Ashland Place in Downtown Brooklyn. The 108-unit condo development was only 37 percent sold in August 2009 when the Clarett Group handed control of the project over to Eurohypo bank.

Clarett dissolved in March 2011. Immediately before the firm ceased operations, Hackett moved to Brookfield Office Properties, where she served as head of U.S. development and worked on the company’s 5.4 million-square-foot Manhattan West mixed-use development near Hudson Yards on the Far West Side.

She started at Lightstone in 2012. The firm’s 770-unit development — located on Bond Street in Gowanus — has made headlines recently because of its proximity to the polluted canal, which has sparked objections from local politicians and residents.

Notwithstanding Clarett’s troubles during the real estate downturn, Hackett is “outstanding” and “a straight shooter,” said Adelaide Polsinelli, a senior director at Eastern Consolidated, who worked with Hackett while she was at Clarett.

“Her contributions were really significant,” Polsinelli said.

Melissa Pianko

executive vice president of development, Gotham Organization

Melissa Pianko is spearheading the Gotham Organization’s four-building Gotham West rental project on the Far West Side, which is reportedly the largest-ever affordable housing project undertaken in New York City by a private developer.

When completed, the $520 million, 1,240-unit complex, which is slated to begin leasing this summer, will span almost an entire city block — from 10th to 11th avenues, between West 44th and West 45th streets.

Pianko has overseen Gotham West since it was a “piece of dirt,” starting with securing a $530 million construction loan from Wells Fargo at a time when “no one was lending any money for anything in New York,” she recalled.

Pianko, who has an M.B.A. from Stanford University, started her career as an analyst at Goldman Sachs, first in municipal finance and then in real estate investment banking. But Pianko, who had taken architecture courses in college, found that she really wanted to be on the developer’s side of the table.

David Picket, Gotham’s president, said he hired Pianko as a junior “numbers person” in 2005. Her rise through the company’s ranks since then is largely the result of her own initiative, he said, noting that she asked to be the point person on the Gotham West project. At the time, the project was not at the top of the firm’s priority list.

“It might have fallen between the cracks if it wasn’t for her persistence,” Picket said.

Pianko is “a force of nature,” he added. “She’s an unbelievable multitasker. She’s very good at the empirical skills, the analytical skills and the people skills. She’s the total package.”

For her part, Pianko said she loves development because “every step along the way is different.

“With Gotham West, [I got to] dip my toe in the pond with all sorts of different things,” she said, including the design issues involved in building what she describes as a “little city,” and the “many layers of [city] regulations” that affect a project of such a large scale.


Leslie Wohlman Himmel

managing partner, Himmel + Meringoff Properties

Leslie Wohlman Himmel is the cofounder of real estate investment firm Himmel + Meringoff Properties, which owns more than 2 million square feet of commercial real estate in the New York City area valued at more than $500 million.

Himmel and longtime business partner Stephen Meringoff started the company in 1985. Himmel said the two met in a class at New York University on a day when late real estate titan Harry Helmsley was a guest speaker. In what was perhaps a sign of the times, when Himmel asked Helmsley what his greatest accomplishment was, he replied: “What are you doing later tonight?” Nonetheless, Meringoff was impressed by Himmel’s moxie, and the two became business partners a short time later.

Himmel + Meringoff owns about 20 buildings in Manhattan, including the 170,000-square-foot office building 729 Seventh Avenue and the 97,000-square-foot 411 Lafayette Street. Himmel focuses on finding financing and acquisition opportunities for the company, while Meringoff manages leasing, construction and renovation. But Himmel said when it comes to negotiating the purchase of a new building, financing purchase contracts and any legal aspects, she and Meringoff always work together.

Recently, the two sold the 108,000-square-foot office building 158 West 27th Street for a reported $57.5 million — more than double the $25 million they paid for it in 2010.

However, Himmel said they are generally “reluctant sellers,” and prefer to hold onto their properties more long-term.

In the 28 years since Himmel and Meringoff have been partners, the two “have never had a harsh word,” Meringoff said. “She’s absolutely the best partner you can have.”


Brittany Bragg

COO, Crown Acquisitions

Up-and-coming development executive Brittany Bragg, 30, was hired as COO at Crown Acquisitions three years ago.

The young executive had previously worked as Acadia Realty Trust’s director of acquisitions, where she said she found “phenomenal mentors” in Acadia’s CEO Kenneth Bernstein and executive vice president Joel Braun.

Like many real estate development firms in New York, Crown is a male-dominated, family-owned business, headed by founder Stanley Chera and his three sons. Sometimes it’s just “me and 50- and 60-year-old guys having scotch and cigars,” said Bragg, who is the only nonfamily executive at the 32-person company.

But she said it’s a credit to the Cheras that they were willing to take a chance on an outsider. “There aren’t a lot of third-generation family businesses that take in a twentysomething-year-old woman and value what they can bring,” she said.

Crown’s managing principal, Haim Chera, said the family worked with Bragg on a transaction while she was at Acadia. Although the deal never went through, Chera said, they were impressed with her. While their initial instinct was to not hire outside the family, he said, “for us, chemistry is a big thing, and we saw chemistry with her early on.”

Bragg’s responsibilities at the firm have grown over time. Initially, she said, she worked on the equity and fundraising side, but now she’s negotiating the financing of major acquisitions such as Crown’s recent deal to purchase a 49.9 percent stake in the Olympic Tower complex, a group of four buildings on Fifth Avenue reportedly valued at $1 billion.

Bragg played an “invaluable role” in getting the deal done, Chera said.


Raizy Haas

senior vice president of project management and development, Extell Development

Extell Development is currently one of the most active development firms in New York City, and sources said Haas is instrumental to operations at the firm, spearheading high-profile projects such as new construction condos the Lucida, the Orion, Altair (both 18 and 20) and Ariel (both East and West).

Up until the mid-2000s, in fact, Haas oversaw all of Extell’s day-to-day development work, according to attorney Paul Selver of the law firm Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel, who frequently works with Extell.

Haas is “easily one of the smartest people I work with,” Selver said.

Haas could not be reached for comment, but Extell spokesperson George Arzt told TRD that she led Extell’s $750 million 34-story, 748,000-square-foot International Gem Tower project from start to finish.

Of all of Haas’s projects, “Gem Tower stands out because it was a very insular [deal], and there were a lot of challenges getting the city, state and federal government involved,” Arzt said.

Reportedly raised in a Hasidic community in Borough Park, Brooklyn — where she still lives with her husband and children — Haas was hired as a property manager in the Diamond District after graduating from high school. That’s where she met Extell founder Gary Barnett, who worked in the diamond business himself before transitioning into real estate. He was impressed with her knowledge of real estate and hired her in 1998.

Michele Kleier of residential brokerage firm Kleier Residential has worked with Haas while marketing apartments at Extell projects like the Lucida.

“[Extell’s] very fortunate to have her,” Kleier said. “She gets very involved and comes up with good ideas and strategies. There’s nobody in development I’d rather have lunch with than Raizy.”

Correction: A previously published version of this story said that Nat Rockett worked with Wendy Silverstein on the conversion of the Knickerbocker Hotel. Vornado and Silverstein were not involved in the Knickerbocker’s conversion.  

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