Remembering the real estate leaders lost in 2023

Sam Zell, Richard Ravitch among notable figures who died last year

These Are the Real Estate Icons Who Died in 2023
Clockwise from left: Sam Zell, Mel Sembler, Peter Shea, Bill Morgan, Rafael Vinoly, Thierry Despont, Richard Ravitch, Nelson Rising, Steven Fisher (Illustration by The Real Deal)

As the calendar flips to 2024, The Real Deal is taking a moment to remember the real estate icons the industry lost last year.

To be sure, their professional legacies will continue to live on through the impacts they made on real estate. They built empires, reshaped cities and skylines, reimagined architecture, redefined luxury and changed dealmaking and how business gets done.

This list has been organized in chronological order.

Nelson Rising, the developer behind prominent projects in California, died of complications related to Alzheimer’s disease on Feb. 9 at 81. Rising spearheaded megaprojects like the U.S. Bank Tower in Downtown Los Angeles. He also helped revitalize Mission Bay in San Francisco and brought the Playa Vista neighborhood to life. Rising Realty Partners is now run by his son, Christopher.

Rafael Viñoly, the Uruguayan architect who shaped skylines around the world, died of an aneurysm on March 2 at 78. His most noteworthy designs in New York included signature projects at 432 Park and 125 Greenwich. He also designed the “Walkie-Talkie” building in London and the Tokyo International Forum.

H. Dale Hemmerdinger, who chaired ATCO Properties and led the Metropolitan Transit Authority during a tumultuous time, died following complications from post-Covid pneumonia on April 20 at 78. ATCO developed, owned and managed millions of square feet in New York during Hemmerdinger’s heyday. He also chaired the MTA from 2007 to 2009, setting records for on-time performance at a time the Great Recession was wreaking havoc locally.

Steven Fisher, a senior partner of New York City’s Fisher Brothers, died following complications from a medical procedure on May 1 at 63. Fisher was an executive at the fourth-generation family firm, overseeing construction and design for acquired properties. For a decade, Fisher led Plaza Construction, helping to morph the Fisher entity into a top competitor in the Big Apple.

John Cushman III, grandson of the Cushman & Wakefield founder, died on May 4 at 82. Cushman contributed to the family legacy by joining the commercial brokerage at 22 years old. After breaking away with Cushman Realty Corporation, Cushman became chairperson of C&W after his entity was acquired by the behemoth in 2001.

Sam Zell, a billionaire real estate investor who made it a habit to snag distressed real estate on the cheap, died on May 18 at 81. Zell founded multifamily real estate investment trust Equity Residential, amassing an empire of apartment buildings, offices and mobile homes. Zell sold Equity Office to Blackstone Group in 2007 for $39 billion, the largest private equity deal ever at the time. He also dabbled in media, buying the Tribune Company newspaper conglomerate for $8.2 billion in 2007.

Jerry Merriman, a Dallas architect who helped shape the city skyline, died following a battle with cancer on May 25 at 74. The founder of Merriman Anderson Architects helped redevelop and preserve dozens of landmarks downtown before calling it a career in 2020. The South Dakota native was behind revitalizations of the Statler Hotel, Lone Star Gas Building, Old Dallas High School, Tower Petroleum Building and the First National Bank Tower.

Adina Azarian, a Hamptons real estate agent, was killed in a plane crash on June 4 at 49. Azarian was founder and president of her own boutique firm, Adina Equities, for nearly 20 years. She ultimately pivoted to the East End, where she most recently served as an associate real estate broker at Keller Williams Points North. Her nanny and young daughter were also killed in the crash.

Milo Kleinberg, a commercial interior designer whose reputation made him the “King of the Garment District,” died on June 19 at 97. Kleinberg founded MKDA, a 75-person architecture and interior design firm based in New York. Kleinberg was known to design showrooms for fashion moguls such as Gloria Vanderbilt, though his firm also crafted retail and office spaces for companies like Citibank and Lufthansa.

Richard Ravitch, who played a critical role in the history of New York and New York City, died on June 25 at 89. Ravitch inherited HRH Construction, which built prominent apartment buildings such as San Remo and the Beresford. He also chaired the Metropolitan Transit Authority and briefly served as lieutenant governor under David Paterson.

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Angelo Mozilo, a leader of a top mortgage lender whose reputation was tarnished by the 2008 financial crisis, died on July 16 at 84. Mozilo helped found Countrywide Financial, building it into one of the nation’s largest mortgage lenders. The company had a proclivity to make risky loans, which turned Mozilo into one of the boogeymen of the Great Recession.

Thierry Despont, a renowned French architect, died on Aug. 13 at 75. Despont designed homes for the rich and famous, but also lent a hand in some of the more iconic projects in New York City. He was an associate architect for the restoration of the Statue of Liberty and converted the Battery Maritime Building.

Bartlett Cocke Jr., founder of one of Central Texas’ largest construction firms, died on Sept. 2 at 93. His San Antonio-based firm played a role in constructing prominent landmarks, such as the site of the 1968 World’s Fair. Projects in Austin include renovations of Austin Community College’s Rio Grande Campus and the Linden, a 28-story residential property on the edge of downtown Austin.

Wayne Ratkovich, a prominent developer in Downtown and West Los Angeles, died of complications from an aortic aneurysm on Sept. 24 at 82. The founder of The Ratkovich Company was instrumental in redeveloping Los Angeles’ historic buildings while spearheading developments in Playa Vista and San Pedro. The Bloc in Downtown L.A. and the Google campus in Playa Vista were among his significant developments.

Bill Morgan, who survived the Holocaust and went on to found Houston-based multifamily developer Morgan Group, died on Oct. 15 at 98. Morgan escaped the Stanislawow ghetto in the midst of World War II, posing as a farm laborer under a false identity. He arrived in the United States in 1949 and launched the predecessor to the Morgan Group in 1959; the company is one of the largest multifamily developers in Houston.

Peter Shea, a real estate developer whose family firm built tens of thousands of homes across nearly a dozen states, died after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease on Oct. 23 at 88. Shea served as vice president of J.F. Shea, the family construction and development company. Besides homes, the firm helped build the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge and countless freeways.

Mel Sembler, a real estate developer who doubled as a prominent Republican fundraiser, died of lung cancer on Oct. 31 at 93. Sembler developed more than 350 shopping centers and retail projects across the Southeast. He also helped create a chain of residential drug treatment centers for adolescents, known as Straight Inc. Controversy and legal issues led to the closure of the program in 1993.

Artem Tepler, co-founder of multifamily developer and investor Schon Tepler, died by suicide on Nov. 1 at 41. Tepler, a native of Serbia, made his first real estate investment when he was 23 and went on to form his firm in 2009. The company has completed 22 ground-up multifamily developments across Los Angeles, four custom homes, four mixed-use projects and more. 

Zach Muckleroy, the CEO of a Fort Worth construction company, died in a car accident on Nov. 22 at 44; his two children also died in the three-car collision, while Mickleroy’s wife was seriously injured. Muckleroy led Muckleroy & Falls Construction, a firm founded by his father in 1979. He joined the family business in 2009, ascending to CEO three years ago.

Alberto Vadia, who played parts in the village of Wellington — where he was the master developer — Midtown Miami and South Miami died on Nov. 29 at 76. The under-the-radar Cuban-born developer apprenticed under the late Robert Traurig and went on to work closely with his younger son, Midtown Opportunities’ Alex Vadia.

Marc Berson, a key figure in the development of Newark, died following a short illness on Dec. 2 at 79. Berson founded the Fidelco Group in 1981, which has owned and developed commercial assets in several states, including New Jersey. In addition to the firm’s developments, Berson advised on other projects, including Newark’s first major apartment development in four decades and a film studio site set to be operated by Lionsgate.

Jeremy Farrell, an executive of tri-state property owner LeFrak Organization, died suddenly on Dec. 4 at 44. Farrell was an executive with the developer for five years and was previously chief counsel for Jersey City. At LeFrak, Farrell was special counsel and senior managing director of community and government affairs. 

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