During the final months of his 2010 campaign for governor, Andrew Cuomo, the former United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, found himself high above Manhattan, sitting across a table from Stephen Ross.
To most political analysts and voters, Mr. Cuomo’s gubernatorial ascendance was already a foregone conclusion, thanks, perhaps, to the precision of an inner circle jam-packed with believers plucked from HUD and the attorney general’s office, yes, but also to a thick core of purple-veined veterans tied to dad Mario’s 11-year reign. News a year earlier that President Obama secretly implored Mr. Cuomo’s predecessor, David Paterson, to withdraw from the race—followed later by indications that his Republican opponent Carl Paladino was beginning to unravel—hardly hurt the frontrunner’s momentum.
And so it was with considerable wind beneath his wings, and goodwill to burn, that Mr. Cuomo rode an elevator to the top of 60 Columbus Circle, the building Mr. Ross and his Related Companies developed against considerable odds seven years earlier, near the apex of the real estate bubble. Yet despite an approval rating of 61 percent, the all-but-certain governor-in-waiting still faced one last force: the Real Estate Board of New York and 20 members of its executive committee.
“These were all principals,” said one person familiar with the gathering. “And it was obvious to everybody there that he was going to be governor. The race was over.”
The meeting drew the city’s most important names in real estate, not least of all Leonard Litwin, the 97-year-old billionaire who last year poured more cash into New York’s political coffers than anyone else in the state, including $76,000 to Mr. Cuomo. Others included Douglas Durst, whose Bank of America Tower had recently snagged the country’s first-ever LEED Platinum certification for an office building, and Burt Resnick, the heir to his dad’s 85-year-old, family-owned real estate empire.
Yet despite whatever combined wealth filled that room, or which accolades dizzied equilibriums, or what euphoria the soon-to-be governor provoked, it was Mr. Ross, REBNY’s chairman emeritus, who controlled the room that day. Indeed, before the committee members could object, Messrs. Ross and Cuomo had already vanished.
“And so we’re sitting there with no Steve Ross and no Governor Cuomo for at least a half an hour—if not more—and then finally Steve Ross ushers the governor into the room,” recalled another attendee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It was probably about 45 minutes—his own private meeting—while all of us people who had thought we were pretty important sat there and basically just held our heels.”
“And so,” added the executive committee member, after a short pause and a stiff laugh, “we continued to hold Steve Ross in the high esteem that we’ve always had.”
What so impressed (or, perhaps, riled) Mr. Ross’s contemporaries that day wasn’t the length of time the Detroit native spent whispering into Mr. Cuomo’s ear—though that no doubt hammered home the point—but, rather, the specter of what glorious chits such an intimate chat with the future governor might one day bring. (That City Council Speaker Christine Quinn eventually helped carved a portion of the Related Companies’ 26-acre, mixed-use Hudson Yards project out of the living wage plan this year probably didn’t assuage worries some had of Mr. Ross’s ability to cash his chits.)
But whether speaking of Mr. Ross and his pipeline to Governor Cuomo, revelations that Senator Charles Schumer lobbied on behalf of the Durst Organization at 1 World Trade, or, more plainly, the ability to tell Arsenio Hall “You’re fired!” on national TV, the underlying virtues of power in New York’s real estate industry remain the same.
“Access and influence—that’s all there is to it. That’s the whole thing,” said one top real estate broker when asked what formula he uses to calculate power. “Can you influence the outcome of certain things and do you have access to the people who can help you push your agenda forward—and that’s whether you’re a developer, a broker, a politician or whatever. That’s what determines how powerful you are.”
Since 2008, when The New York Observer launched its annual Power 100 rankings, the mighty stick has shifted from Mr. Ross, who earned the coveted top position the same year as his meeting with Mr. Cuomo, to Douglas and Jody Durst, the nation’s two most thrilling arguments for sustainable development. It has included heretofore nobodies like Sam Zell before he acquired the Tribune Company while also projecting second thoughts on icons such as Daniel Tishman, who ranked No. 62 on the list in 2010, only to fall off entirely in 2011 and then re-enter the fold this year at No. 85.
All the while, the city’s real estate elite has been swimming against an economic tide. Ever since 2008, in fact, the list has been more notable for who drowned than who swam ashore. In 2009, for example, President Obama ranked No. 1 while fellow public servants also rose in power, thanks to a widespread belief that the so-called Great Recession might soon be fixed. And yet, as a whole, the list has always been more notable for its clubby nature—and 2012 is hardly an exception.
Of the 168 names on the list, nearly 65 percent hail from either multigenerational real estate dynasties or, inversely, financial services firms. The remaining inductees consist of brokers, lawyers, politicians and other professionals. Yet despite the imbalance, machers like Scott Rechler, Mary Ann Tighe and Howard Lutnick hold their own against the established Resnicks, Zeckendorfs and Fishers of the real estate world.
In short, cultivating the Power 100 has always been a combination of subjective reasoning, gimmickry and wishful thinking. As much as headlines influence rankings—like those behind Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev’s $88 million condo purchase at 15 Central Park West—so too does hard work, quantifiable evidence, recent awards and a wealth of other indicators, promotions and anecdotes not so easily explained.
What hardly ever drives change are the people behind the people behind the city’s 8.5 billion square feet of bricks. Nonetheless, as early as March each year, the city’s most aggressive public relations agents—or flacks as they’re often called, thanks to a collective talent to catch just that from clients—take to phones and email to generate the gospel. In some cases, they accentuate the net worth of their clients; in other instances, career or annual square footage is emphasized.
For real estate professionals whose numbers fail to impress, there are other tactics. To be sure, last month alone reporters at The Commercial Observer weathered a flurry of light threats and bribes, including promises of baseball tickets, dinners, lunches and breakfasts. But to hear it from one well-respected mouthpiece at one of the city’s largest public relations firms, the desperate push for attention on behalf of real estate clients is only natural.
“The month leading up to, and the weeks immediately after, are the most stressful time of the year,” said the public relations professional, who insists that, each spring, his clients harangue him daily for good placement in the issue, but ultimately denounce him when it doesn’t happen. “It’s the worst time of the year, the Power 100.”
With that thought in mind, take stock and enjoy this year’s list, a purely subjective ranking of relative power and the New York City brokers, developers, attorneys, politicos, landlords and lenders who wield it so well.