Overseeing one of Brooklyn’s largest development projects to date and being the mother of two girls doesn’t leave much downtime, but Forest City Ratner Companies’ Susi Yu does it all—like squeezing in an hour in a boxing ring (a 25-year long passion of hers) while supervising the massive housing lottery at Pacific Park.
Yu, 51, sat with Commercial Observer in Forest City’s One MetroTech Center office and talked about it all—not just real estate (there are still more than a dozen buildings to be completed at the 22-acre Pacific Park) but also her journey from starting in a pre-med program to logging time with renowned architect Robert A.M. Stern to keeping tenants calm during a hurricane.
Commercial Observer: Where did you grow up?
Yu: I’m originally from Korea. We immigrated to the U.S. [Richmond, Va.] when I was 10 years old. I was really the first one [in my family] who applied for university in the States. I remember I selected two schools I wanted to go to—Brown and University of Virginia—and I handwrote my essay on notebook paper and submitted it.
I ended up going to University of Virginia. My parents said, “We need a doctor in the family!” So I was pre-med, and second year I was flunking out of organic chemistry, not going to class. I always loved art, and I loved math, so I called my mom and said, “Okay, mommy, I can no longer stay in pre-med. If you want me to stay in pre-med, I’m just going to leave school, or you can let me spend the summer doing the architectural studio program.”
What got you interested in architecture in the first place?
Well, I took a mechanical drawing class, and I was always artistic. And I love buildings. Going to school at UVA, you can’t help but appreciate how a built-in environment affects your everyday living—going to the lawn, visiting the Monticello [Thomas Jefferson’s plantation]. It’s amazing. So I transferred to architecture school.
One of the things that was really important to me was that I wanted to come to New York. I think emigrating from Seoul to Richmond, Va., I felt like as a child all of my freedom was taken away. In Korea, I loved the urban nature of it. I could take the public bus by myself or go to the corner store or walk from school to home. That sense of freedom, I really missed when I moved to Richmond.
I graduated [in 1988], moved to New York [the next year]. I got a job with a small architectural firm, Gallis Associates. Then I applied for a position with Robert A.M. Stern. I worked at Bob Stern’s office for about six years and worked on competitions, a hotel at Disney, the Nashville Public Library. And I did a house in Dallas for a childless couple. It was a 25,000-square-foot house that was insane. Insane. But what was great was that I literally drew every single corner, every detail, every cabinet, laid out every single brick of the exterior and really learned how a building comes together from a drawing to reality.
I started working with a developer [Mike Daly, a FCRC alum] on a project because he hired Bob Stern to get a waiver to get a height restriction on a project he was doing on the waterfront in Roslyn, Long Island. I spent a lot of time with him doing all of the mayoral presentations, the landmark presentations. I was like, I actually like the business side of it…I walked into Bob’s office and said, “I’m going to do the Columbia [master’s in real estate development] program. I hope that you will write me a good recommendation.” And he said, “It’s the biggest mistake that you will make in your life,” but nonetheless, he signed the recommendation letter that I wrote for myself.
While I was at Columbia, MaryAnne Gilmartin, [the president and chief executive officer of FCRC] hired me as an intern. It was interesting because she was working on the New York Times Building at that time and she had to deal with the 42nd Street design and use guidelines, which were written by Bob Stern’s office. I think she was hoping for some sort of inside connection. Everyone from my class—we had a class of 50 back then—interviewed for the job and I was lucky enough to get it. And then I spent basically my second semester working at Forest City once a week. Then they hired me as a project manager in 2001, and that’s how my career started. I’m a career-switcher.
You had a brief stint at Howard Hughes, right?
I did. I went to Howard Hughes in 2012. Forest City was going through restructuring. Bruce Ratner was actually stepping aside and becoming the [executive] chairman, and MaryAnne was taking over as the president and CEO. For me, my relationship to MaryAnne was really important, and she restructured the company where I was no longer directly reporting to her. That was something that I personally didn’t feel comfortable with in terms of my growth trajectory in the company. I went to Howard Hughes for about two years, and then MaryAnne called me and said, “Come back, I want you to head up development,” so I’ve been back now for two years. So you can go home again, under the right circumstances.
What’s your relationship like with MaryAnne—are you friends? Is she your mentor?
It’s both. She is a friend. She’s my boss—I never forget that, I think it’s important to know that boundary. And also, she’s my mentor…MaryAnne’s youngest daughter Tess was actually born nine months earlier than my firstborn, so I have a connection with her between the two girls. Her first two were boys, so having a girl was a completely different thing. She’s always nine months ahead of me in terms of what she was dealing with, so she was always giving me advice. And I completely agree with her when she says there is no work-life balance. It doesn’t exist. You try to do the best that you can in your work and be the best mother that you can be and be the best wife that you can be, but nothing ever works out exactly the way you [think it will].
We all know that MaryAnne is a huge SoulCycle fan. What’s your relief outside of work?
Mine is boxing. I have been boxing with the same boxer, Michael Olajide, for 25 years. His wife is actually one of my best friends. He used to teach at Equinox, and now he has his own studio.
It’s an all around amazing workout, but for me it’s really mental in terms of relieving stress. Not only that: It helps to clear my mind so I can work out a problem. Sometimes I’ll go to the gym, and before, I’ll have certain things in my head that I just can’t approach, and after, I have so much clarity in how I can approach a problem. I try to at least work out three days a week.
There are women like you and MaryAnne so high up in the leadership at Forest City, which differs from many other real estate companies. How do you promote that in the workplace?
It’s definitely a meritocracy. Bruce’s appreciation for talent is really based on who you are. What’s interesting to me is that it’s not only women; it’s the diversity of race, ethnicity and cultural backgrounds. If you look at my team we have a Persian, Americans, two Chinese, one American-born South Asian, someone from India, and we have a couple of Jewish men sprinkled in there just for a little flavor. [laughs]
When I hire—and we get so many resumes, and we don’t really hire a lot of people—I would say that we hire based on how hungry people are. It’s all the same resume. You go to the best business school. You go to the best college. You have the requisite GPA. But I would say that we probably give our fairer shakes to people who don’t meet a typical corporate profile, to say the least.
How many people do you oversee?
Right now, I have about 10 professionals reporting to me, and then I work laterally with different groups like construction, finance, legal. We’re a team. It’s an incredibly collaborative group of people. We have a single mission, and we all work incredibly well together. It’s like a finely oiled machine. We have fun, but we’re definitely not corporate in company culture. You’re supported, but you’re also very encouraged to challenge what’s being presented. I have no problem when the project managers say, “I don’t think that’s the right decision. Can we think of it differently?” I think that sort of openness and collaboration is very much the culture here.
I know diversity is a really important thing for Forest City. How are you promoting that externally through the projects you’re working on now?
What’s great about New York City is that it is what it is. Diversity is thrown in your face because you have to deal with every different type of person, from race to cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds in your everyday life. It’s difficult to live in a complete bubble. Maybe the ZIP codes on Park Avenue can do that, but for the rest of us, it’s just impossible. I think Brooklyn is really unique in its mix of all the different people that live here and how the neighborhoods are constantly changing. I think that ethos is something that we’re very cognizant of, especially at Pacific Park as we build the market-rate and affordable components. We want to keep that secret sauce of Brooklyn alive.
When we’re doing a 100 percent affordable building we’re able to provide housing for, let’s say, a family of four earning $40,000 a year up to a family of four earning $170,000. That’s a big swath. I think Pacific Park is really, in a way, its own social experiment as it gets built out.
The other part that’s exciting to me is the retail. It’s the whole Jane Jacob’s “eyes on the street” [theory]. Retail is such a small percentage of this development, but I think it will signal the success of what we’re doing once people recognize and appreciate the types of tenants we’re working with.
How many retailers are you expecting to sign on?
For the first four buildings we’re going to be opening about 12. They range in size from about 700 square feet up to 5,200 square feet. It’s a pretty big range so we’re talking to restaurants, small café operators, day care, pet spas, fitness [centers], salons. Really not national but local companies.
What’s it like working with your joint venture partner Greenland USA?
Greenland is actually one of the largest developers in China. China definitely has a different way of working, so I think there’s definitely a little bit of an educational process in learning that in New York you can’t just do everything because you say so. In terms of dealing with regulatory issues, city and state issues, it’s something that they’ve actually learned and are now aware of how it impacts the development. In terms of working together, I think it’s been really great. They own 70 percent of Pacific Park; we own 30 percent. They’re parked on the 18th floor of this building [One MetroTech], and people from Forest City and Greenland sit together. We have all of our joint venture meetings down there, and we are really fully integrated in terms of development, construction, legal and finance. It truly is a joint venture of two developers coming together and building a project. Both companies have incredibly high levels of mutual respect for each other, and you ultimately learn from each other.
What’s the latest with the B2 Building, 550 Vanderbilt and 535 Carlton?
We launched the housing lottery for B2 in the early part of the summer. For 181 affordable units, we received 84,000 applicants. Now we’re in the process of going through those applications. We’re going to be moving our first tenants in in November, which we’re excited about. We’re going to launch the market-rate rental marketing in the building in October. And then, for 535 Carlton, the 298-unit, 100 percent affordable building, we closed the lottery on Sept. 15, and we had 95,000 applicants for 298 spots. It’s incredibly exciting that these buildings we’re building in six months will be almost 50 percent occupied.
Speaking of the buildings that are coming online, I know that Bruce thinks it’s important for a developer to live in the buildings they build. What was it like living in 8 Spruce Street, the first Forest City building you lived in?
It was incredibly wonderful living there—being able to troubleshoot right away if the amenities weren’t being handled and cleaned properly, I could just reach out to the general management, and it would be taken care of.
When [Superstorm] Sandy hit, we were in the building. I was downstairs with the staff until midnight talking, making sure that all of the residents were okay. I was texting Bruce, and MaryAnne telling them that everything was fine, there was no damage to the building. It’s not just an asset. I think of it as my third child, living in it, making sure the building is taken care of. The building engineer at the time had to actually turn off the generator because we couldn’t get fuel. It needed oil, and the trucks couldn’t get through—there were other emergency sites. Our building engineer actually took the fuel from One MetroTech and was biking fuel across the Brooklyn Bridge [to 8 Spruce]. The engineers were biking back and forth dealing with 8 Spruce and MetroTech. The things you do…
Where do you think you’ll be living next?
Right now we’re living in my husband’s project that he built—388 Bridge Street [a Stahl Organization building in Downtown Brooklyn]. I can actually see into my office from my master bedroom. We’re a little bit of real estate nomads.
We’re thinking about [moving into 550 Vanderbilt]. I actually took the girls and [husband Roger Fortune] on a site tour the Friday before Labor Day, and I think Roger was impressed. He said we should think about it.
What’s next for Pacific Park?
We have two projects under development. One is a 100 percent market-rate building right next to 550 Vanderbilt. We actually put the footings in to preserve our 421a benefit.
And we have a second building across the street at 38 Sixth Avenue, which will be a rental building with a middle school at the base of the building, similar to Spruce Street. It’s about a 100,000-square-foot, roughly 600-seat [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics]-based middle school. The community actually really lobbied hard for middle school. Those two projects are in the planning stages.
In terms of the rest of the buildout, we have to see how 421a plays out and in what form it comes back. It’s impossible to do residential development without it.
The other part that’s exciting for me is working with the state to move about 760,000 square feet of air rights that we have at the prow of the [Barclays Center] to site 5, across the street from where P.C. Richard and Modell’s are, to build an iconic commercial headquarters building above a retail base. Having a major headquarters building also creates a huge benefit to the retail businesses around there. It’s mostly a bedroom community. There is no during-the-day traffic so to have office workers in that area to use the services will actually make it a much more thriving community and development. I’m completely excited by that.