Commercial Observer’s Power Gala Attendees Tout Bullishness Amid Change

High atop 711 Fifth in the new CORE club, real estate’s mightiest gathered for Commercial Observer’s annual Power Gala. And, hey, there’s Daniel Boulud! 

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Despite what no one denies has been a challenging year for commercial real estate, Commercial Observer’s 2023 Power Gala, held Sept. 19 at CORE: New York, the new club at 711 Fifth Avenue, proved that there is plenty of optimism — and reasons for that optimism — to be found in commercial real estate today.

“We’re in an environment where you have to look beyond the headlines, because everything is not moving at the same speed, and where you invest matters,” said Ken Caplan, global co-head of Blackstone (BX) Real Estate, which won the night’s Acquisition Deal of the Year Award for its $12.8 billion acquisition of American Campus Communities, the largest developer, owner and manager of student housing in the United States. “A lot of the focus today is on commodity office buildings, but not all real estate looks like that. If you look at the sectors we’ve been concentrating on — logistics, student housing, data centers — they have very strong underlying fundamentals and very strong performance. So I’m optimistic there will continue to be opportunities in this environment.”

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Marty Burger, CEO of developer and owner Silverstein Properties, made it clear that he remains bullish on New York City’s prospects.

“The residential market’s on fire because we still have the deepest talent pool in the nation,” said Burger. “The office market we’re just trying to figure out, but it’s coming back strong. So we’re cautiously optimistic, and New York continues to be on fire.”

“My prospects for commercial office are high,” said Linda Foggie, a managing director and the global head of real estate operations at Citi. “I think a lot of companies, especially financial service firms, are very bullish on the importance of their office real estate and portfolio as a part of their overall strategy. We expect to eventually see a return to the occupancy levels we once saw. So we’re bullish on commercial office.”

And, beyond office, Vince Toye, a managing director and the head of agency and off-balance-sheet lending for JPMorgan Chase (JPM), emphasized the progress his bank is making in the multifamily space.

“We’re continuing to build out our agency lending business,” said Toye. “We’re Fannie and Freddie lenders now, so we’re building that business from scratch. Even with the downturn in the market, we’ve made good progress there. The other big focus for me is our community development banking business for affordable housing, plus we’re building a workforce housing construction business as well. So we’re really focused on doing things in the affordable housing space and also in the agency space.”

The evening, which honored people and companies on Commercial Observer’s annual Power 100 list, saw the biggest names in commercial real estate celebrate a year that despite its challenges still saw wins in many areas, as evidenced by the awards handed out by CO Editor-In-Chief Max Gross.

James Freiman, CEO of Observer Media, which owns Commercial Observer, remarked on the perseverance of those in attendance. “I want to take a minute to reflect on the leadership and resilience we’ve all demonstrated in a year defined by market twists and turns,” said Freiman. “While the hard work does not end here, it’s through your shared dedication that we really pushed through.”

As Gross began the awards ceremony, he echoed this theme, noting that the achievements winning the awards were only possible due to tenacity and grit.

“I’ve stood before this gala in very good times and in not-so-great times, and this is a strange time,” said Gross. “It would be disingenuous to say champagne and caviar have been flowing and it’s been a nonstop party, because it hasn’t been. But everyone on this year’s Power 100 and Power Finance lists was chosen because they have not been sitting back and letting things unfold. They picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, looked honestly and soberly at the future, and knew that they had to pivot.”

In presenting Commercial Observer’s 2023 Visionary in Urban Development Award, Gross acknowledged the Related Companies as having taken “a holistic approach to enriching city centers through innovation, service, economic impact, a demonstrated commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, and a forward-looking approach to ensuring city centers serve generations to come with a diverse portfolio of best-in-class properties in the world’s greatest city.”

Jeff Blau, CEO of Related Companies, said that the company was particularly pleased to win the Visionary Award. “We think the future is bright at Related,” Blau said in his speech. “There are a lot of opportunities. It’s been a tough year for all of us here, but never give up on New York.”

Next up, Cathy Cunningham, executive editor for Commercial Observer, presented the inaugural IMPACT Award to investor and lender Starwood Property Trust, citing the company’s “three-tiered approach to community enrichment by investing in affordable housing, supporting environmental conservation, and advancing diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives that contribute to our creation of sustainable and inclusive communities.”

“As an industry, we constantly come together to support worthy causes,” Dennis Schuh, chief originations officer at Starwood, said in accepting the award. “At Starwood, we are pleased to be signatories on the U.N. Principles of Responsible Investment, the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures, the Diversity in Action Initiative, and the Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark.”

Meyer Mintz, tax partner and co-leader of the real estate practice group at accounting firm Citrin Cooperman, presented the 2023 Innovator of the Year Award to partners L&L Holding Company and Fortress for their $2 billion TSX Broadway project in Times Square. In accepting on behalf of both parties, David Orowitz, an L&L managing director and principal, emphasized the depth of the project’s scope by noting that the company had “the third-largest Broadway theater 30 feet in the air on the most trafficked corner in the Western Hemisphere during the pandemic.”

For the Acquisition Deal of the Year award, Brian Stadler of Simpson Thatcher & Bartlett presented the honor to Blackstone, while Bonnie Neuman of law firm Cadwalader presented an award for the lending side of the transaction to Joseph Geoghan and John Gustafson, accepting on behalf of JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo (WFC), respectively.

The evening concluded with a toast by chef Daniel Boulud, who noted the effect that the assemblage had on the very fabric of New York City.

“I know a lot of people in real estate in New York, and I think you’re all a bunch of dreamers,” said Boulud. “I’ve been a New Yorker for four decades, and to see [how] New York keeps transforming itself for the best, it’s because of all of you.”

CORRECTION: This article was updated to reflect Ken Caplan’s correct firm.