Game Changer: Jonathan F.P. Rose

A developer who combines a keen feel for the housing market with a genuine commitment to social justice, good urbanism, and green building.

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From his high-rise office with expansive views of Manhattan, Rose master- minds developments with a strong social component and good street presence.

Portrait by Brian W. Ferry

In the devil-take-the-hindmost world of urban real estate, there’s little room for sentiment. Promises are broken; people get shunted. One need look no further than the much-publicized Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn for a case study in how things get done in America’s biggest cities: There, developer Forest City Ratner Companies pushed through its new sports arena in part by promising that below-market-rate housing would be built alongside it. The Barclays Center opened last year to much fanfare; the housing, however, is still nowhere to be seen.

In such a brass-knuckles industry, then, there’s a natural expectation that anyone entering it with a sense of social purpose must be possessed of either an extraordinarily durable idealism or a very hearty brand of naïveté. There’s at least anecdotal evidence to back this up. [Full disclosure: the author’s grandfather was involved in affordable housing construction for four decades in New York City. He went broke on at least one occasion and was nearly imprisoned.] The rap on do-gooders is that they are not, by and large, business-savvy professionals.

So it’s bit of a surprise to find that Jonathan F. P. Rose—arguably the nation’s foremost developer of affordable, environmentally sensitive, socially conscious housing projects—is all business. Entering the Jonathan Rose Company’s cushy Manhattan digs, visitors may be instantly impressed by the sweeping views over midtown Manhattan from the founder’s spacious private office. But don’t gaze too long. “No time to look out the window,” says Rose, setting himself up on a sleek, low-slung couch. “I’ve got meetings the rest of the day.”

Rose, 61, is energetic, candid, and speaks in the rapid-fire patois of a man very much on the go. He often flashes a knowing smile to signal that he senses in advance which way a question is heading, and is already burnishing his response. The only thing about him that seems even faintly ethereal is his somewhat professorial beard (though even that, it will be noted, has recently been spotted on business leaders like Goldman Sachs’s Lloyd Blankfein). 

Rose’s book on resilient cities, The Well Tempered City (HarperCollins), will be released later this year.

Courtesy Brian W. Ferry

The scion of a prominent New York real estate family, Rose has been steadily recasting the image of the social entrepreneur since the late 1980s. “I’ve always been interested in real estate development,” he explains, “in how low-income communities can grow and develop, as well as in the environment. Really since I was a child.” Rose started embracing that passion in earnest in 1989, when he flew the family coop to start his own outfit; but even as he branched out into more innovative and civic-minded development projects, he never quite shook the determination of his prosperous forebears to run a business that made money. At the outset, he says, “The challenge was, could one create a for-profit social and environmental impact–focused business?” 

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