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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A design collaboration between Dattner Architects and Grimshaw, this groundbreaking mixed-income housing development includes a series of tiered geometric gardens and green roofs.

Courtesy David Sundberg/Esto

His path to that challenge wasn’t so straight as he sometimes makes out, however. Improbably, the flourishing developer of today began his professional life as the founder of Gramavision. From 1979 until he sold the brand in 1993, Rose was responsible for recording and distributing some of the most important avant-garde and progressive musical acts of the 1980s, among them Medeski Martin & Wood, the Kronos Quartet, and jazz guitarist John Scofield. But as the music industry began to change, he decided it was time to move on. “I was working day and night,” he says, juggling music and his family’s business interests. “I realized I had to focus. I couldn’t do everything.” A good ten years before the digital revolution would swamp the conventional recording industry, Rose saw that the business model was losing ground and decided it was time to put down his axe and put on his business suit.

It would not be the last prescient decision of the developer. Significantly, Rose’s first major attempt at a full-scale urban renewal project was in the same neighborhood where Forest City Ratner pulled its recent bait-and-switch. In 1985, still under the aegis of his parents’ company, Rose attained the rights to what was then called the Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area in Brooklyn. It was, notes Rose, among the earliest projects of its kind anywhere, “one of the first mixed-use, mixed-income, transit-oriented development plans.” The basic pattern foreshadowed what Rose and others have been doing successfully in the decades since, but in the mid-eighties, the Terminal proposal was so ahead of its time that it drew legal action from what today would seem an unlikely quarter. “All the suits were environmental in basis,” Rose says. “At that time, the environmental movement just believed that developing in the city was evil.” The project was blocked, stalled by a recession, and then Ratner took over. 

[H]is inveterate pragmatism means he’s not hung up on creating splashy starchitectural statements.

“We’ve completely reversed that,” Rose continues. “Today, we believe mixed-use, mixed-income is smart.” With environmental groups recognizing that dense, efficient urban development is the best antidote to suburban sprawl, the Jonathan Rose Company has found ready allies in city after city. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, Rose and his partners started work in 1989 on the Second Street Studios, a live/work complex with on-site retail, galleries, and restaurants; three years later in Denver, Colorado, the team pulled together no fewer than than 23 sources of public and private funding to restore the historic Denver Dry Goods Building and turn it into a mix of low-to- market-rate apartments and condos, as well as offices and retail spaces. To date, the company has spurred $1.5 billion worth of development, spread out over the dozens of projects in its portfolio. And Rose says that business is getting better. “We’re finding it easier and easier to find financing,” he claims. 

“Jonathan is a rare combination—someone with a strong market sensibility and also a sense of social justice,” notes his friend and colleague John Norquist. As mayor of Milwaukee for sixteen years and now head of the advocacy group Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), Norquist has firsthand experience trying to turn troubled neighborhoods into sustainable communities. What sets Rose apart, Norquist says, isn’t just his commercial acumen, but his ability to see how his own company’s viability and the viability of its projects fit into a broader political and economic framework. “He’s trying to change the whole system,” Norquist says. To that end, Rose has collaborated with Enterprise Community Partners and others to lobby Washington for the expansion of tax credits and the retooling of housing subsidy rules so that developers like him have a greater financial incentive to build quality housing for the poor and working class.

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