Five Questions With: MaryAnne Gilmartin Founder & CEO, MAG Partners
By: John Jordan
When Real Estate In-Depth pondered who would be the candidate for the Five Questions feature for Women’s Month, the logical choice was MaryAnne Gilmartin.
Her background in real estate as she tells it almost began by happenstance, but her hard work has led her to found her own New York City-based real estate development firm—MAG Partners—in 2020 that in a short time has built a $1-billion pipeline.
The Fordham University graduate (undergraduate and graduate degree) began her career with the New York City Public Development Agency (the predecessor to the New York City Economic Development Corp.) and since then has held chief executive positions with some of the country’s leading development firms, including Forest City Ratner and Mack-Cali Realty Corp. She has overseen a host of high-profile projects and has been frank about who has guided her and now pays it forward and mentors others in their real estate careers.
Gilmartin, who serves as a special advisor to Fordham Real Estate Institute’s Executive Advisory Council, recently said at a “She Builds” session held at the university’s Lincoln Center campus, “I’ve built my career trying to bump up against what people think of as a developer and identify more with ‘placemaker.’ If I use the word ‘developer,’ I refer to myself as a ‘civic developer’ because what we do is contribute to civic life and with that comes a great responsibility. I’d love the word developer to mean all that I know that it is, which is a person who creates place, changes the skyline and the ground plane in cities, and builds something of lasting quality that impacts the lives of the community in which it exists.”
Gilmartin served as President and CEO of Forest City Ratner Companies, where she oversaw a host of game-changing ground-up developments and managed its multimillion square foot residential, commercial and retail portfolio. She also served as Chair of the Board of Directors and interim Chief Executive Officer of Mack-Cali Realty Corporation.
In her tenure at Forest City Ratner Companies, she spearheaded the development of some of the most high-profile real estate projects in New York City. She led the efforts to build Barclays Center, the state-of-the-art sports and entertainment venue and the centerpiece of the $4.9 billion, 22-acre mixed-use Pacific Park Brooklyn development.
She also oversaw the development of The New York Times Building, designed by world-renowned architect Renzo Piano; New York by Gehry, designed by award-winning architect Frank Gehry; and the Tata Innovation Center at Cornell Tech, a new office building that is a first-of-its-kind space for tech innovation, designed by Weiss/Manfredi on Roosevelt Island. During her tenure at Forest City, the firm also developed Ridge Hill in Yonkers.
Today, MAG Partners is developing a number of distinctive projects, including 281 West 28th Street, a mixed-income residential building designed by COOKFOX that will begin leasing in early 2023. In addition, the company is developing two other residential buildings and a boutique office building in Hudson Square. In partnership with Sagamore Ventures, Goldman Sachs Asset Management and MacFarlane Partners, MAG Partners is leading the development of Baltimore Peninsula, a 235-acre masterplan in Baltimore, MD. In 2023, 1.1 million square feet of office, retail and residential development will open on a prime waterfront location.
Gilmartin is a civic leader in the New York metropolitan area, serving as Chair Emeritus of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, a member of the Board of Trustees of The Brooklyn Academy of Music, a member of the New York Public Radio Board of Trustees, and a member of the Executive Committee and Board of Governors of The Real Estate Board of New York. At Columbia University, she is part of the Industry Advisory Board of the MS Real Estate Development Program as well as a member of the real estate advisory board in the Center for AI in Business Analytics & FinTech. In addition to her civic and industry board service, she was appointed a member of the board of directors of the global investment banking firm Jefferies Group LLC in 2014.
Real Estate In-Depth: Your background in real estate is very impressive, rising to president and CEO of Forest City Ratner Companies, serving as chairman and interim CEO of Mack-Cali Realty during a tense shareholder battle and founding your own real estate development company MAG Partners three years ago. Can you tell us what led you into the industry and what have been your keys to success in what has been a male-dominated industry?
Gilmartin: I call myself an accidental developer because this career path relied on serendipity. I had no inkling of what I wanted to be when I grew up, but coming out of university, I landed an Urban Fellow fellowship. I was assigned to New York City’s Public Development Agency, which is now the Economic Development Corporation. My plan was to spend a summer with them, and then go off to law school in September and fight for the rights of juveniles in the justice system.
At the Public Development Agency, I discovered that I had real estate development in my veins. At the time, leadership at PDC would challenge the team by saying, “Let’s look at the West Side, what should we do with it?” It was an incredible place to start a career and my path to meeting Bruce Ratner with whom I would work for the next 25 years.
My career grew in a meritocracy. Bruce always chose the best man or the best woman for the job. So, I always made sure to know the most, be the most prepared and worked the hardest. I never had my eye on the corner office, but it turns out, in a meritocracy, if you prove yourself, you can get the top job.
After serving as CEO at Forest City Ratner, I set out to build a company that looks a little more like the community for which we build, MAG Partners. This of course is a very simple statement, but I clearly have been a little bit of an anomaly in the business in a way that I wish I wasn’t.
Real Estate In-Depth: Were there people who were your mentors and/or helped you along the way in your career. If so, please explain?
Gilmartin: Mentoring has played an outsized role in my professional evolution. The role of mentor or mentee is critical to the career development of the women in our field, and I take my own responsibility seriously when I meet young women who want to get into the industry. My two most influential mentors have been Bruce Ratner and Mary Ann Tighe (CBRE). With both in my corner, I hit the career lottery. Because of the profound impact mentoring has had on my career, I have vowed to always be a mentor to others in order to pay it forward.
Real Estate In-Depth: What would you say were the obstacles you faced and women still must overcome in the commercial development arena and what advice do you have for women in commercial real estate?
Gilmartin: While I have said many times before that I never got that email that said, “you’re a woman so you should feel really intimidated” in this industry. But again, that is because I was part of a meritocracy and it was always the best man or woman for the job with Bruce Ratner. My advice is to be the most prepared and to not be afraid to show off your stuff.
Real Estate In-Depth: You recently began leasing MAG Partners’ first project—Ruby—a 480-unit residential project at 243 West 28th St. in Chelsea. In a short time, MAG Partners has built an impressive pipeline with projects planned at 335 Eighth Avenue, 300 East 50th St.; 122 Varick St. in the Hudson Square District; 44-02 Vernon Blvd. in Long Island City, as well as MAG Partners’ participation in the 1.1-million-square-foot Baltimore Peninsula Project. From what I understand, all of your New York City projects qualified for the now expired 421a tax incentive. Will the lack of 421a inhibit development in New York City in years to come if not reinstated in some form?
Gilmartin: Absolutely. But in the more near term, we are extremely focused on an extension to the deadline to complete these projects, something Governor Hochul put forward in her budget. This deadline is not just important to my company and the projects we have moving—the danger of missing the 2026 deadline is putting 33,000+ units in jeopardy of not moving forward. With the current challenges in the markets, it is critical that the legislature extend the deadline for vested projects.
Real Estate In-Depth: Does MAG Partners have any plans to enter other markets in the New York City metro area, specifically the lower Hudson Valley?
Gilmartin: The great thing about being a private company is that we can be opportunistic. We want to be rational and strategic, and we are not confined to New York City.
How New York Developer MaryAnne Gilmartin Built a Career on Embracing the Complicated
By: Andria Cheng
Her MAG Partners Begins Leasing Ruby Residential Tower in Manhattan’s Garment District
MaryAnne Gilmartin, who founded MAG Partners in 2020, is known for projects including Brooklyn’s Barclays Center and the New York Times Building in Manhattan. (MAG Partners)
The older man on the other side of the chain link fence had a shotgun and two pitbulls. MaryAnne Gilmartin, then just 22, was armed with little more than a receptive attitude.
When the dust eventually settled after that on-site meeting, she had successfully dealt with his refusal to leave the land he occupied, helping to clear the way for a project New York City sought to build. Three decades later Gilmartin, now founder and chief executive of New York real estate developer MAG Partners, would be the first to tell you her embrace of projects with complicated issues has ended up serving her well.
Gilmartin’s career has gone from that first assignment involving a vehicle towing yard to include work on buildings such as Barclays Center in Brooklyn, reflecting what she called in an interview a “tendency to lean into projects that have hair on it [and] may require a little more heavy lifting.” She’s expanded her philosophy to include “pursuing opportunities that others may not want.”
The recent kickoff of leasing at Ruby, a two-tower, 480-unit luxury residential rental development that’s 30% affordable, is the latest example of chasing projects that others might turn down. It’s MAG’s first New York development to debut since Gilmartin founded the firm during the pandemic in 2020 after buying out her partners.
The midblock property, located at 243 W. 28th St. between Seventh and Eighth avenues across from the Fashion Institute of Technology in the Garment District, is housed on a former parking lot owned by Edison Properties. Ruby is the fruit of what Gilmartin described as “far from a typical real estate transaction.”
After developers failed to buy the land from Edison, Gilmartin eventually was able to structure a 99-year ground-lease deal that led to the project named after Ruby Bailey, 20th-century fashion pioneer who lived in New York’s Harlem neighborhood.
There was “a lot of handholding,” she told CoStar News. The deal had “a lot of hair and complicated issues.”
Some of the complications involved convincing MAG’s capital partners to proceed with funding construction during the pandemic when lenders didn’t want to back projects in New York, she said.
“The building became a referendum of sorts,” she said at a real estate event this month hosted by Fordham University, her alma mater. “It’s a bet on New York City.”
Gilmartin is no stranger to tackling projects that may have deterred others. She became what she described as an “accidental developer” in the ’80s after graduating from Fordham, and that led to her involvement with a lot of different projects across the city through the Urban Fellows Program.
“It was there that I realized I had real estate in my veins,” she said at the Fordham talk. “It was fortuitous. It wasn’t at all part of my plan.”
When her first Urban Fellows assignment involved the towing site at an industrial park in Queens, she said a stumbling block emerged over the 82-year-old squatter. Gilmartin decided to hop on the train to go visit him, against the advice of others.
“I know nothing about the business,” she said. “All I know is this is a person who has a set of facts and beliefs and preferences and desires. I need to understand what they are. … I literally stood on the other side of the chain link fence and talked to this very disturbed older man. … Real estate is a collection of stories about the human condition.”
Her visit paid off and paved the way for the man transitioning to special housing, clearing the site for the towing facility.
After about seven years working in public service and a two-year stint as a broker, which made her realize “being a middleman is just not in my makeup,” she went to Forest City Ratner and ended up spending 23 years there, including as president and chief executive before the firm was sold to Brookfield Asset Management in 2018.
Making Her Way
Gilmartin, a New York native, grew up in both Rockaway Beach in Queens and in Woodstock, New York, a two-hour drive north of the city. She credits her can-do attitude in part to something her mom said despite growing up in what she described as a “dysfunctional childhood.”
“My mom said, ‘You make your own way. You make your own happiness,’” Gilmartin said.
On the career front, Bruce Ratner, who co-founded Forest City Ratner in 1985 and was its CEO before eventually passing his baton to Gilmartin in 2013, was a big influence.
“I was part of the meritocracy,” Gilmartin said. “Bruce Ratner had my back. We had the confidence we belonged at the table. He said, ‘If you can dream it and can defend it,’ we usually got approval to do it. … Know your wheelhouse. You can’t fake it. If you are substantive in this business, amazing business can happen.”
One of those pieces of businesses involved MAG’s first foray outside New York, partnering with Under Armour founder Kevin Plank as well as Goldman Sachs to oversee Baltimore Peninsula, a 235-acre mixed-use development in Baltimore. Some 1.1 million square feet of office, retail and residential is opening this year on a prime waterfront location as part of the project with 13 million more square feet left to be developed.
Loves New York
“My first love is New York City,” Gilmartin told CoStar News. But within a day’s commute, “between Boston and D.C., we see opportunities. … Land demand and ground-up opportunities are much more amenable” than in New York.
A case in point of how it’s “tough” getting things done in New York, she said, involves the June 2022 expiration of the 421-a tax exemption program that gave developers tax breaks on multifamily developments in exchange for a portion of units being set aside for affordable housing. Without the support of New York state legislators, the program, which Gilmartin calls essential for business, remains dead despite backing from New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, she said.
“I’m a little jaded because of that,” she said at the Fordham event. “It’s nice to go to Baltimore. The answer in Baltimore isn’t ‘no.’ The answer is ‘yes.’ In New York, the answer is ‘no’ first. The city has to grow. … If there’s no tax-exemption program, we will have a homogeneous collection of condos that are highly unaffordable for people in the city. There’s a chilling effect” on multifamily development.
Ruby and two other Manhattan residential projects MAG has underway — 335 Eighth Ave., a 190-unit mixed-income apartment building, and 300 E. 50th Street, a 194-unit property on the east side — all qualify under the expired 421-a program, Gilmartin told CoStar.
“This isn’t a windfall for developers,” she told CoStar. “I would like to build more. Multifamily is still the darling asset class in New York. It’s difficult to imagine more projects” without the tax-exemption program.
As New York’s office vacancy rate has surged to new record highs, Gilmartin isn’t calling it quits on the sector. MAG is developing a 175,000-square-foot boutique office at 122 Varick St. in the Hudson Square neighborhood, where both Google and Disney are building major campuses.
“This is a bespoke offering. There’ll continue to be a flight to quality,” she said, adding that it will reflect “the post-pandemic world of how we want to work.”