How New York Developer MaryAnne Gilmartin Built a Career on Embracing the Complicated
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.”