You rarely find female leaders in the cutthroat world of real estate development. One notable exception: MaryAnne Gilmartin, executive vice president of commercial and residential development at Forest City Ratner Companies. Read on.
A Queens native, Gilmartin started working at the NYC-based company in 1994. High-profile projects she’s overseen include the New York Times Building, the Midtown skyscraper designed by Renzo Piano, and 8 Spruce Street, the Lower Manhattan tower by Frank Gehry. She also is leading the charge on Atlantic Yards, the controversial, 22-acre development now rising in Brooklyn.
We recently caught up with Gilmartin after hearing her speak at “A View From the Future,” a June event hosted by the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation. This interview is the first in an ongoing series about powerful women in the architecture, design, and development professions.
By way of introduction, please tell us about one current project you’re most excited about.
Right now I am most excited about modular construction. We have been working for two years on developing this exciting modern means of construction, which we believe will allow us to build world-class residential high-rise buildings more efficiently and more effectively in the urban core, partnering with union labor.
My fascination with modular stems from the fact that it’s a massive innovation that will revolutionize high-rise construction. Like all “disruptive” technologies—think of GPS versus printed maps—it will bring about wholesale transformation and has the potential to transform how we build in NYC and throughout the U.S. Modular is a powerful proposition for all cities that struggle with developing middle and moderate income housing stock.
We’d love to hear a bit about how you got where you are today. Was it all part of a grand plan, or did chance play a role? Did you have a mentor that guided your professional growth?
I believe in serendipity, hard work and living with purpose. In the real estate industry, you are what you build. I’ve been very lucky to have had great mentors, and I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to work with outstanding teams to build some of the city’s most interesting structures. I have truly learned by doing, and I find it extremely challenging and rewarding to collaborate with exceptional professionals to bring important projects to life.
The construction industry has been historically male-dominated. In your mind, is gender still an issue in the profession, or have we broken through the “glass ceiling”?
This can be true, though in my case I have has a great mentor in Bruce Ratner, the CEO of Forest City Ratner Companies, who runs his shop as a meritocracy. There are no differences between men and women in his organization. I have been allowed a great berth—to show my stuff, use all my skills and create value.
That’s not to say that we don’t need more women role models in the industry. For example, CBRE’s Mary Ann Tighe, who makes real estate brokers look glamorous while setting the standard for vision, expertise and integrity. Beverly Willis, a great industry pioneer, has proven that women can do whatever they set out to do. Role models like this are a great draw for women to enter the field—and brokerages have made great strides diversifying over the last decade. Working on the development side, it has been a focus of mine not only to try to be a role model, but also to bring in diverse talent to help change the reality and face of the industry. I take my role in mentoring very seriously.
Collectively, we have not broken the glass ceiling yet per se—I still sometimes look up during a meeting to find 20 real estate professionals and see mostly men, but it’s happening less and less.
Your work directly affects cities--including, often, New York. Let's say you were given the chance to change one thing about the city's zoning laws and/or urban policies. What would it be?
Here in New York City and State, we are fortunate to have an extremely high caliber of partners in the public sector. Because of this, we work together effectively and are able to, simply put, get projects done. The great challenge for the city going forward is to find ways to continue to develop the most modern office stock and quality housing, while investing in the technology and infrastructure that improve quality-of-life for all those who live, work, and play here.
Many of our readers are recently graduated designers, engineers, and planners. Do you have any advice for them?
Love what you do. Be the best you can possibly be. Always be prepared—know the most in the room. Preparation and hard work go along with education. I do believe that to the extent possible, people should follow their passion. As I feel about my own life, if I have to leave my kids in the morning and do this every day, it better be exhilarating and exciting.
What is so amazing about the architecture, design, development, and construction fields is that you end up with a tangible output when a project is completed. In a world of pushing paper and sending emails, it’s unbelievably fulfilling to see a building appear on the skyline as a result of your team’s hard work and collective efforts.
Barclays Center, Atlantic Yards; Image © SHoP Architects
8 Spruce Street; Image by dbox branding & creative
New York Times Building; Photo © David Sundberg/Esto
[Top photo courtesy of Forest City Ratner]