Real estate and politics go hand in hand. For long before Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign, developers have been using contributions and other favors to get their projects approved and built. But who are the nation’s real estate developers? Almost all of them are relatively unknown to the general public. While many architects have achieved a sort of celebrity, very few could name any of the clients who have funded those architects’ most important works. Who are these people? And how powerful are they?
As it turns out, real estate really is local. Unlike other industries where a few big players dominate the national market (AT&T, Google, etc.), development is split between a panoply of regional powers. Real estate is also highly specialized; developers and owners generally focus on residential, commercial or industrial buildings, and single-family home-builders do not usually overlap with urban condo companies. Who builds the building is also not necessarily who will own it in the long-term. Most properties will change hands repeatedly over their lifetimes, and some of the largest property owners in the country are not developers at all.
In New York City, the Catholic Church, Columbia University and New York University each have real estate empires worth around $1.5 billion. The people who own the most land are also not necessarily the people who own the most valuable land; large-scale ranchers own far more acreage than anyone else, but their fortunes are dwarfed by those of urban tycoons. And then the net worth of those tycoons can be very difficult to accurately assess, as we have seen through Trump’s fights with Forbes. There is no one way to measure who owns America. Instead, a sampling of real estate’s biggest names gives a sense of the range and (lack of) diversity among the people who build, buy and sell the world we live in.
Architects would especially benefit from knowing more about developers. Many of these people use high-design as a way to burnish their reputations, often calling in the boldest of names to craft the highest profile projects that will form their personal legacy. Architects are often instruments to developers, a way for them to look nice in front of the public. With a developer assuming the presidency, real estate is arguably more political and more important than ever, and those who work for these people should be informed.
The wealthiest real estate billionaire in America; the “Other Donald”
Net worth: $15.2 billion; 27th wealthiest American
Company: Irvine Company
Major holdings: New York City’s MetLife Building; over 115 million square feet of commercial and residential real estate, mostly in Southern California
Political leanings: Republican
Bren is the most powerful person in real estate that you’ve probably never heard of. Besides being the wealthiest real estate tycoon in the country, his developments in Orange County have been copied in suburbia around the world. Unlike the other Donald, he shies away from the spotlight, and his holdings are largely anonymous buildings in Southern California.
His Irvine Company was one of Orange County’s first major developers, and its beachy suburban style brought him massive success and wealth. Many of his developments, like Newport Beach, have set a standard for comfortable living. While Bren has largely avoided politics, aside from being an active donator to conservative candidates, his properties have influenced the way that millions live. If you have ever wandered idly around a strip mall or sat out on a summer lawn, your life has been impacted by Donald Bren.
Left: The Broad Museum; photo © Iwan Baan; right: Eli Broad; photo by Martin Shoeller
Tract-home builder turned architecture patron
Net worth: $7.5 billion; 58th wealthiest American
Company: Formerly KB Home and SunAmerica; now the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation
Major holdings: The Broad
Political leanings: Democrat
Broad is one of America’s most prolific art collectors and architecture patrons, commissioning buildings from the likes of Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, DS+R, Renzo Piano, Richard Meier and more. After showing his art collection in a special wing of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Broad built his own facility in Downtown LA opposite the Gehry-designed Disney Concert Hall.
His fortune comes from the much humbler end of architecture. At the age of 20, he co-founded Kaufman & Broad, which became one of the country’s biggest builders of single-family homes. Broad has now retired from business to focus exclusively on philanthropy, his art collection and building museums with his name on them.
Left: Stephen Ross, photo by Ozier Muhammad/New York Times via Redux; right: Hudson Yards; image courtesy of KPF
The man behind the nation’s largest private real estate development
Net worth: $7.4 billion; 58th wealthiest American
Company: Chairman of Related Companies, owner of Miami Dolphins
Major holdings: Hudson Yards; 520 West 28th Street, Zaha Hadid’s only building in New York City; Time Warner Center, New York City; Hunter’s Point South, a massive affordable housing development in New York City; various residential and commercial buildings across the country
Political leanings: Unclear
Ross’s company, Related, is building Hudson Yards, possibly the largest American real estate development ever. It covers 28 acres and comprises 16 skyscrapers containing more than 12 million square feet on Manhattan’s West Side. DS+R, SOM and KPF have designed towers for the site, and Heatherwick Studio has designed a monumental public art piece for the plaza at its center.
When completed, the project will be the crown jewel in Related’s vast portfolio of holdings, besides being an incredible feat of coordination and construction. While notable architects have been tapped for some of Related’s most visible buildings, the majority are by much less prominent designers.
The New York private equity fund that may be the world’s largest real estate holder
Assets Under Management: Over $300 billion
Major holdings: Willis Tower in Chicago; over $100 billion of real estate around the world
Political leanings: Unclear
Blackstone Group is one of the world’s major private equity firms, investing money for the wealthy so that they can become wealthier. Since Blackstone started to invest in real estate in 1992, the company has amassed an enormous trove of building assets, one that they claim is the largest in the world. Chicago’s Willis Tower, which they acquired in 2015, is alone worth $1.3 billion. While the company does not generally plan new buildings, their sway over the global real estate market makes them one of the most powerful players in architecture.
Trump with a model of Trump Tower, 725 5th Avenue, New York; via 1stdibs
The United States of America’s 45th president
Net worth: $3.7 billion; 156th wealthiest American
Company: Trump Organization
Major holdings: Trump Tower in New York City; Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida
Political leanings: Republican
The next president would not be one of the nation’s more notable real estate developers were it not for his outsized public persona. He is not close to being the wealthiest developer in New York, much less the country, and his buildings are known for their opulence but little else. Should he return to his company after his presidency, he will likely be the most powerful developer in the world.