Visionary builder, community planner, developer, and change agent Jonathan F.P. Rose is American real estate royalty, born and bred. Still, by all rights, a Hall of Fame should salute a career in its entirety and as a summation of its wholeness, not one still vitally arching upward toward bold new crescendos at some future date.
In Rose’s own mind, he frames his post-childhood business pathway in three phases, one of which might be the most geographically ambitious, transformational, and best of all. Yet, this third phase has only just begun.
Still, we at Multifamily Executive and a trusted circle of business community advisors had to begin at a somewhat arbitrary beginning. Celebrating individuals whose professional commitment, impact, and influence add up to inspiration, a model, and a source of motivation to others in the multifamily business community to become the best of the best starts this way. Jonathan Rose is our way of saying the bar is set high, considering that, already, Rose and his team have scaled Jonathan Rose Cos. now to 15,000 units, with $2 billion–plus in invested projects, and created a signature impact investment and development business model whose quadruple bottom line puts profit on par with purpose, people, and the planet.
At age 65, Jonathan Rose is part of the third of three, going on four, generations of real estate developers. They all descend from immigrant brothers Samuel and David Rose, who started out building apartments attainable to middle-class Bronx, N.Y., workers in the 1920s.
You may safely surmise that one of Jonathan Rose’s life challenges might have been to step out of the larger-than-life shadow of his father, Frederick, who, with brothers Daniel and Elihu, built one of New York real estate’s dynasties, Rose Associates, in the years following World War II. In business shrewdness and discipline, in generosity, in magnetism, and in breadth and sharpness of vision, his dad—who passed away in September 1999—was tough-act-to-follow incarnate.
It would be a mistake, however, to credit only Frederick and his brothers’ empire-building, and their ever-widening gyre of can-do clout and accomplishment in metro New York’s residential and commercial construction and community management business ecosystem. Such all-abiding attention to the powerful Y chromosomal composition of the Rose real estate pedigree would neglect an equally profound contributor to and essence of what makes Jonathan Rose tick: his mother, Sandra Priest Rose.
Growing up in Westchester County, N.Y., Jonathan recalls hanging out in the den at night with his father as the latter toiled over project plans, marking them up with a red pencil. The younger Rose took immediate, precocious fancy to visiting those building projects, like Evergreen Gardens in the Bronx, seeing them come out of the ground to life, checking off the punch lists, smelling the concrete, like picking up the scent of success. Still, too, he was equally deeply drawn to and engaged in the voters’ rights rallies and registration initiatives his mother actively supported, along with a host of -other social and environmental causes.
“By the time I was 8,” says Rose, “I started to wonder how I’d weave those two passions together. I’ve been working on that ever since.”
In fact, if it were nature’s habit—as it is contemporary Homo sapiens’—to make a visual metaphor—an infographic, if you will—of the essential nature of a man whose business instincts and social motives balance one another, whose intellectual curiosity is equalized by a Zen-like acceptance of mystery, whose zeal for world domination is offset by a passion to serve the individual, whoever that may be, the image nature would design might look something like this:
Two reflective, equidistant threads—each containing operating, modularized, and specified code for identity, capacity, physicality, belief, soul, intention, capability, purpose, imagination, strength, vulnerability, and compassion—entwining one another in a mirrored spiral. Oh, nature has created such a visual metaphor, all right—double helices of genetic matter forming one’s DNA. Could there be a more perfect data visualization for the balance of force and focus, a human and his natural surroundings, the worldly and the spiritual, business strategy and social impact, the ordinary and the astonishing, the father and the mother, the contour and connectedness Rose has made his lifelong pursuit as a professional?
So, about Jonathan Rose’s three phases of professional development. They took initial shape and emerged out of an early childhood abundant with evidence of expansive and raw curiosity, an entrepreneurial fire in the belly, a creative flair, an ear for music, love of family and its traditions, and a yearning to achieve something, to make a name for himself.
He attended Yale as an undergraduate in the early 1970s, studying psychology and philosophy before shifting to a focus on regional planning in a master’s program at the University of Pennsylvania. His studies left time for such side pursuits as playing bass guitar, working as a bus mechanic, and traveling the world.
Phase one of Rose’s coming of age as a professional begins around 1976, as he joins the family enterprise, Rose Associates, working on New York–style housing and deals.
Any big real estate project requires fluency in a richly complicated language. Timing, invested finance, a land deal, construction contracts, political favor, social acceptance, topography and other environmental conditions, a design that can win over opponents and compel advocates to become champions, a sales team, a construction and engineering plan that pencils out, and a marketing message that conveys the virtue and value of the place—all need to align, at the very least, for a real estate project to work.
That they happen again and again and again is almost a minor miracle. Any little thing, any part of the minutia in any single detail in isolation, or any connective dimension of the project, can derail it. Yet, it’s precisely this delicate dance that a real estate developer signs up for. This cocktail of goal-setting, limit-drawing, cajoling, ignoring, imploring, vision-imparting, compromising, not-relenting, etcetera, comes with the territory, exerts remarkable appeal, and delivers, repeatedly, a euphoric rush when the ribbon gets cut and the project opens.
It’s also, to some degree, who he or she is. This is, to some extent, how to characterize Jonathan Rose in what he calls his first phase. It was about “doing well,” in measures of both the care and quality of the work, and its successful outcome.
“This was the stage that was all about becoming the best project manager in the business,” says Rose of a time that encompassed his 13 years as an employee of Rose Associates, and his ultimate departure to pursue work that stretched beyond the core interests and skill sets of his grandfather, great-uncle, and father’s company.
“I learned an incredible amount from my father, and one of the earliest pieces of professional advice came from him in his role back in the 1970s as the president of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, where he told me, ‘Join one of these community-based agencies, work as a volunteer, get on the board, get involved.’ And I did. I picked a group called the Educational Alliance, which served the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a poor, struggling, crime-ridden, and drug-infested neighborhood at that time.
“The Alliance centered around a 100-year-old Jewish settlement house, and it offered an enormous number of social services and programs, for the homeless, drug treatment, parenting programs, people with special needs, arts. And they’d also created one of the very first Head Start education programs in America. It was remarkable. It changed things for me. It changed how I looked at what I wanted to do. I then reached a point in my life where I felt I really wanted to put my for-profit life and my not-for-profit life together.”
Building a Company
So, Rose stepped clear of that remarkable, imposing, paternal shadow, into a future that redefined the very intention of the projects he wanted to do, scoping them beyond the structural walls of their buildings and into the very fabric of the community they were a part of. He’d continue channeling his father’s caring tutorship and tap varied other, eclectic mentors, ranging from the first Sumerian kings of Uruk to Jane Jacobs to James Rouse to sociologist Robert Sampson to systems thinker Donella Meadows to architect -Robert Venturi to fellow community developer Richard Barron and scores of others.
He traveled far, deep, and wide to discover what drives people to make cities for and of themselves, so that he could more helpfully imagine multiplying—on some greater order of magnitude than a single project, building, or sub-division—to find -leverage points to “repair the fabric” of, and bring transformation into, the sore, core, stressed, and sometimes broken sinews of a locale’s economy, society, reason for being, and capacity to continue.
The projects evolved from a higher plane they’d start on, thanks to Rose’s belief and insistence they could felicitously blend affordability, livability, sustainability, community compatibility, and profitability. From the seminal Denver Dry Goods Building to recent, much-heralded unveilings such as Via Verde, back in the Bronx, Rose’s projects have been singular in ambition in how inclusive, generative, adaptive, and conscious of their ecosystem they are.
To fund, resource, champion, execute, and operate the marriage of affordable and attainable housing with resilient community infrastructure required a skill set Rose found he lacked after decades in the weeds trying to excel as a project visionary and developer.
“We had to attack organizational structure, we had to raise funds, we had to build human and capital resources that went far beyond the family-and-friends network of investment partners we were drawing on up until that time,” says Rose of the “building-an-organization” phase two of his professional life. “We grew our systems, our ability to track our equity, measure our debt, and deploy our human resources, and in weaving all those together, we’ve created a really extraordinary company that’s working at a much larger scale and is much more effective in carrying out its mission.”
In 2005, Jonathan Rose Cos. launched its first investment fund. Today, the firm is on its sixth fund, and earlier this year, the organization purchased a $500 million portfolio of 48 affordable housing properties from Forest City Realty Trust, a transaction that effectively doubled the team’s footprint, which Rose expects now will grow 3,000 to 5,000 units annually for the foreseeable future in this, the third phase of his business pathway.
“Our acquisition efforts are now about 10 times what our development efforts are,” says Rose, whose focus has evolved from projects to a professionally disciplined and purpose-driven enterprise to, now, a platform that can iterate, scale, and affect many. “We’ve realized our impact can be a lot greater if we’re in more cities, and if we’re reaching a larger number of people. The war to win now is a war for opportunity."