Mighty Joe Rose: Third Generation Builder Battles Skyscraper Elite

For a man with an ambition to reshape New York’s skyline, Joe Rose has spent a prodigious amount of his time lately tending to grassroots. Several evenings a week, New York’s young Planning Commission chairman slips into the back seat of a dark city-issued Crown Victoria, on his way to another classroom or community center, where he explains, once more, why he wants to “drive a stake through the heart” of New York City’s zoning code.

Sometimes, as he did before a community board in Harlem two weeks ago, he will lower his voice conspiratorially and confide something to his audience. “As you can well imagine,” he said, “there are people who don’t want these regulations adopted, and they have a lot of power.”

Mr. Rose should know. He has known some of his adversaries since he was a boy. Some of them may even be related to him.

An heir to two New York real estate dynasties-his father, Daniel, is chairman of Rose Associates, one of the city’s premier development firms; his father-in-law, Marshall Rose (no blood relation) is president of the Georgetown Group-Mr. Rose has lately emerged as an unlikely scourge of the one thing developers hold most dear: tall buildings.

The proposals have stirred up some deep-seated emotions, even among the normally taciturn real estate community. “I hate it, I resent it,” said one prominent developer.

If Mr. Rose seems an unlikely foil to the city’s development interests, those who have watched his tenure closely say it is a battle that has been brewing since he was appointed to the office, with the real estate community’s backing, more than six years ago.

“He’s gone out of his way, further than he’s had to, to show that he has no allegiance to the developers,” said one prominent developer who is generally supportive but who, like most industry figures contacted for this story, did not want to be quoted by name for fear of running afoul of Mr. Rose and the Giuliani administration. “They expected a more sympathetic understanding of their developments than they’ve received.”

“That’s preposterous,” Mr. Rose said. “I do not know of a case where one can make that assertion legitimately.”

By all accounts, Mr. Rose follows his own political compass. He can, at times, be loftily dismissive of those who question him.

“Joe starts off very self-assured,” said Councilman Walter McCaffrey, who chairs the council’s subcommittee on land use. “Sometimes being self-assured is a good thing in life. Other times when it’s not the best way, you have to realize someone’s not sharing the same concept.”

Take, for instance, Mr. Rose’s visit to Community Board 5 last month. Mr. Rose once chaired the board before he was appointed to the Planning Commission, and the board has shown its appreciation by maligning several of his most cherished proposals.

“It’s a pleasure to be back,” Mr. Rose began, “despite the fact that you have continually , and repeatedly , and totally unreasonably , rejected so many of the good initiatives that we have issued forth, all of which have been done largely for the benefit of Community Board 5. It’s the same thing with my family, I get the same treatment, so I’m used to it.”

In response to the audience’s derisive laughter and catcalls, Mr. Rose flashed that million-dollar smile and threw his arms open wide: “This is like a homecoming!” he shouted.

Kevin Finnegan, who until recently co-chaired the board’s land-use committee, said he and many others had entered the room inclined to support the proposal. But they changed their minds. “People walked out shaking their heads,” he said.

Mr. Rose has been making his share of opponents lately. In order to become law, his zoning proposal must first be evaluated by the community boards and borough presidents, then passed by the Planning Commission and approved by the City Council. Hence his tireless road show through the backwaters of city government.

In its present form, the proposal has achieved the rare feat of uniting the civic types at the Municipal Arts Society with the developer types at the Real Estate Board of New York. Both sides, for different reasons, say they have grave reservations about the proposal.

Not that anyone, on the record, disagrees with Mr. Rose’s diagnosis of the problem: that the current zoning code, drafted in 1961, is aesthetically outdated, mind-boggling in its complexity and vulnerable to “Talmudic massaging” by a cadre of zoning lawyers. Mr. Rose wants to overhaul the urban renewal-era regulations that encourage developers to build tall, skinny towers in the middle of windswept concrete plazas, and close loopholes that allow buildings like the infamous Trump World Tower, next door to the United Nations, to rise to enormously incongruous heights. In their place, he’d like to see ironclad height restrictions in residential areas, and a push to construct buildings whose lower stories are flush with the sidewalk, forming a so-called “streetwall.”

The release in December of 536 pages of zoning revisions sent people all over town scurrying to their lawyers. They found a lot to object to. Architects are scared that the regulations will curtail their freedom of design, pointing out that the buildings everyone loves-like the Century, the Majestic and the San Remo on Central Park West-could not be built under the proposed regulations. Developers, for their part, think the regulations will cut into the value of their future holdings by forcing them to put more apartments closer to street level (no more view one-upmanship). And many simply think that building shorter buildings is, well, not New York.

“The last thing you want to have happen to Manhattan is height limits,” said Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board. “What do you think about when you think of Manhattan? You think about the wonderful skyline, and it is my belief-and I think that most people believe-that tall, slender buildings are much more attractive than fat, squatty ones.”

Yet even those who question the proposals themselves give Mr. Rose credit for trying. “I think [the proposal] will be looked upon very positively, and I think his legacy in terms of a record, it’s going to be largely this proposal,” said architect Mark Ginsberg.

Mention the word “legacy” around Mr. Rose, though, and he recoils. “We’ve been studying and addressing the issues for a very long time,” he said. Yet, with the end of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s administration either a year or two away, depending on this November’s election, it is likely this will be the last, and most ambitious, major initiative Mr. Rose launches as Planning Commission chairman.

At this point, Mr. Rose, 40, will soon be the longest-serving Planning Commission chair in the city’s history. It is a tenure that, some observers say, is thin on accomplishment.

“His administration, as long as it’s been, has not been marked by major planning initiatives,” said Richard Anderson of the New York Building Congress.

One associate, who has worked closely with Mr. Rose since he’s been in charge of the Planning Commission, offered a more blunt appraisal: “For a member of a prominent real estate family, it’s amazing: He never saw a development he didn’t want to make more complicated, more difficult and less likely to get done.”

Mr. Rose cites a number of successful initiatives that have occurred on his watch: the Columbus Circle redevelopment, the purging of porn shops, the revival of Lower Manhattan. “These were all things that were symbols of how it was impossible to get things done,” he said.

Where’s the Meat?

Mr. Rose was virtually born to the job. The Rose family’s real estate roots in the city run deep. Brothers Samuel and David Rose began building apartments in the Bronx in the 1920′s. Under a second generation of Roses-brothers Frederick, Daniel and Elihu-the family consolidated its holdings in Manhattan and developed new ones in other cities.

The third generation-Joe Rose’s gang- is less uniformly involved in the family business, although cousins Adam and Amy are key executives. Mr. Rose himself has never shown much interest in the private side of development. Today, he says, he scrupulously avoids discussing business with the family, in order to avoid possible conflicts of interest.

Mr. Rose draws more directly on a second family trait: a bent toward public service. (His father, Daniel, is well known for his philanthropy.) “We were all raised with a strong sense that we both had the opportunity and responsibility to be in service,” said his cousin, Jonathan F.P. Rose, who runs a firm in Katonah, N.Y., that develops affordable housing. (He was the only member of the Rose family to respond to requests for comment.)

Joe Rose himself said that his upbringing helps him to see development issues more clearly.

“It cuts both ways,” he said. “Sometimes you need to be sensitive to real problems, but also, you need to be able to tell when you’re being sold a line.… A lot of developers come in telling you in government all sorts of different things, and most people in government are not going to know whether the guy is telling the truth or not.”

Mr. Rose grew up on Park Avenue and studied city planning and international relations at Yale and Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government (he has yet to write his dissertation). After college, Mr. Rose served as an aide to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and was appointed to Community Board 5.

Lola Finkelstein, now the board chair, served with Mr. Rose. She remembers him as a “Kennedyesque” figure. “He was handsome, and, at the time, the way he wore his hair, it was always flopping on his forehead,” she said. He used to show up at meetings, then held in a dingy church basement, dressed in black tie for social engagements. “It was always speculated about: ‘What is Joe’s ultimate or next goal?’” she said.

In 1988, Mr. Rose decided to run for the State Senate. With his father at his side, Mr. Rose shook hands outside of subways all over the district. He spent $600,000 on the race. In its final days, however, the incumbent, Manfred Ohrenstein, circulated fliers questioning whether Mr. Rose’s family ties would make him too sympathetic to landlords. Mr. Rose lost.

Recently, rumors around City Hall have had him eyeing a run for comptroller, but Mr. Rose flatly denies any such interest. “What I always wanted was to be chairman of the city Planning Commission,” he said.

How his tenure in the job is remembered will depend, to a large extent, on how skillfully he shepherds his zoning overhaul through the political process. The development lobby is already vowing to make trouble if Mr. Rose doesn’t water it down.

“In the form that it’s currently in, there’s no way we’ll support it,” Mr. Spinola said. “The council will hear that very firmly, the Mayor will hear it, and everyone else will hear it.”

“When chairman Rose unveiled this thing, it sounded like the biggest thing in terms of the city’s approach to physical development in two generations,” Mr. Anderson said. Now, “most people are just shaking their heads a little bit and saying, ‘Where’s the meat here?’”

“My job is not to win everything I take on,” Mr. Rose said. “If you win everything, you’re not trying hard enough, you’re not taking enough risks.”

But what might the city look like if he does win? Well, Mr. Rose said, there will be no more buildings like the Madison Belvedere, a 50-story tower set in a residential plaza, that is now rising above 29th Street near Madison Square.

“Take a look-and I say this with a smile-take a look at the Madison Belvedere, take a long look at it,” he urged Community Board 5 last month.

The reason Mr. Rose was smiling? The Madison Belvedere is being built by his father.