The Iron Lady

Two years ago this month, CBRE tristate chief executive Mary Ann Tighe rattled cages when the Real Estate Board of New York named her its first female chairwoman in the 116-year-old organization’s history. During those 24 months, the former TV executive—yes, she helped launch cable channel A&E—helped renew the 421a tax exemption program, oversaw passage of the Foreign Investment in Real Property Tax Act, and shepherded a series of projects meant to fuel construction across New York. Throughout those lobbying efforts, she managed to tally what she described as the second-most successful year of leasing in her career. Last week, REBNY’s first lady spoke to The Commercial Observer about her achievements thus far as chairwoman, the complications behind her deals for Condé Nast, Coach and Young & Rubicam, and what to expect at this year’s gala.

mary ann tighe 2v The Iron Lady

Mary Ann Tighe.

The Commercial Observer: Two years ago, you were named chair of the Real Estate Board of New York. Around the same time, you told me that, among other goals, you hoped to increase what was then a membership of 12,000. Have you achieved that goal?
Ms. Tighe: Well, actually, we’re over. I know we’re, right now, at the highest level we’ve ever been in its history. It’s over 12,000, but I don’t know the exact number. I can tell you that we’ve brought in, for example, a number of additional Class A members.

What have you learned from the experience? Has being chairwoman posed challenges?
Well, I think that I did not have a full appreciation of the complexity of REBNY’s portfolio—the diversity, the complexity of it, and the abundance of issues with which REBNY deals. And I now have an appreciation for how encyclopedic Steve Spinola’s knowledge of New York City real estate is. I also have great pride in the reshaping of the staff that happened under my chairmanship.

Besides bringing in new staff members, you also created a political director position, to which you appointed James Whalen. Why hadn’t REBNY already thought of that idea?
Mr. Spinola had done everything, and with a great staff. He has really fine people. But the idea of bringing somebody in to whom Steve could offload hadn’t occurred. We deal with the feds. And that was another important point of emphasis for me. I wanted to make sure we were playing on all fields because, increasingly, federal regulation and the state were as impactful, or potentially as impactful on the city, as New York City was. And so to cover all three playing fields, with the manpower that existed, that was impossible.

And so how is bringing in someone like Jim Whalen helpful?
Just, again, taking a look at, for example, the work that we were able to do in Albany. Jim has engaged the Committee to Save New York. They were critical in the period when we were dealing with the issues of rent stabilization and the legislation connected to that. And we were very concerned about how that was all going to shake out. We were very concerned about some of the regulations that had to do with Fannie and Freddie that said you couldn’t use financing from these entities if you had a flip tax on your property. Now, you know that’s a standard feature in many of the co-ops in the city. So we would have cut off all kinds of funding. Again, that’s a federal-level issue. So it’s in issues like that where they jumped in and were able to have an impact.

Besides playing defense, which is probably a large part of what people like Jim do at REBNY, have you been able to inject fresh thinking into the 116-year-old organization?
When I became chairman I wanted the board not only to play defense, but to also be the generator of big ideas that would help move the city forward. And there are a variety of things we’ve been focused on that are big ideas that will take many years to play out. And that’s another reason why people don’t engage the big ideas—because everybody wants to have something that’s instant gratification.

But I can tell you that I am very proud that the board has engaged the subjects of, for example, the No. 7 line. That’s Example 1. But Example 2 is relooking at Midtown zoning, raising the question with our city planning commission. Have we inadvertently frozen one of the most—in fact, not one of but the most—important business district in the city? As I phrased it when I spoke with Amanda Burden, “Are we in danger of becoming a very romantic 20th-century city because we have made it impossible to build in the 21st century in some of the key locations in the city?’