tephen Ross, the 78-year-old billionaire real estate titan behind the most ambitious, most expensive, most criticized mixed-use development in Manhattan’s history, the $25 billion Hudson Yards, loves to walk. Though sometime he uses the gym inside the 80th-floor penthouse he shares with his second wife, jewelry designer Kara Ross, 53, every other day he takes the elevator down to the third floor and climbs the stairs all the way back home. “It’s all in the breathing,” he says, puffing out his cheeks to demonstrate.
Home is currently the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, which also houses the offices of Related Companies, Ross’s mega real estate firm that is the developer of Hudson Yards, whose public portion opens Friday, March 15. Next year the company will move onto five floors at 30 Hudson Yards, the tallest office building in New York after One World Trade Center.
The Rosses, meanwhile, will move into a 92nd-floor penthouse that’s a stone’s throw away at 35 Hudson Yards, a tubular limestone tower designed by David Childs, the Skidmore, Owings and Merrill architect who also designed the Time Warner building for Related. Ross won’t be using his new building’s 60,000-square-foot gym and spa run by Equinox, a Related investment: “The steps are a great workout.”
Tall and slender in a tailored navy wool suit with wide, wavy pinstripes, a blue-and-white checked shirt and pink Hermès tie decorated with little blue owls, he sits at a book-laden coffee table in Related’s Time Warner offices nine days before the debut of Hudson Yards’ shops, restaurants and gardens. The volumes span his interests in art and architecture, including a book on Robert A.M. Stern, who has designed apartment buildings for Related, and another on Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, who has been tapped by Related and its development partner Oxford Properties Group to design one of seven residential buildings in the project’s second phase, slated for completion by around 2026.
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Ross defends the 18-million-square-foot project, which is being subsidized by an estimated $1.4 billion in tax breaks and $4 billion in other investments from the city, as “not a neighborhood for the rich,” despite condo prices that will range from $4 million to upwards of $32 million. “It’s not a separate enclave” he says, a claim that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, at least so far.
To get there, visitors can ride the No. 7 subway line’s extension, paid for with $2.4 billion in government funds, which lets passengers off at a station located between 55 Hudson Yards, a building slated to house multiple hedge funds including billionaire anchor tenant Steven Cohen’s Point72 Asset Management, and 50 Hudson Yards, which is still under construction. But those who don’t take the train or walk the popular High Line park directly to the development, which runs between 30th and 34th street and Tenth Avenue and the Hudson River, must zigzag across Tenth Avenue, dodging construction barriers and Lincoln Tunnel traffic.
How, exactly, is Hudson Yards not an enclave for the rich? The shops and eateries include affordable options, says Ross. The popular Danny Meyer burger joint Shake Shack and fast-fashion purveyors H&M and Zara will have outlets at Hudson Yards. But those choices are far outnumbered by seven floors that are chockablock with luxury retailers including Fendi, Dior, and the city’s only Neiman Marcus, and upscale restaurants like Ross’ friend Thomas Keller’s TAK Room. At Keller’s Per Se in the Time Warner Center, the tasting menu runs $355. About his decision to fill the development with tenants who can pay high rents, says Ross, “People who have proven themselves are able to attract capital.”
He prefers to talk about how excited he is that Hudson Yards is “like a city within a city. . . a real live, work, play environment that’s right in the heart of New York.” That is if you consider the heart of the city to be an old Long Island Rail Road yard on the edge of the Hudson River that had to be topped with a $1 billion platform before construction on most of Hudson Yards’ buildings could begin in 2014. “It’s still connected to the city, so you don’t feel like you’re not in New York,” Ross says.
Or do you? Hudson Yards has 28 restaurants and cafes, including a Spanish food hall run by celebrity chef José Andrés. But there are no signs of the city’s rich layers of ethnic cuisine, from soup dumplings in Flushing to succulent biryani in Little India. A self-proclaimed meat-and-potatoes guy from the Midwest who was brought up on steak, Ross says he’s thrilled with Hudson Yards’ dining options. “I love food, unfortunately,” he says. “That’s why I work out all the time.”
He also loves his alma mater, the University of Michigan, where he’s donated $378 million. Ross’s Related office is in part a shrine to the school, with a photograph of the Big House, Michigan’s sports stadium, and a football jersey and wrestling head gear displayed on a stand in the middle of the room. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in accounting in 1962 before getting his law degree at Wayne State and a master’s in tax law from NYU in 1966. Since he founded Related in 1972, he has developed or acquired more than $50 billion in properties around the world, from California to Abu Dhabi to Shanghai. He also owns the Miami Dolphins. Forbes pegs his net worth at $7.7 billion.
Having grown up in Detroit and Miami Beach, Ross says he gravitated to New York because he loved the idea of living in a dense urban environment where his life could be contained in a small sphere, as it will be at Hudson Yards. “Why do I want to waste all my time commuting, traveling, being stuck in traffic?” he says.
“People who have proven themselves are able to attract capital,” says Ross.
Once he and Kara move into the new condo, where they have hired their Time Warner decorator Tony Ingrao, who is designing all the interiors in their Hudson Yards building, he plans to live much of his life inside the development. The Rosses will be regulars at The Shed, a 200,000-square-foot performance space slated to stage its first show in April. He looks forward to walking through the 5-acre public plaza with its 200 native Hudson Valley trees and climbing up the Vessel, the $200 million art installation comprising 154 interconnecting flights of stairs that he commissioned from the British designer Thomas Heatherwick.
Shortly after the interview in his office, Ross is on-site at Hudson Yards, where he bounds up a section of the steel-clad Vessel, which looks a little like a giant beehive that’s been cracked open to let air flow through. It’s 30 degrees out and Ross is wearing a knee-length blue tweed coat and matte black loafers. Happy not to be pressed with more questions and beaming as he reaches the top, he says the tough part is coming back down.