“Mr. President!” “Mr. President!” It has come to this. At Madison Square Garden, people are rising from their seats and calling out “Mr. President!” to Donald J. Trump, the real estate tycoon. This year, the nation of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Eleanor Roosevelt reached the point at which magazine editors, talk show hosts, and screaming crowds have lunged at the entertaining possibility that Donald Trump might run for the highest office in the land.
— Herbert Muschamp, 1999 1
I don’t like to lose.
— Donald Trump, 1983 2
In 1980 I was a working for an architectural firm in Midtown Manhattan. I enjoyed going out at lunchtime to visit art galleries, which in those days were clustered around 57th Street; and which is how, on a sunny day in June, I found myself on the eleventh floor of a building on Fifth Avenue, in the Robert Miller Gallery. I don’t recall the art being shown that day, but I do have an indelible memory of what I saw from the gallery’s big windows. Directly across stood the department store Bonwit Teller, the elegant facade of which featured a spectacular 15-foot-high Art Deco sculptural ensemble, at eye level with the gallery. That day activity across the avenue was unusual, and it took me a moment to realize that workmen on a scaffold were in the process of destroying the limestone bas-reliefs with masonry saws and jackhammers. Other gallerygoers took notice, and we all watched the demolition in horror — and then somebody muttered “that fucking bastard!”
“That fucking bastard” was — who else? — Donald Trump. Known back then as the brash and ambitious scion of a real estate family from Queens, Trump had not yet fully impressed himself onto the consciousness of New York City, but he was well on his way — and the controversy surrounding the destroyed sculptures definitely put his name in the news. The young Trump had acquired the site at 56th and Fifth in 1979, after Bonwit Teller relocated to a smaller site a block north, and he announced big plans to demolish the 1929 structure and erect a $100‑million tower with a mix of commercial and residential space. The old Bonwit’s, designed by Warren and Wetmore, the architects of Grand Central Terminal, was not a designated landmark, but the sculpture had become a beloved local icon. With demolition imminent, public concerns were allayed when the developer agreed to preserve the artwork and donate it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which estimated its value at $200,000. Hence the shock when, on June 6, 1980, the front page of the New York Times ran this headline: “Developer Scraps Bonwit Sculptures.” A Trump Organization spokesman told the Times reporter that independent art appraisers (never identified) had declared that the decorative panels were of little value, and certainly not enough to justify the estimated $32,000 cost of their removal or the ten-day delay to the project. 3 When reminded in a later interview of the Met’s appraisal, Trump claimed that removal of the sculpture would actually have cost $500,000 and caused months of delay. Soon Trump was referring dismissively to “the junk I destroyed at Bonwit Teller” and boasting that he’d ordered the destruction himself. 4
As the entire world knows by now, this sorry episode would prove a dead-on indicator of the traits Donald Trump has displayed throughout his career as a businessman and public figure — a readiness to renege on an agreement if it becomes the least bit inconvenient, scant regard for the knowledge of experts, profound philistinism, and blatant disregard for truth. These traits are now, of course, the subject of ceaseless commentary and agonizing exegesis, as America struggles to fathom the candidate who in summer 2015, in the atrium of Trump Tower — on that old Bonwit’s site — charged onto the political scene, claiming to be qualified for the presidency of the United States on the strength of his negotiating skills, financial acumen, managerial talent, and ability to get things done, as evidenced by his outsized success as a builder and businessman. Yet those who have known Donald Trump during his years as a property developer in New York cannot be surprised by his eccentric and disturbing behavior as a presidential candidate.
Pink marble maelstrom. Ahistorical mutants. Trump’s ostentatious projects and hyperbolic self-promotion were an irresistible foil for architecture critics.
Almost from the start the verdict on Trump’s record as a real estate developer has been harsh. As William Menking observed earlier this year in The Architect’s Newspaper, Trump’s ostentatious projects and hyperbolic self-promotion have long been an easy mark and irresistible foil for the city’s architecture critics. Soon after it opened, Ada Louise Huxtable described the multi-story atrium of Trump Tower as a “pink marble maelstrom.” Years later Herbert Muschamp dismissed the postmodern aspirations of the condominium complex Trump built along the Hudson River: “At Trump Place, ahistorical mutants masquerade as historical landmarks.” About an earlier, unbuilt version of that same riverfront project, Michael Sorkin, writing in the mid ’80s, was even harsher: “The scheme is so stupid, my initial reaction is to think it’s a phony, a stalking horse for some marginally less barbaric proposal Trump is willing to trade down to.” And this summer, hard on the heels of the Republican National Convention, Sorkin found unexpected parallels in the careers — in the misogyny, bigotry, mendacity, brand fetish, and media manipulation — of Donald Trump, Hugh Hefner, and Adolf Hitler. 5
But mediocre design is the least of it. For many in New York, Trump’s failings have less to do with aesthetics than with irresponsible civics. Trump’s projects have always involved the extraction of the maximum tax credits and zoning bonuses from the city and the construction of the cheapest product possible (without sacrificing the glitz), and the delivery of the absolute minimum in whatever public amenities might have been part of the deal. 6 In September, Times reporter Charles Bagli produced a lengthy piece on Trump’s development career, concentrating on his hyper-aggressive deployment of tax breaks and other public assistance in order to lower his costs to the city. This practice dates to the very beginning of his career, as he sought to jump to Manhattan from Queens, where his father, the developer Fred Trump, had made millions building middle-income housing. The young Trump’s big opportunity came with the 1976 purchase of the old Commodore Hotel on 42nd Street, adjacent to Grand Central Terminal, from the bankrupt New York Central Railroad. With the ruthless negotiating skills of his attorney, Roy Cohn (who’d become infamous as counsel for the communist-hunting Senator Joseph McCarthy), and his father’s expensively purchased political connections, Trump secured a 40-year tax abatement, then thought necessary to help revive a zone of shabby hotels and low-rent office buildings.
For many in New York, Trump’s failings have less to do with aesthetics than with irresponsible civics.
Bagli points out that this astounding deal — by which the masonry hotel was gutted, given a cheap facelift of reflective glass, and transformed into the Grand Hyatt — has so far cost the city $360 million, and the tax breaks won’t expire for another four years. Bagli catalogs numerous other concessions that together amount to around $885 million to date in tax revenue lost to the citizens of New York. No doubt these tax breaks are standard real estate operating procedure; but as he convincingly argues: “the level of subsidies Trump has received along with his doggedness in claiming them seem at odds with his rhetoric as an outsider candidate who boasts of his single-handed success and who has denounced what he calls the pay-to-play culture of politics and a ‘rigged’ system of government.” 7
Trump did plenty more to earn his bad reputation. The Times investigation details a pattern of intimidating public officials and bookkeeping so dubious that the city ended up suing the developer for unpaid fees. (According to USA Today, Trump has been involved in at least 100 lawsuits “related to unpaid taxes.”) But surely the most sordid episode began with his purchase of 100 Central Park South. In 1981 Trump acquired the 1929 apartment building along with the faded Barbizon Plaza Hotel next door, and announced plans to demolish both and erect an immense residential tower. But there was a hitch: 100 Central Park South was occupied by several dozen tenants, many elderly, in rent-regulated apartments. Undeterred, Trump went to battle to roust the tenants and empty the building. Workers were instructed to suspend cleaning and maintenance, and heat and water were shut off. Newspapers ran lurid stories of slumlord tactics, with residents charging that vermin were deliberately released in the building; building staff were reportedly instructed to spy on the private lives, including sexual proclivities, of tenants. Those who complained were slapped with lawsuits. Some disgusted residents accepted buy-outs, and in a breathtakingly hypocritical act of charity Trump offered to house homeless families in the vacated apartments. Mayor Ed Koch turned him down. When a humanitarian group then asked Trump to extend the offer to Polish political exiles, the answer was no: the building was only for “people who live in America now, not refugees.” In 1985 both the city and state charged Trump with harassment and he was forced to settle. Today the renovated 100 Central Park South is called Trump Parc East, and one of its pricey condominiums is owned by none other than Trump’s son Eric. 8
Trump’s investment in New York City has been shallow and leveraged for quick turnover.
Trump’s inglorious career as a developer in his hometown would prove unsurprisingly brief. He has shown no capacity for complex urban-scale projects, concentrating instead on individual trophy buildings to which he can affix superlatives (best, biggest, tallest), masses of gold ornament, and, always, his name. Overall his investment in the city has been shallow and leveraged for quick turnover. The journalist Neil Barsky, who covered Trump for years for the Wall Street Journal, has put it succinctly: “Amid all the self-made myths about Donald Trump, none is more fantastic than Trump the moneymaker, the New York tycoon who has enjoyed a remarkably successful business career … His list of real estate accomplishments were minuscule compared with those of more successful New York developers who garnered far less publicity.” 9
Indeed, by the mid ’90s Trump had transitioned from builder to brander, putting together deals with little or no money of his own, slapping his name on everything from golf resorts to energy drinks to cufflinks, and cashing out. For the past couple of decades Trump’s income has derived more from fees collected for the use of his name than from equity positions in real estate projects. It is this modus operandi — consistent with Trump’s famously short attention span — that sets the Trump Organization apart from New York City’s other famous real estate dynasties, like Rudin, Durst, Zeckendorf, and Lefrak — and, for that matter, from Fred Trump — who have built projects to hold and to manage, not simply to brand and to flip. While undeniably motivated by profit, the organizations run by these families have, with patience and foresight, underwritten projects that have shaped the city and contributed across the generations to its enormous vitality.
What makes a good urban developer? New York City is a majestic work of art created by the collective efforts of countless builders, most content to work outside of the spotlight.
I think of Seymour Durst, who over many years acquired the multiple parcels of land that enabled his son and nephew to build One Bryant Park, at 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue, including a magnificent office tower designed by CookFox Architects that was the first LEED Platinum skyscraper in America. A new subway entrance and public winter garden at the base of the building are a boon to commuters and pedestrians. Sure, the Dursts got a big zoning bonus for providing these amenities, and they deserved it. The city and the developer are both better off for the deal. I think also of William Zeckendorf, who back in the ’60s gave the young I. M. Pei his start with the commission for Kips Bay Towers and other early projects, and of his son William Lie Zeckendorf , who made his own mark on Manhattan by venturing into marginal neighborhoods and constructing transformative buildings, like Zeckendorf Towers on Union Square, when that park was still notorious for drug dealing, and Worldwide Plaza, when nobody dreamed there’d be a market for prime offices and residences in the seedy zone of midtown west of Eighth Avenue.
What makes a good urban developer? New York City is a majestic work of art created over generations by the collective efforts of countless builders and developers, most of whom have been content to work outside of the spotlight creating not just monuments like One Bryant Park or Worldwide Plaza but also the sorts of “background” buildings that together give the city its remarkable architectural cohesion, cultural energy, and economic power. I don’t want to romanticize the development industry, which can be brutally avaricious. But at its best New York’s real estate community shares a commitment to civic improvement and a recognition that adhering to the rules of the game will not only benefit the city at large but also advance its own interests.
Real estate and electoral politics are both rough games, always competitive, often ugly — but they are governed by sets of rules and framed within an overriding social contract. In our capitalist system, private-sector developers fulfill an essential civic role in building our cities. Within the real estate community I discern a general, if often strained, consensus that the regulations and agreements that structure the industry — zoning codes, tax policies, financial mechanisms, the barter of public amenities for private profits, respect for the construction workforce — can deliver broad benefit while also enabling commercial success. Similarly, I remain convinced that most politicians in this country are motivated by a calling to public service, even if often notional and tempered by self-interest; and the best are animated by a deeper and historically informed vision of common good that puts public benefits ahead of personal ambitions.
Real estate and electoral politics are both rough games — but they are governed by sets of rules and framed within an overriding social contract.
Donald Trump boastfully tells the world that none of the rules applies to him. Indeed, he evinces conspicuous contempt for the norms and conventions of both business and politics. The scene I witnessed long ago on Fifth Avenue, as the sculptures were blasted off the Bonwit’s façade, has been replayed countless times in one form or another as Trump has ruthlessly pursued his own welfare above all else. Now Trump’s aberrant rise in national politics is upending the conventions of campaign politics. Just as he cheapened the business of real estate, substituting crass and megalomaniacal image making for genuine contribution to the cityscape, so too is Trump debasing presidential politics with his pandering appeals to prejudice and fear, his refusal to comply with standards of transparency (such as releasing his tax returns or health records), and his confounding displays of deceit and irrationality.
By now of course such displays have become numbingly familiar. #TrumpFatigue is trending on social media. In a recent piece in The New Yorker, Evan Osnos captures the current mood: “After more than a year of candidate Trump, Americans are almost desensitized to each new failing exhumed from his past — the losing schemes and cheapskate cruelties, the discrimination and misogyny — much as they are to the daily indecencies of the present: the malice toward a grieving mother, the hidden tax records, the birther fiction and other lies.”
It is grimly satisfying to see owners scrambling to de-brand their TRUMP developments.
How enduring will be the damage wrought by Donald Trump? The real estate world has certainly seen its share of charlatans and crooks, yet the industry continues to drive New York City’s economy and mold its physical form. American politics has likewise been serially disfigured by demagogues, yet our democracy has survived. Donald Trump might have gotten out of actual real estate development years ago, but his superficial and egotistical enterprise of branding projects has left an unhealthy residue across the industry. Lately it has been grimly satisfying to see some owners scrambling to de-brand their TRUMP developments. For the deservedly damaged Republican party, the de-branding will be fraught and perhaps impossible. As I write the news is breaking that George H.W. Bush is planning to vote for Hillary Clinton, and that the Republican National Committee is embracing Trump’s racist birtherism lies: only the most recent signs that Donald Trump has polluted the political landscape so thoroughly that the detoxification will be long and arduous.
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