Q&A: Developer Don Peebles talks Affirmation Tower, ‘affirmative development’ and diversity in real estate

Developer Don Peebles discusses Black advancement in real estate and efforts to build the largest skyscraper in New York in question-and-answer with theGrio

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As the head of the largest Black-owned real estate development company in the U.S., Don Peebles takes his role seriously.

The chairman and chief executive of the Peebles Corporation, which has a portfolio worth $8 billion, has set out to challenge the barriers that Black people continue to face in the development space.

From his perch, Peebles can see the unfairness that continues to face Blacks who want to make it in the development space. For example, of the 116,242 licensed architects in the US, just 2% (roughly 2,300) are Black.

The Urban Land Institute, an organization of real estate and land use experts, has noted just 5% of its members are Black.

R. Donahue “Don” Peebles (Nicole Pereira Photography, used with permission)

That reality helps give Peebles a purpose.

“I’m not just a businessperson,” he said. “I’m a Black businessperson. And that comes with a sense of responsibility.” 

Peebles has proposed building Affirmation Tower, a massive skyscraper planned for New York City that would be built by a team that’s 80% Black. Designed at 1,663 feet, it stands to be the tallest structure in the Western Hemisphere and would house office space for the Mid-Manhattan chapter of the NAACP.

The tower project is on hold, however, after New York state pulled the Request for Proposal to determine whether an affordable housing component needs to be added to the plan.

Peebles maintains a housing component doesn’t belong at a site across from the Jacob Javits Center, one of the largest convention centers in the country. But he also believes systematic racism played a part in the discussion to pull the RFP.

There’s no timeframe on when a new RFP will be issued, though Peebles intends to resubmit a bid.

Peebles talked to TheGrio about a number of issues, including barriers to entry, his commitment to “affirmative development.”

The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What are the barriers to entry?

The biggest impediment to opportunity is that there’s no access through the development community. The developers make the decisions on who they hire, who they engage with in projects. If you don’t have any diversity at the top level, then you don’t get diversity elsewhere.

The people hire who they know or are comfortable with. And so if you have white men who make up 99% of the large commercial real estate developers, then you can understand why you won’t see much diversity on the architectural side. And then on top of it all, because there are very few Black architects, you’ve got to be proactive and take affirmative steps to go in, identify them and find them. If that’s not important to you, then you’re not going to do it.  

Your website says the company practices “affirmative development.” What does that mean?

We aggressively go out and look for talent with a wide lens. And that means it’s going to be inclusive. And we operate from the perspective that economic opportunities ought to be provided to people based on population demographics. So in our business, if we’re building a building in Washington, D.C., then more than 50% of the people and businesses that receive economic benefit from our project should be Black.

That’s what affirmative development means. I want to build outstanding, excellent projects that are the best in their class. But I’m going to do it in a way that is inclusive because we’re not operating in a vacuum. We’re not operating with blindfolds on. We are operating in America. And there has been systemic institutionalized discrimination ever since our people got here. And to right that wrong we’ve got to be more aggressive.

New York state rescinded the RFP for the Affirmation Tower. What happened?

Affirmation Tower (via: Peebles Corporation)

We did our job so well they wanted to stop the race. In New York City, the number one local business is real estate. The biggest wealth generator in the United States is real estate. Here we are, in America’s most diverse city, not one of those skyscrapers has been built by an African American developer, not one in all these years. That’s not by happenstance. That’s not because we are incapable of doing it. That’s because there’s a system that has precluded that.

If one of us gets to go into their business in a big way, then the floodgates get open. No longer can they keep building these skyscrapers in New York, getting public support, public money, and having no diversity because the private sector and the real estate industry doesn’t have diversity.  Why is that? Because of systemic discrimination.

New York says it wants to revisit the RFP to determine whether affordable housing makes sense on the site. Is it fair to say there’s now a difference in vision on what the project should be?

I think in part. I think the prior governor, Andrew Cuomo, led with economic inclusion. He took affirmative steps when he took over the state government to broaden economic opportunities. And so this governor (Kathy Hochul) has come in and is looking at other things like affordable housing, which everyone knows is a very pressing issue. But there’s places where it belongs and places where it doesn’t. I think she’s trying to assess what’s going on. (Cuomo) he’s been around a long time, he understood what was going on, and he had a specific agenda in mind. And so economic development, rebuilding infrastructure for New York, but then also making sure that it would (be) economically inclusive because it was a smart political decision, if nothing else.

How do you see businesspeople playing a role in improving opportunity?

Businesspeople in our roles as businesspeople, can’t say, ‘We got some economic opportunity and it’s all ours now and we’re not going to engage.’ We’ve got to double down and engage more and mentor and support others. And when we get in a position where we can allocate capital or economic opportunities, we’ve got to be intentional and take affirmative steps to make sure that black Americans get opportunities within our businesses.

What do you see as your responsibility?

The absolute worst thing is when some of us get into positions of power or the ability to be a part of change, and we say, ‘hey, we just want to be a businessperson,’ or ‘we just want to treat everybody equally.’ We can’t do that. That’s not the way it’s going to work. It’s not the way we’ll get to see some progress. I am not just any other businessperson. For better or worse, I am a black businessperson. That comes with a sense of responsibility, I welcome that. It’s an opportunity to help pay back and advance the progress that people who came before me created (so I could have) opportunities.  

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