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RISK, RUIN AND RICHES: Inside the World of Big-Time Real Estate by James Powell

RISK, RUIN AND RICHES: Inside the World of Big-Time Real Estate


Pub Date: Sept. 9th, 1986
Publisher: Macmillan

For all their wealth and power, most real-estate moguls would have little difficulty qualifying for the ""Do you know me?"" commercials. With this series of somewhat discontinuous set pieces, though, journalist Powell rescues from obscurity a wealth of the property-development trade's high rollers and some supporting players. The author's lineup ranges from all-star architects like I.M. Pei, Cesar Pelli, and John Portman through the influential Bill Zeckendorf. Also covered are pioneer syndicator Lawrence A. Wien (once a part-owner of the Empire State Building), James Rouse (who in retirement is attempting to revive the city centers that his organization helped to prostrate with suburban shopping malls), Ken Laub (New York's ranking broker of commercial space), and Milt Gerstman (a down-to-earth project manager whose construction credits include Disney World's EPCOT Center). By Powell's account, the high-stakes real-estate game appears to be something of a family affair. Without much comment on the significance of blood (or marital) ties, the author offers anecdotal briefings on the activities of such kindred spirits as Chicago's Pritzkers, Toronto's Reichmanns, Seagram's Bronfmans, New York City's Tisch brothers, Harry Helmsley, and Donald Trump. Powell spins some grand yarns about the high-handed ways of the real-estate fraternity's elite, and displays a sharp eye for telling detail in cautionary tales about the Byzantine maneuvers required to assemble a single block in downtown Dallas and the political feuds that have effectively barred development of Navy Pier in Chicago. There's also a painstaking review of the 1981 collapse of two skywalks at the Hyatt Regency in Kansas City, which left 113 dead and 239 injured. Powell fails, though, to impose any sense of contextual order on his fine reportage, and thoughtful readers will be left to wonder what, if anything, it all means. In brief, then, a text that for lack of socioeconomic perspectives is somewhat less than the sum of its many estimable parts.