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Dealer in Downtown's Future

Ric Clark’s office in Lower Manhattan’s One Liberty Plaza building has an unobstructed view of the sky and an occasional glimpse of the Hudson River. Afternoon sun streams in on bright days, and storms from the west announce themselves early with lowering clouds that blur the line between river and sky.

It was not always so. Before September 11, 2001, Clark’s office was in shade much of the time; his office windows looked directly into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. 

Ric Clark and the view from his office

Ric Clark and the view from his office: the buildings to the left are part of the World Financial Center complex; the ten-story Winter Garden is between the two tallest ones. Everything between Clark and those buildings is the former site of the World Trade Center. Part of the center's underground parking garage—the only remaining structure—is visible to the right.

Clark graduated from IUP in 1980. In August, 2001, his selection as the next president and chief executive officer of Brookfield Properties Corporation was made public. Brookfield is a leading North American commercial real estate company, and Clark was due to take over the following April, moving up from the post of president and chief executive of Brookfield’s U.S. commercial operations.

Among Brookfield’s holdings at the time were eight million square feet of space in four office towers surrounding the World Trade Center. Included, in addition to One Liberty Plaza, were Towers One, Two, and Four of the World Financial Center and the ten-story Winter Garden atrium at the center of the Financial Center complex.

On September 11, Clark followed his normal routine, driving from his suburban home and arriving at the office about 7 a.m. Nearly two hours later, when the first plane hit, he remembered that “the whole building shook. It sounded like a train wreck. I looked out the window and saw a big hole in the North Tower.”

Clark was on the telephone when the second plane hit the South Tower. At that point, Brookfield’s evacuation plans were activated. As six thousand people left One Liberty Plaza, streaming eastward away from the Trade Center site, Clark went in the opposite direction to check on the status of the World Financial Center properties.

Thirty-five thousand people were evacuating the World Financial Center, scattering south, west, and north. According to an expert in disaster planning, “Brookfield evacuated their buildings in record time. Their buildings performed by leaps and bounds better than any others in Lower Manhattan, because they were prepared and trained.”

Clark was on Broadway, trying to get back to One Liberty Plaza, when the South Tower collapsed. He reversed course, ran up Park Row, and jumped into a music store. “From the looks of the guys who came in after me,” he said, “I must have been the last one to outrun the avalanche of dust and debris.”

When the dust had settled twenty minutes later, Clark was back on the street, walking through SoHo and the East Village, all the while trying to call colleagues by cell phone. Finally, at 11:30, he reached a Brookfield construction office at Madison Avenue and Forty-first Street.

Clark was soon joined by members of the company’s core group, all of whom had independently straggled into the Midtown office with the unerring precision of homing pigeons. Although communication was spotty throughout the city, Clark and his colleagues went to work. Within forty-eight hours, they were able to confirm that all of Brookfield’s employees and tenants were safe. For Clark personally, the news was much grimmer: at least a half-dozen friends and neighbors had perished in the collapsing towers.

The restored Winter Garden

Originally built at a cost of $60 million, the Winter Garden on September 11, 2001, sustained $50 million in damage. At one end, the pedestrian bridge that daily carried eighty thousand people to and from the North Tower was crushed by the collapse of the tower's top ten floors. Reconstruction of the Winter Garden involved five hundred workers replacing two thousand panes of glass and sixty thousand square feet of European marble. On September 12, 2002, Clark welcomed President and Mrs. George W. Bush to the restored structure.

Clark immediately realigned responsibilities among his senior staff, deploying people for damage assessment and repair; establishing a temporary corporate office; communicating with tenants, investors, and employees; addressing issues essential to the turnaround of a suddenly transformed Lower Manhattan; and running day-to-day business affairs. It would be four days before Clark would see his family at home. 

When Clark and the others were able to return to Lower Manhattan the next day, they found “significant damage” to Brookfield’s properties. With the exception of the Winter Garden, however, none of it was structural. A third of the six hundred windows at One Liberty Plaza were gone, and the damaged granite façade of the World Financial Center was dotted with hundreds of broken windows.

Bad as the damage was, it was better for Brookfield than some of the rumors. On the night of September 12, CNN reported that One Liberty Plaza was about to collapse. In reality, the building was sound. In fact, it was the first “red zone” building to reopen for business a mere five weeks later. With the exception of the Winter Garden, all the properties for which Brookfield had repair responsibility were reopened by year’s end. Clark, in fact, was cited in a New York business periodical as “the only downtown landlord who managed to restore damaged buildings as quickly as he said he would.”

Meanwhile, day in and day out, visible from Ric Clark’s office window, an epic and tragic drama proceeded. The bodies of victims were found and removed, debris was identified and trucked to barges, and even eight weeks after the attacks, Clark said, “There was a big girder of steel that was still glowing red when it was removed from the ground.”

The false report about the falling building convinced Clark that in restoring his company’s buildings, “We had to be open, honest, and accessible to shareholders and media. We answered every question that was put to us.” The shareholders responded positively. Although Brookfield’s stock initially tumbled, it had the best total return of comparable stocks at the end of 2002. “We delivered almost a 20-percent total return last year,” Clark said. “We’ve recovered very well.”

What prepared Ric Clark for the unprecedented situation he and his company faced on September 12? 

“One of the advantages of where I come from is that I’ve met a lot of people and have become a pretty good judge of character,” he said. “In building an organization, I’ve tried to surround myself with smart, decent, hard-working people. In this situation, all rose to the occasion.”

In Clark’s case, “where I come from” is a moving target. Growing up, he never lived in one place for more than three years. From the Philadelphia area, he and his four siblings followed their father’s career with Ralston Purina to and from St. Louis more than once, with stops along the way in State College and Salisbury, Md.

The family settled in Indiana, Pa., for Clark’s eighth- and ninth-grade years, leaving for Delaware County when he was in tenth grade. At that same time, his father turned to a career in residential real estate.

Clark returned to Indiana as a Summer-January freshman in 1976. His brother, Spencer, followed him to IUP a year later. Ric Clark majored in Business Administration, lived in a house on Church Street for three years, graduated in 1980, and moved back to the Philadelphia area.

Clark worked for a time as an auditor with Penn Central Corporation and gained designation as a Certified Public Accountant. He was relocated to New York when the Philadelphia office shut down. “I wasn’t exactly crazy about New York at first,” he said. “But it grew on me.” He lived in Manhattan for six years before moving to the suburbs.

In 1984, Clark became affiliated with Olympia & York, which built the World Financial Center. A succession of executive posts with Olympia & York and its successor, Brookfield Properties, led to the announcement less than a month before September 11 of his accession to the post of president and C.E.O. That change actually took place in February, 2002—two months earlier than originally scheduled.

Ric Clark

Ric Clark faces the future with confidence.

On September 12, 2002, Clark welcomed President and Mrs. George W. Bush as they arrived to host a Winter Garden reception for scores of United Nations heads of state. A week earlier, Clark had joined New York Governor George Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a ceremony opening the restored structure itself. 

Originally built at a cost of $60 million, the Winter Garden had sustained $50 million in damage. But its rebuilding and reopening proved a symbol of hope for Lower Manhattan and a symbol, too, of all that has confronted Ric Clark and his colleagues.

Clark is optimistic that recently announced plans for improvements in mass transit and other infrastructure enhancements point Lower Manhattan toward a brighter future. How, then, does he look upon running an $8-billion publicly traded company in the face of a slumping economy and skittish corporate renters?

“Confidently,” he says with a smile.