Interviews & Profiles

MWBE developers aim sky high with Affirmation Tower

The creators discuss their plans for constructing the first African American-owned skyscraper in New York City.

Proposed Affirmation Tower rendering.

Proposed Affirmation Tower rendering. Courtesy of The Peebles Corporation

Affirmation Tower, which is proposed to become the second tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, will not only break records for its height, but will also break barriers for people of color all over the region. 

The building was proposed as a response to a request of proposals made by New York City, and it will become the first African American-owned skyscraper in the city’s history. Its development follows the agenda set by last year’s George Floyd protests and Black Lives Matter demonstrations, which pushed for inclusion, diversity and racial equality. The developers of the tower, including Cheryl McKissack, president and CEO of McKissack & McKissack, and Craig Livingston, who is a managing partner for Exact Capital, have garnered high-profile tenants for the building, with one of them being the NAACP. 

City & State caught up with McKissack and Livingston on where the idea of building Affirmation Tower stemmed from and the impact it will have on the future of minority- and women-owned businesses.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are some of the basics about this project? Where did you come up with the name Affirmation Tower? 

Cheryl McKissack: So Don Peebles, if you read his information, always talks about affirmational development. And it’s really centered around affirming who we are, and it could be right now Affirmation Tower is affirming that New York is New York after coming out of this pandemic. After the George Floyd event, New York wants to stand tall and say we are all about diversity and inclusion. Not only are we dealing with building a tower, but we are at the same time addressing some social issues that our country needs to deal with. So we are affirming many things when we say Affirmation Tower being built by a team that's majority Black. My great great grandfather was a slave, and this has never been done south of 125th Street. So we are saying out of all the cities in the country, New York is ready to put in plain view the fact that we can address all these issues with one development.

In terms of women- and minority-owned real estate development in New York City, how does this one stand apart from previous projects?

McKissack: Well, I have to say I’ve been here 30 years. Our firm opened up in New York, probably around the same time as the MWBE (Minority/Women-owned Business Enterprise) programs were coming into play. And so over the last 30 years, McKissack (the McKissack Group) has had the opportunity to work on some of the most iconic projects in New York: Columbia-Manhattanville expansion, Medgar Evers College, Harlem Hospital, LaGuardia, Terminal One, Tappan Zee Bridge, the Moynihan station that just opened. But there’s something in common with all of these projects. And what’s in common with these projects is most of these are government projects, or they have government subsidies. And the government agencies have been way ahead of the curve of private industry with respect to creating a level playing field for companies like mine. So Affirmation Tower is important to me. It’s another defining moment, an inflection point, because now, it’s saying the private industry is beginning to recognize me to make an impactful change with respect to MWBE firms.

Propose dAffirmation Tower rendering. (Courtesy of The Peebles Corporation)

The design of the building is clearly unique, and we were reading the specs on it. Would you mind just walking us through why it looks the way it does, and how you decided on that? 

Craig Livingston: The building, of course designed by David Adjaye, who is a world renowned architect, he designed the African American Museum in Washington, D.C., he’s been knighted by the Queen, and his work is in demand all over the globe. This building, Affirmation Tower, looks like an inverted skyscraper. It’s smaller at the bottom, larger and expands at the top, which is the opposite of what most skyscrapers do as they get taller. And it was done that way to just suggest almost the impossibility being made into reality. It looks like it defies gravity. And at first glance, it would be impossible to have a building that’s shaped and built that way that gets larger at the top, but in fact, through engineering, we can build this building. And when the eye meets it at first, it does cause a reaction, because it does look impossible, but this development team is adamant on building it and making it into reality. 

How do you approach this very challenging task of securing a piece of land for development in New York City when you have a cause like your own? 

McKissack: You provide a quality proposal with a quality plan, which we have. We feel we have the absolute best design, the best solution that will work and produce profits in the city of New York. You make sure it’s unique, it’s never been done before. We’re expecting high numbers for MWBE participation on the project. That’s never been done before on a private development or high-rise. You bring the NAACP, national and local headquarters to the location, and it becomes a center of tourism for the city of New York. So, we’re not asking for subsidies or things of that nature. We’re talking about doing a straightforward development that’s going to bring a lot of tax revenue to the city and state of New York.

Livingston: It’s an architecturally interesting building, but the most powerful part of what our team brings to this project is ownership by African Americans. Because of ownership, we have power, and there’s an intentionality in how we build the building and who participates. So this is an opportunity for economic inclusion, for Black and brown businesses, on a scale that has never been done before in this part of Manhattan. 

Would you say that was the attraction for all of your investors? 

Livingston: In 2021, you’ve seen a lot of emergence and interest in ESG (environmental, social, and governance) investing. And as Cheryl alluded to, she’s been doing MWBE work with the government in various agencies, various authorities in New York for a while. But now through the social and racial equity agenda that has come out of the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement and other movements, we’ve seen an awakening across corporate America and other places that have not been paying attention to this. And this is an opportunity now for broad participation.

You referenced George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. Are both inspiring these types of big vision plans? Do you think the times are motivating more people such as yourselves to approach government for projects, for approvals, for funding? Do you believe that this is a trend that may start, or has it already started?

McKissack: If New York doesn’t take this opportunity now, other cities will, and they will be leap years ahead of us. We have had a lot of flight from New York, and we need to let everyone know that New York is open for business for everyone, not just for a chosen few. And that is what this project represents … This is going to change the paradigm of not only how Black people, or people of color see themselves, but also how they are seen by others. A lot of times, the MWBE label is not always a good one. People consider if you’re an MWBE, that you might be not as experienced, you may not have the best staff, you may not have the capital, all these things, and none of that is true. And so Affirmation Tower can begin to change that so people’s thinking and concept of people of color is very different. 

Livingston: It’s 2021, and we’re still talking about racial firsts. Think about that, in 2021, with respect to economic opportunity, we still have to have a discussion about how sparse economic opportunity has been for Black folks in this country, given the vital roles that they’ve played for hundreds of years. And this project really is an opportunity to send a message around the globe, that the principle of economic inclusion and diversity and shared opportunity is affirmed in New York. Point blank.