Meet the Women Changing New York City’s Skyline

New York City can defined by a single word: change. This can easily be confirmed by looking up next time you walk through your neighborhood.

The city that never sleeps is also the city that never settles; a tale told in an ever-changing skyline adapting to those seeking their own piece of the New York City story.

And few, if any, have played a bigger role in the city’s evolving skyline than the three pioneering woman at the top of Douglas Elliman Development Marketing–Susan de França, Leslie Wilson and Karen Mansour.

Elliman Insider caught up with this female executive trio at the close of Women’s History Month to find out how they benefit from working together, how they reached such heights in a once male-dominated field and the women who’ve inspired them along the way.

Elliman Insider: As someone who is able to significantly change the New York City skyline, looking back 30 years from now, what do you think you’ll be most proud of?

Susan: I think I’ll most remember working alongside the most prolific and visionary developers who were steadfast in making NYC a better place for all. I take great pride in having worked closely with world renowned architects and celebrated interior designers who were committed to creating best-in-class properties such as Time Warner Center, 432 Park, 111 Murray, just to name a few.

Karen: Thirty years ago, Manhattan looked very different than it does today. Established residential neighborhoods changed with the addition of new development condominiums, and new residential neighborhoods evolved where they never existed before. I am proud that over the course of my career, I participated in this evolution and can claim that I was part of the changing Manhattan skyline.

432 Park Avenue transformed the NYC skyline.

Elliman Insider: What is it about new development that made you know it was the right field of real estate for you?

Leslie: I majored in Art History at Wellesley and yet immediately went to work on Wall Street. I enjoyed the marketing and sales, but there was no integration of art, architecture, culture or refinement; those things I love. For me, real estate development neatly and elegantly integrated these two worlds.

Susan: Growing up in NYC, I was always fascinated with architecture, spatial planning, and interior design. Both my parents were in real estate, so it’s definitely been part of my DNA.

“I am a creative and visual person. ​New development is so exciting to me … it offers limitless opportunities.” 

I am a creative and visual person. ​New development is so exciting to me because for the most part it offers limitless opportunities. There are very few boundaries in what can be created as generally one is starting with a clean slate. I believe the premise of unlimited potential inherently beckons the most innovative thinkers and doers in our industry, those who are attracted to manifest dreams that have never before been realized.

That energy is incredibly seductive and inspiring. New development offers a rare view into every aspect of a building’s life cycle from concept to creation and completion. Being intimately involved in all facets from selecting what art will be displayed in the great room to the pricing of a penthouse residence as well as gauging what personalities will thrive together on the sales team presents a holistic insight into the world of real estate. It’s truly impossible to be bored in the world of new development!

111 Murray St offers an elegant addition to the downtown skyline

Elliman Insider: What is something that people might not know about new development?

Susan: New development is akin to producing a Broadway production or a blockbuster movie in that they all involve crucial stages of planning, story line plotting, casting the right talent, background creation, stage setting and ensuring all personalities connect and always challenge each other to do better. It’s like telling a story that has to appeal to broad audiences with the hopes to create lasting memories for those who experience it and may return to it time and time again. A beautifully executed building becomes an iconic fixture in the city skyline in the way that cherished Broadway shows are inextricably linked to the cultural landscape of New York City and maintain timeless allure for future generations to come.

Leslie: How complex and exciting it is on multiple levels. New development is very fluid; it is way more than just a building.

“New development is very fluid; it is way more than just a building.”

Creating an entire narrative for a masterplan involves a whole ecosystem—like having a baby and doing everything from naming it to raising it.

Elliman Insider: How has working in a historically, male-dominated field challenged and shaped you as business women?

Leslie: The first half of my career was on Wall Street where I worked with 98% men in leadership positions all day long. I did not have a female boss until the second half of my career. I have been fortunate to have worked with amazing men from whom I learned a great deal and enjoyed mutually respectful working relationships. However, there was always a clear difference at the higher levels; the higher you went, the more rarefied and male dominated the environment. It helped shape me in that I learned their perspectives in analysis and decision-making.

Susan: Growing up as the eldest of four daughters, from a very young age, I was tasked with enormous responsibility. Looking back that responsibility paved the way to my leadership roles. My parents instilled confidence in me that there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do.

I learned to be resilient, sometimes appear like Teflon, and use psychology and intuition to accomplish any initiative.

I recall while attending college, I read “The Managerial Woman” a book on women in management which highlighted women’s assumptions, behavior, perception, an innate ability for organization. I learned to be resilient, sometimes appear like Teflon, and use psychology and intuition to accomplish any initiative.  I believe that women generally are better listeners, multi-taskers, and have just the right amount of ego so as not to get in the way of moving ahead. I recall in 2001 when I joined Related, I was the first female executive to have a windowed office. I am grateful for my male colleagues who always made me feel welcome and respected as part of the team.

Leslie and Susan

Elliman Insider: Name some women, either in real estate or other fields, who inspire you in your career.

Karen: My female colleagues inspire me the most. When I first met Susan, over 20 years ago, I was immediately in awe of her abilities, and at the same time, her grace and approach towards everything she confronts. We lost touch for a while, and then as fate would have it, Susan was recruited to revive our division at Douglas Elliman Development Marketing 10 years ago. Working together over the last decade has been a privilege.

Susan: While there are several women who have inspired me throughout my career, there are two in particular who really stand out. In 1989 while working at M.J. Raynes, I had the fortunate opportunity to work with Patricia Goldstein who was a well-respected financier in the banking and real estate industries. Pat conducted herself with a no-nonsense intensity yet had a compassionate way about her and I knew that she thoroughly enjoyed mentoring female executives.

I learned that a woman can be successful in business yet still be a wife and a mother at home.

While I reported to her during the week at the office, on weekends, we exercised together and I learned that a woman can be successful in business yet still be a wife and a mother at home. In 1996, I worked alongside Louise Sunshine, who is another incredibly talented woman and inimitable force. I am grateful that I met Louise further on in my career when I was a mother and a professional which enabled us to have a personal and professional relationship based upon mutual trust, admiration and respect.

Elliman Insider: You start thinking about a new development project 3 or 4 years in advance; how do you anticipate design trends, lifestyle habits, and buyer preferences?

Karen: Many of the projects we are working on in our portfolio are often at very different phases from one another. We are the consultants to the design professionals that provide real time data for current buyer preferences. The designers have their trend data as well. We try to stay ahead of what is current and look for new trends to provide fresh ideas that are exciting and will be coveted by the prospective buyers.

Susan: As the world has become increasingly global it’s important to cast a wide net. The bar in new development continues to be raised and individuals have become more discerning. Extensive research is critical to identify future trends, purchaser behaviors and buying habits. At Douglas Elliman, we are uniquely qualified and experienced given our unprecedented nationwide reach and global partnership with Knight Frank. Collaborating with great creative minds who challenge the status quo and are not afraid to push the envelope has proven to be extraordinarily successful. It’s important to understand each location and property and to seek to identify what will make it unique and stand out amongst the competition.

Elliman Insider: How do you see the skyline changing next?

Susan: While we live vertically in NYC, we transact and function horizontally and more so now remotely through technology.  I believe this global pandemic has demonstrated to us that while people can work from home, we still crave the human connection.

Outdoor spaces and wellness living environments will be a significant focus for future developments

We will continue to build up while incorporating more elements of intimacy, warmth, and humanness into design and amenities. For certain, outdoor spaces and wellness living environments such as Delos Living will be a significant focus for future developments.

Leslie: Skyscrapers dramatically changed our skyline. New York led the way on many levels with the creation of Billionaire’s Row that inspired a whole new chapter of design around the world. Our iconic skyline will continue its dramatic vertical transformation reaching even higher due to improvements in technology and building materials enabling taller and thinner towers.

Besides more supertall buildings, the skyline will reflect assertive, bolder and more adventurous residential architecture

Besides more supertall buildings, the skyline will reflect assertive, bolder and more adventurous residential architecture such as the pyramid on West 57th Street. Mega developments will transform new neighborhood pockets and corridors—just as Hudson Yards transformed Manhattan’s west side corridor. Parts of Brooklyn and Queens are also filling up with skyscrapers and starting to look more like Manhattan. “Mini-skylines” will pop up across new neighborhoods. Finally, thanks to technology we are seeing the blend of urbanism and nature together so that in the future you will see more terraces on supertalls.

Karen: This is tough to predict. I am not sure how incentivized developers are right now to put a shovel in the ground until we realize how rapid the absorption of the current inventory will occur. We are looking at very optimistic forecasts for the spring, and I am confident that we will see the results of this momentum. This is New York! We always come back stronger than we were before.


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ELLIMAN INSIDER is published by Douglas Elliman Real Estate
© 2020 all rights reserved
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