a photo of Hudson Yards developer Stephen Ross talking with designer Thomas Heatherwick
Hudson Yards developer Stephen Ross talks with Thomas Heatherwick (right), designer of the "Vessel" sculpture that is much-talked-about feature of the New York City mega-project. Mark Lennihan/AP

SoulCycle investor Stephen Ross faces criticism for hosting a Trump fundraiser. But he also funds sustainability research and urban mobility. It's complicated.

It was no secret that Stephen Ross was an investor in Equinox and SoulCycle, two fitness brands beloved by many a well-shod urban professional. But when news broke this week that Ross, the multibillionaire real estate developer, Miami Dolphins owner, and longtime Republican donor, planned to host a Hamptons fundraiser for President Trump this weekend, the backlash was swift and merciless.

Calls to boycott the chains flooded social media, and celebrities weighed in to decry the gyms’ apparent alignment to the president’s politics. Liberal fitness fans cancelled memberships, and at least one attempt was made to get Equinox employees to strike. Protesters gathered outside locations across the country. In San Francisco, one activist shouted: “SoulCyclers support kids in cages!”

SoulCycle and Equinox have distanced themselves from their part-owner’s politics, issuing pronouncements that Ross has little role in managing their companies as a “passive investor.” Read a statement from CEOs of both companies: “We believe in tolerance and equality, and will always stay true to those values.” It has since been reported that Related Companies, Ross’ real estate and business empire, does not hold a majority stake in either company. Ross, like many a tycoon with the means to spread bets around, has also donated to Democratic candidates here and there.

But this has not been the kind of week in which detesters of the president might be willing to give his affiliates a pass. On Wednesday, federal law enforcement rounded up 680 suspected undocumented workers at a Mississippi poultry plant, one of the largest worksite immigration raids in U.S. history. The same day, Trump spent what was supposed been a day of healing after a horrific weekend of mass shootings penning Twitter attacks against his political opponents. And the IPCC released a harrowing new report on the progress of global warming, just as news emerged that the White House is suppressing climate research within its own administration.

However, many an unhappy SoulCycler soon discovered that divesting from Stephen Ross will take more than just a canceling a few spin classes, especially if you live in a Millennial-heavy district of urban America and enjoy the amenities therein. Related has about $50 billion in real estate assets in cities around the world. Among them is Hudson Yards, the controversial mixed-used behemoth that opened in Manhattan earlier this year. Ross has money in CityPlace in West Palm Beach, Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, and other upscale mega-developments, too.  

Also in Ross’ portfolio: the D.C.-based fast-casual pie slanger &Pizza, David Chang’s cultishly adored Momofuku restaurants, the online table-booking platform Resy, and many other tasty brands. East Coast foodies, as Eater reports, face a formidable dining dilemma.

There’s also a Ross-related complication of particular interest to urban aficionados: Through Related and his own philanthropic work, Ross has also funded many brands, nonprofits, and entities that share a mission of building climate-friendly, car-light cities. The kind of work, in other words, you might read about in CityLab.

For example, Ross sits on the board of directors of the World Resources Institute, a global NGO and research center with a focus on climate and sustainability. In 2014, he donated $30.5 million to establish the WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, “an innovative new initiative to integrate expertise and on the ground experience in urban planning, sustainable transport, energy and climate change, water resources, and governance.” The Center has recently worked with cities around the world to push the adoption of bus rapid transit, fuel-efficient and electric vehicles, and greenhouse gas reduction standards.

In 2019, Ross gave a seed grant of $6 million to launch the New Urban Mobility (NUMO) alliance, “a collaborative effort aimed at harnessing tech-based disruptions in the area of urban transportation to make cities more sustainable,” founded by Zipcar founder (and occasional CityLab contributor) Robin Chase. Housed within the World Resources Institute, “NUMO will work to establish pilot programs, engage the public, and conduct research and use that information to help guide policy makers, the private sector, and others with an interest in a shared vision of cities and urban mobility,” stated a January press release. Most recently, it has been working to set up a multi-modal, car-free transportation system in Pittsburgh.

Asked for comment, a WRI spokesperson stated:

Mr. Ross is a major supporter of our work, especially WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities and NUMO, the New Urban Mobility Alliance. Through these initiatives we are working to create thriving, sustainable, inclusive cities around the world. We are an independent organization and endeavor to use all funds to further our mission of creating a more sustainable and equitable future for people everywhere.

Rows of Citi Bikes are lined up in front of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in 2018 in New York. (Kathy Willens/AP)

Related is also heavily involved in a broader issue of great interest to many residents of U.S. cities: affordable housing, the sector where Ross got his start in the 1970s. In 2016, the company made a 50 percent investment in Pocket, an affordable housing developer in London, which “builds compact one bedroom homes for first time buyers at a discount of at least 20 percent to the open market,” according to a press release that year. (Pocket declined to comment for this story.) Here’s more on how Related’s below-market-rate properties look today, according to its website:

”Related’s developed or preserved portfolio of over 50,000 affordable housing units has a total value in excess of $5 billion. Currently we have over 1,500 units under development or under contract throughout the country with a value in excess of $350 million. We are proud of our award-winning affordable developments from California to Chicago, ranging from family to senior, urban to suburban and rural, LIHTC, HOPE VI, RAD and PBS8. We are also one of the nation’s largest developers of 80/20 mixed income housing in New York City, Boston, Washington DC, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles.”

And among Ross’ former investments is one of the biggest urban transportation success stories in recent years. In 2014, Related purchased Motivate, the bikeshare company that operated New York City’s Citi Bike, San Francisco’s Ford GoBike, Washington, D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare, Chicago’s Divvy, and numerous other docked bikeshare systems in American cities. Motivate was acquired by Lyft in 2018 for $250 million, and Related is no longer an owner.

Is it curious that a billionaire who funds urban sustainability research, high-density affordable housing, and low-carbon transportation also wants to re-elect a president whose policies do enormous damage to such causes? It makes more sense considering that most of these investments serve to raise the value of Ross’ enormous urban real estate empire. “As cities do well, we do well,” Jeff Blau, the CEO of Related, told Fast Company in 2016.

Instructively, some observers of the SoulCycle/Equinox backlash have responded with yet more backlash. Cynical minds have pointed out that anyone who’s upset to learn that one of their favorite products is funded by someone with opposing political views will also be dismayed to learn about, um, a lot of other things. To wit: There’s a really good chance your bike helmet was made by a gun manufacturer. The Koch brothers probably wove your toilet paper. Media-killing cyber-libertarian Peter Thiel was an early Lyft investor. American life in 2019 involves brokering an endless series of devil’s bargains.

But there has also been backlash to the backlash to the backlash, with writers at Slate and the New York Times defending the anti-Equinox outcry. A viral protest “shows the world that there is a potential price to pay if a company’s values don’t mesh with its customers’ in some way,” wrote Slate’s Jordan Weissman. “And as a result, corporations may adjust to avoid becoming the next cautionary tale.”

Indeed, the targets of consumer-driven political indignation might be arbitrary. And it can be confusing to ordain the upshot: When businesses and organizations working protect the climate take money from donors who also play the other side of the field, is it hypocritical, short-sighted, or pragmatic? Whatever your answer, at least it’s worth knowing that it happens all the time.

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