The developer who regenerated Brooklyn’s waterfront
Developer Jeffrey E. Levine is an extraordinarily successful entrepreneur in New York, one of the most difficult and competitive real estate markets in the world. He started with nothing and built an empire.
Text: Chris Graeme Images: ACL
Jeffrey Levine was one of the most creative, dynamic and innovative real estate developers in the State of New York in the 1980s and 1990s.
Through is companies Douglaston Development, Levine Builders and Clinton Management he has developed or redeveloped literally millions of square metres, built thousands of housing units of all typologies, all of which were invariably top quality.
Levine has always said property development is a bit like surfing. The market goes in waves and you need to anticipate the wave just before it comes and then catch it on the way up.
The developer is particularly renowned for building affordable housing projects developed over a time span of 20-30 years from the late 1990s on behalf of the New York State Affordable Housing Group, which he says was beneficial for urban and community regeneration.
Jeffrey E. Levine grew up with a predominantly Jewish and Italian working class neighbourhood, and his first job was working for the parents of a neighbour.
“My father was a taxi driver and most of his friends worked in construction and it was here I developed an early interest in development” he told a group of business leaders at the 5th Real Estate Meetup supported by the Estoril-based Brightman Group and organised by the American Club of Lisbon in October.
After graduating in architecture from City College of New York, he at first worked for a developer and went into business aged 25 in 1979 without much capital but a good measure of what the Jewish community call ‘chutzpah’ and did contracting for developers which were already working on city programmes for affordable housing such as the Vacant Building Programme* (1988-1996).
“I met a number of architects, lawyers and bankers who were impressed with my capabilities, work ethic, integrity and they recommended that I oversee my own projects”.
One of the first was the renovation of a banqueting hall which belonged to his best friend’s uncle and which he completed by working around the clock allowing the caterers to continue working. “I survived because I learned never to make the same mistake twice, only to make new mistakes”, he said.
I did it my way
Gaining confidence and experience, he soon began to respond to RP Development** and became a ‘start-to-finish’ developer for projects.
“I’ve always believed that nobody does things to the standards you want as well as you. Each of these aspects in the process were need based. I started out as a contractor and as I got more and more exposed, and I was bringing units to market, it was important for me that they were managed in a certain way”. This was how his management company was born.
An important lesson occurred when Jeffrey approached a banker who had known him for years and asked for a loan for the new business. The banker declined by saying: “You might have grown, but it was never your name at the bottom of the cheque”. From then on he learned to borrow and leverage his own money for his own projects.
After 9/11 he embarked on the Cameo Building Project; his first market rate residential project located in the Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood on 50th Street in Manhattan.
At the time there was a psychology of fear in New York following the attacks with jobs and businesses moving out, but New York bounced back and he leased the entire building for apartments because downtown residents wanted to escape the toxicity left by the collapse of the Twin Towers.
From there Jeffrey Levine aggressively bought up sites on the Williamsburg and Greenpoint**** waterfronts, in Brooklyn, developing 2,500 units over 20 years, including the Edge, a 1.1 million square foot residential tower considered one of the most ambitious mixed-use waterfront developments to rise in the city.
His company did developments at the Hudson Yards (formerly freight yards and trucking parking lots). The result was the OHM project delivered in 2009.
Located on 30th Street/11th Avenue, OHM was one of the first projects built after the rezoning of West Chelsea in 2005.
The project benefited from the acquisition of High Line*** Transfer Corridor square footage and the onsite inclusionary housing bonus from the New York City Department of Housing Preservation & Development.
The OHM development offered full amenities such as a spacious fitness centre overlooking the Hudson River; a retro arcade and an ample garden terrace adjacent to a lounge overlooking the High Line Park. There was also a landscaped sky deck with views of Manhattan and the Hudson River with loungers for residents to enjoy. Additionally, the project featured 5,081 square feet of retail, including a food market.
People thought he was crazy because the land had been was derelict, no-one lived there, there was no shopping centre, or even a High Line. These whole areas are now completely rejuvenated.
Jeffrey is particularly proud of his restoration and renovation project in 2005 at 90 West Street on the iconic landmark the West Street Building designed by 20th century American architect Cass Gilbert.
The 23-storey Gothic-revival building in the financial district of Lower Manhattan, previously the Brady Building, had been erected a hundred years prior in 1905 for the West Street Improvement Corporation led by magnate Howard Carroll. It was damaged on 9/11 and the listed building was converted into renovated apartments by Levine.
Then in 2008-2009 the financial crash came after the collapse of Lehman. Jeffrey E. Levine says that even though rents plummeted (rents would fall again with Covid-19), interest rates also fell so the company made more money “purely by chance” because the market was awash with cheap capital.
Since then, Jeffery E. Levine has also has developed many other housing units, including senior housing in New York and Arizona. The entrepreneur says he counted the real estate developer Fred Trump as a friend and knows his famous or infamous son — depending on your view – Donald Trump.
The company suffered during Covid-19 when leases were expiring and young people chose to vacate their premises and relocate to summer houses or rentals, or their parents’ houses to work remotely.
However, once the vaccine appeared, his company saw a resurgence in rentals with 100% take-up rate in the Hudson Yard – higher than it had ever seen before. “New York is, where rentals are concerned, absolutely coming back with a vengeance”, the developer told CUNY TV.
Public Private Partnerships
And in the current crisis of spiralling construction material costs and supply chain problems making it hard for residential housing developers to build homes for the Portuguese middle classes, what is his advice to the sector and the Portuguese Government?
“The last thing you want is for a government to build affordable housing. I have had the privilege of renovating 2,000+ units of housing for a US$600 million New York City project for which private developers like myself, partnering with an agency, took over all responsibility for hiring the architects, engineers, setting the rents and removing all the toxic elements such as asbestos. I lived in these types of projects for part of my childhood, so it really was a personally rewarding project for me”.
“New York has been at the forefront of affordable housing in the world, producing more units than all the other cities in the United States combined because there is a commitment by the government and the private sector is the key component”, concluded Jeffrey E.Levine.
Jeffrey E. Levine has been happily married for 40 years to the current United States Ambassador to Portugal, Randy Charno Levine, a diplomat, author and cultural philanthropist who is a Trustee at the Meridian International Centre in Washington D.C and Trustee at the New Museum in New York City.
*The Vacant Building Program allowed the city to transfer the title of vacant city-owned buildings in clusters to private developers using a competitive process. Developers then received construction financing and permanent loan commitments, primarily from New York City Community Preservation Corporation (CPC), a non-profit lender funded by a consortium of commercial and savings banks. CPC also provided fixed-rate, 30-year mortgages for the properties. The city provided up to two-thirds of the rehabilitation cost at one percent interest, and this loan became a second mortgage on the property, thus making rents more affordable for tenants. Rents were set in consultation with the City’s Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) to be affordable to low- and moderate-income households.
**RP – Registered Provider – The developer manages the planning, development and sales process thereby making significant cost savings.
***The High Line is an elevated freight rail line transformed into a public park on Manhattan’s West Side. It is owned by the City of New York, and maintained and operated by Friends of the High Line.
*** Mae West and Pat Benatar resided in Greenpoint