No Fantasy Football: How The Levines Have Turned Douglaston Into A Real Estate Family Success Story
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The Levine family has been building apartments in New York City for decades, and, like probably every New York real estate family, when they start talking about the state’s recent rent reforms, the volume has gone up.
Douglaston Development Chairman Jeffrey Levine thinks the laws are outrageous, and questions whether they are even legal. His son, Benjamin, Douglaston’s executive vice president of finance and acquisitions, agrees they are a challenge, but is quick to point out the firm sees them differently than their “friendly competitors.”
The new laws, the younger Levine said, are an opportunity to “enhance the quality of life” for residents, incentivizing them to stay in their buildings.
“They’re trying to temper me,” Jeff said good-naturedly when Ben tried to change the subject.
The conversation wasn’t happening around a dinner table — it was happening in a conference room at Douglaston’s office at 7 Pennsylvania Plaza in Midtown Manhattan.
“We are worried about the laws,” Jeff said in response to a question in an interview with Bisnow alongside Ben; his daughter, Jessica Sherman, a senior associate in the company’s affordable housing team; and Douglaston President Steven Charno, Jeff's brother-in-law.
“We said that,” Ben responded, eager to move on. “This is a great time to talk about our beacon of shining energy at West 29th Street.”
The push and pull is not atypical: Ben Levine is Ivy League-educated, worked for Credit Suisse before joining Douglaston, and is careful with his words. Jeff is an old-school, outer-borough-bred developer who, like many New Yorkers, does not shy away from speaking his mind.
“In general, my dad tends to be more outspoken,” she said. “He really is comfortable telling people the good, the bad and the ugly … Ben is a little more buttoned up.”
At the Douglaston Cos., family and business are never really separate, though the Levines try to steer clear of the latter at the dinner table to spare the other members of the family.
“There is a boss hat and a family hat,” Charno said.
The company turns 40 years old this year, having built 4,000 market-rate and affordable apartments, 500 hotel rooms and more than 1,000 senior housing units in the last decade alone.
The firm, which Jeff Levine first started as a building contractor, has over the last four decades morphed into an integrated owner, developer and manager. Under the Douglaston banner are subsidiaries Douglaston Development, Levine Builders and Clinton Management.
Now, with projects like the luxury residential tower at 601 West 29th St. in the works, Douglaston has in excess of 2,000 units in the pipeline in New York City, as well as developments underway in Arizona, Seattle and London. The company is also moving into a new era of management: Ben Levine and Sherman are preparing for what Sherman calls “joint leadership.” Jeff said he has no plans to retire just yet.
“Ben and I talk regularly about what [that] will look like and how we can use our separate and collective strengths to really bring the company to new and exciting places,” Sherman said, adding that she hopes their father will be working with them for a long time.
“We have honest conversations about respecting each other’s strengths and supporting each other … That doesn't mean it's always easy, but it does mean that at the end of the day the basis of our relationship is respect and a desire for mutual success."
Though there are more than 200 employees at the company, family members are spread across the departments. Along with Sherman — who took her husband’s name when they married in 2016 and now has a 15-month-old daughter named Orly — Ben and Charno, Jeff’s nephew, cousin and sister are all working in the business.
Randi, Jeff's wife and Charno's sister, provides design expertise on its projects. The third Levine child, Dara, is a teacher, loves it and has no interest in joining the company, the patriarch said.
“We’ve tried to entice her to work with us before, but she has a master's in education and she loves teaching, and ultimately as a parent our goal is for children to be happy,” Jeff Levine said in his distinctly New York accent. "A parent can only be as happy as their least happy child."
Sure, they’ve had their blowups — “What family doesn’t?” Jeff opined — though the most contentious disputes have been reserved for fantasy football, according to Ben.
“Which I prohibit,” Jeff said.
“No, which he prohibits himself from,” Ben quipped with a laugh.
Sherman clarified later that there is no ban on the game, just on the prolific discussion of it at regular business meetings. The Levines are major sports fans, and Randi was previously a sports reporter, Ben said.
Ben and Jessica were always interested in real estate, and both majored in urban studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Sherman joined the company three years ago, having previously worked for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Her focus on social policy led her to the affordable side of the company.
Ben, whose first job was as a laborer at the Bloomberg Tower at 731 Lexington Ave., worked at Credit Suisse straight out of school and joined Douglaston in the wake of the Great Recession. He joked he had significantly less leverage than his sister coming in, who turned down a compelling offer from Amazon to work at Douglaston.
Ben’s capabilities mean he leans toward the market-rate housing and hospitality side of the business, they said. Charno, who joined from Related in 2003, has a knack for handling large-scale projects without breaking a sweat, Jeff said.
“I think that [the family members] all always knew that this was an incredible opportunity, that fortunately we'd be able to become a part of the company,” Ben said. “I think that when you look at this industry, there's a reason why real estate development tends to be a generational business — it's a very challenging business to enter into.”
All of them speak with great pride of the company’s affordable housing developments.
“I remember my dad always being really proud of the fact that he was creating homes,” Sherman said. "That hardworking people could know where they were going to live and feel like they had somewhere to grow their families."
While affordable housing has been a mainstay of Douglaston's business for decades, the New York real estate industry has been faced with an existential crisis in the space this year in the form of tough new legislation. This summer, the New York legislature introduced sweeping changes to the way rent-stabilized apartment owners can raise rents, sparking a furious response from the industry and cheers from tenant advocates.
Jeff Levine thinks companies such as his that have not relied on turning units out of stabilization as a business model, he said, are well placed to weather the impact of the laws. At the Ohm — a 369-unit mixed-income rental building that was one of the first projects built after the rezoning of West Chelsea — the company is moving ahead with millions of dollars worth of upgrades to the building.
When Douglaston greenlighted the renovations, it was operating under the assumption it would have been able to pass on costs through major capital improvements provisions, Jeff said. The passage of the rent stabilization put an end to that assumption, but the improvements are moving ahead nonetheless, the company said.
“We will run our buildings efficiently, take whatever steps are necessary to keep the quality of the buildings to the standard that they need to be to maintain the occupancy of the market-rate tenants who live in and enjoy the building,” Jeff Levine said.
Ben Levine pointed out that “a lot of people are trying to cut on the expense side, which is not something that we're interested in doing.”
Jeff said a stomach for adversity is the only way to handle the real estate game. In his office hangs a neon sign that says “Shit happens, deal with it.” Nearby, there’s a framed picture of 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden. In the hallway, there is another photograph with Bill and Hillary Clinton on the wall.
“Jeff is one of the good guys in the industry, he does what he says he’s going to do,” said Seth Pinsky, an executive vice president at RXR Realty, who interacted with Douglaston when he worked for Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “He took some big risks at a time when people were less certain about how successful the Williamsburg waterfront would be … Because of the projects he was responsible for, the waterfront has turned out to be incredible, and he deserves substantial credit for it.”
CBRE Tri-State CEO Mary Ann Tighe got to know Jeff through the Real Estate Board of New York, and said she was immediately fond of him.
“As soon as I started talking to him, I realized — and this from a Catholic girl — what a mensch he is,” Tighe told Bisnow. “There are no buzzwords or business school speak when you discuss real estate with Jeff Levine. He can speak so simply and plainly about his thought processes … And he’s so damn funny, and he’s not trying to be funny.”
Tighe credits him with being a pioneer in West Chelsea with the Ohm — “Who names their building something like that? That’s so Jeff,” she said. For years, Levine let her use the roof of the building to show clients the stretch and scope of the area that would one day become Hudson Yards — including Coach, which famously committed to 600K SF of offices at the property in 2011.
Once, Tighe said she had lunch with Levine in Williamsburg and asked him about how he makes a decision to start on a building.
“He said, ‘When you start seeing the pretty girls walking on the street, that’s when you go vertical,’ " she recalled. "And he pointed out two young mothers walking with their baby carriages, pretty as a picture.”
Jeffrey Levine grew up in parts of Brooklyn and Queens, and spent part of his childhood in the Linden Houses, a housing project in East New York. The child of a cab driver, he studied architecture at City College. In 1979, in a unit he shared with a friend and his brother in Douglaston, Queens, he formed Levine Builders. The headquarters of that company is still in Queens, and has the same phone number from four decades ago.
In the early years of the business, he contracted for other developers, picking up any jobs he could. In the early 1980s, when he had few contacts, he sent a baby picture of Ben with a cutout speech bubble saying “Help feed me!” to a potential client, which he said actually worked.
Douglaston Development was formed in 1991, and Clinton Management was incorporated in 2001. Jeff has long maintained that building affordable housing is a safe, long-term bet, though there is more “brain damage” dealing with subsidies and regulations to make the projects profitable.
“There are a lot more poor people than rich people, contrary to what the TV images may show you,” he said. The company, with its three arms, is what they describe as “owner-builder-manager” and the scope of its projects run the gamut of asset types.
In the early 1990s, the company transformed burned-down buildings in the South Bronx into affordable housing units. In the early 2000s, it launched the Harlem Renaissance, a 240-apartment co-op in central Harlem aimed at middle income buyers. After Sept. 11, 2001, the company turned 90 West St. in the Financial District — which had been damaged in the attack — from office to residential.
It also worked with the City Planning Commission to rezone the Williamsburg waterfront, and has built more than 2,000 rental and condominium units there since 2007. In the last few years, it has built 425 phased mixed-income units in Mott Haven in the South Bronx at the Crossroads Plaza development. This year it was selected by the city, along with Hudson Cos., to work with nonprofits to build around 200 affordable housing units on Ninth and 10th avenues in the Hudson Yards area.
At the West 29th Street development, Douglaston is planning nearly 1,000 units, 234 of which will be designated as affordable, in a building designed by FXCollaborative. Ares Management Corp. is putting in $160M in joint-venture equity for the project, which has locked down $415M in construction financing.
Forty years from now, Jeff Levine said, he wants the company to look similar to how it does today.
“I would like it to continue to do a blend of both market and affordable work,” he said. "I would like to have a high level of integrity and character and pride in the work that we do."
Sherman said she and her brother ultimately have a goal for the company to continue being something of which their father would be proud.
“I can't tell you today if he's the CEO and I'm going to be chairman — there are a million ways that can look, and neither of us really care about what the title is,” she said. “At the end of the day, what we care about is continuing in our father's legacy and building on our own passion.”