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Lunch at the Tribeca Grill with: Jeffrey E. Levine

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-04-21

Jeffrey E. Levine is one of those people who can't stop admiring what they haven't built. The founder and president of Levine Builders - a company he started in 1979 - Mr. Levine is an aficionado of architecture. Other than tending to his family, developing his business, and being engaged in philanthropic and community work, there's nothing Mr. Levine enjoys more than studying the stunning diversity of buildings in New York's five boroughs.

"I'm absolutely amazed at the sights and vibrancy of our city - even more so in the wake of September 11, 2001," Mr. Levine said over lunch. "The diversity of New York creates not only opportunities for business, but also for personal enjoyment. I take great pride in knowing all the boroughs."

Much of that pride flows from the fact that, as someone who majored in architecture at City College, his erudition didn't end with graduation. But perhaps even more of that pride surely stems from the fact that, for more than 25 years now, he has built, renovated and rehabilitated thousands of residential units and millions of square feet of commercial space all over the city, and also on Long Island and in Westchester.

Last year, Mr. Levine's Douglaston, Queens-based company registered a 38% increase in revenues over 2003. He has three major residential projects in progress, totaling an estimated $225 million. These include a new apartment building on East 25th Street in Gramercy, as well as 555 West 23rd Street, which is nearing completion.

He's also hard at work on a 41-story building at 325 Fifth Avenue, diagonally across from the Empire State Building. It will contain 250 luxury apartments; it will have top-of-the-line amenities such as a fitness center, lounge, pool, spa area, a 7,000-square-foot landscaped plaza, as well as outdoor balconies. For this project, the development affiliate of Levine Builders, Douglaston Development, has teamed up with New Jersey developer, Continental Properties.

When completed, these three projects alone will add approximately 650 housing units to help New York's growing need for housing, Mr. Levine said, adding that he liked to focus on affordable and fair-market housing.

Then there's the new mall in Union Square, and the renovation of 90 West Street. There's a new building at 555 West 23rd Street, an essential part of the revitalization of West Chelsea. Besides creating 337 units ranging from studios to two-bedrooms at market rate prices, it will bring 12,000 square feet of retail space, most of which will be dedicated to art galleries.

He's building new housing not only in West Chelsea, but in Gramercy and Midtown as well. The company's newest residential project, at 244 East 25th Street, between Second and Third Avenues, will have 54 apartments featuring hardwood floors, marble baths and floor-to-ceiling windows. Levine Builders is providing construction management services for the 13-story building, which is owned by Arthur Leeds Associates. Designed by the Stephen B. Jacobs Group, the $13.3 million project will be completed next month.

So, the reporter asked, how does a boy from a modest background in Brooklyn wind up at the top of the game in New York's highly competitive real-estate business?

"Life is all about what you make it," Mr. Levine said. "I've been blessed beyond my expectations. My wife Randi - to whom I've been married for 22 years - has been a particular source of support and strength. She has raised there well-adjusted children - which is more difficult than anything I've done in business."

That sort of modesty is typical of Mr. Levine. But make no mistake about his ambition. As the oldest of Irving and Irene Levine's four children, Mr. Levine - who was born on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn - aimed high from his youth. He attributes his drive to his upbringing in which education and empathy for the dispossessed were stressed not only by his parents (his mother was president of the local synagogue). His grandfather Benjamin Sherman - who shared driving a taxi with Irving Levine - influenced him immensely, Mr. Levine said. A deeply spiritual man, he always exhorted his grandson to expand his vision beyond the precincts of his childhood.

The desire to excel led Mr. Levine to start working quite early in life: his first job was at a construction site when he was 16. In fact, he kept working in construction during the day even as he attended college at night. He influenced greatly by the legendary Herbert Mandel, the developer who was the "spiritual forebear of today's flamboyant builders," according to author Andrew Alpern.

"You'll be a builder yet some day," Mandel told Mr. Levine.

By the time Mr. Levine graduated in 1975 from City College, he was an assistant supervisor, earning $350 a week. He was offered an internship at an architectural firm, but he decided that he wanted to strike out on his own. So he became a contractor.

"It wasn't what you might call a well-funded venture," Mr. Levine said of that solo debut. "I relied a lot on my Visa card in those days. But I knew the construction business. I also had a vision for where I wanted to go."

What he wanted to do was become a developer in his own right. He continued performing third-party work as a contractor. Business came his way through referrals. Clients appreciated his keen attention to tight budgets and on-time completion of projects. They also appreciated his strong emphasis on ethics in an industry peppered with questionable practices.

"My philosophy is that you should never do anything in business that will hurt other people - or embarrass you," Mr. Levine said. "Obviously every business has its unsavory aspects. But I try to do business only with people who're honorable and decent. If people don't play nice with me, I don't play with them."

He's especially proud of playing a key role in the revitalization of northern Manhattan. Some five years ago, Mr. Levine, in association with the Suna family, developed a property on Malcolm X Boulevard and 116th Street; it's now considered a model of renaissance of that area, the largest mixed-use development built in Harlem in the last 20 years. He also raised a 229-unit building at 333 East 102nd Street and First Avenue in East Harlem with Glenwood Management; it offers market rentals as well as affordable units.

And in the South Bronx, Mr. Levine completed a year-long project to renovate nine low-income buildings on Wales Avenue under the Article 8A program sponsored by the City's Department of Housing Preservation & Development.

"Building is a very community-based exercise," Mr. Levine said. "That's why a builder needs to know the terrain. You need to understand the community. I spend a lot of my time in New York's neighborhoods to get a feel for what people want, for their aspirations."

Among his own aspirations is the development of 11 acres in Brooklyn, a property that stretches from Kent Avenue to the East River. He bought it for $100 million, and is now working in partnership with Louis Silverman on plans for the site.

Does he also aspire that his three children - Benjamin, 20, Jessica, 17, and Dara, 16 - will join his business?

"They will surely decide for themselves," said Mr. Levine. "I learned from my own parents that all you can really do for your children is to pass on strong values, a commitment to leading the moral life. I really do wake up every morning and thank God for giving me another day - another day with Randi and my children, my community, and my business - and this city."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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