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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Orin Wilf

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-01-12

It was in a Rhode Island jailhouse that Orin Wilf learned an important lesson about life and ethnic diversity.

"I learned how important it was to treat everybody with respect - no matter what class or background they came from," the principal of Garden Homes said yesterday. "And if you treat people with respect, they will treat you with respect."

It took a jailhouse to learn this?

"I was 18, and working as an intern in Rhode Island," Mr. Wilf said. "I was assigned to interview a suspect in the jailhouse. The suspect was most reluctant to talk - he even engaged in, shall we say, a vile action that was hardly respectful of my physical presence in that cell. But I stayed calm and listened to him.

"I showed him respect. I told him that color and race didn't matter - that if he was to get a fair trial, then I needed to have my questions answered," Mr. Wilf said. "I got him to talk."

Getting people to talk is a skill that Mr. Wilf - who isn't quite 32 yet - has mastered. It has contributed to accumulating accomplishments in real estate in New York City that include buildings such as 75 West Street; converting 41 Broad Street for the Claremont Academy Preparatory School, and converting 37 Wall Street to 350 rental apartments.

"A deal doesn't have to be all about numbers," Mr. Wilf said. "One of the best things about my life is that I get to meet new people all the time, and I get to listen to them. Too many developers like to hear themselves talk."

He isn't one of them. Mr. Wilf's listening skills have helped him in tough real-estate negotiations, which recently yielded a showcase project near Gracie Mansion for him - a 110-unit luxury condominium on East End Avenue between 87th and 88th streets. The 20-story building, rising on the site of the shuttered 210-bed Beth Israel Hospital Singer Division at 170 East End Avenue, is expected to fetch more than $2,000 a square foot.
"I convinced Peter Marino to design his first residential building in Manhattan," Mr. Wilf said of the celebrated architect.

Mr. Marino's design calls for a tower fronting on the avenue, and two low-rise wings on the side streets with a large garden between them, Mr. Wilf said. The lower two floors of the complex will be faced with limestone and granite, he said, and the rest will be faced with limestone-colored pre-cast concrete, while the center section of the tower above the entrance will be mostly glass.

He's at the site early on weekdays after playing with his sons Harley, who's just over 3, and Alex, who's under 2. His wife Lisa doesn't accompany him.
"That's because she's part of a more important organization - our family," Mr. Wilf said. "She supports me and keeps the family together."

His family has always played a significant role in Mr. Wilf's life.

Fifty years ago, his grandfather Harry and Harry's brother Joseph established Garden Homes to build single-family houses in New Jersey.

As the company became successful, its menu was expanded to include condominium apartments, office buildings, shopping malls and hotels in the New York metropolitan region. Garden Homes then cast its net wide to take in Arizona, California, Maryland, Florida, Pennsylvania and Delaware. The company now operates in 37 states.

The Wilfs were also committed to the economic development of Israel, something that Orin shares. The family built a 15-acre park in the heart of Jerusalem, dedicated to Harry Wilf. And it continues to build hotels and residential developments.

"I was thinking about Donald Trump one day and said to myself, 'Wouldn't it be great to build as many buildings as him?'" Mr. Wilf said. "Then it struck me that my family has built more buildings than Trump in the last 50 years."

The driving force behind that construction was Harry Wilf. His son was Leonard, who married Dr. Marcia Robbins. Orin was their only son. Leonard Wilf would often take Orin to construction sites. Then, to teach him self-reliance and discipline, his parents packed him off to a boarding school in Princeton, where Orin roomed for four years with African-American boys from disadvantaged backgrounds who'd won scholarships. (Mr. Wilf recently donated a baseball field to his alma mater, the Hun School.)

"Their background was completely alien to me - I realized that not everybody was as fortunate as me," Mr. Orin said. "But I was willing to accept that we all really lived in one world. As much as my formal education, I learned in those years what diversity was all about - race and the color of your skin don't count, your character and values do."

For a businessman who has a reputation for relentlessness, that seemed an awfully philosophical thing to say. And for a man whose manner, physique and bearing are formidable, that even seemed reflective.

"No, I'm not a big bad developer," Mr. Orin said with a smile, as if anticipating a reporter's question. "I really do want to be known as a 'people's developer.' That means I need to relate not only to others in the real-estate industry, but, perhaps more importantly, to the people in the community where I'm doing a project. They've got to feel comfortable with my project. So I organize community get-togethers as my projects go up. I visit with people in their homes. I listen to them.

"And you know what? I am continually surprised at New York's diversity. This is the most diverse city in the world. It is the best place one can live in. It is a great place to learn about people and diversity."

He paused for just a moment, and then said: "And I'm glad that I learned my lessons early in life."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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