John Catsimatidis, known for owning Red Apple and Gristedes stores and running for mayor, has been busy building apartment towers in Brooklyn.
Two 21-story towers in Coney Island are being developed by Red Apple Group and are scheduled for completion next summer. Credit…Rendering by Nightnurse Images/Weintraub Diaz Landscape Architecture
John A. Catsimatidis may have made his name and a good part of his considerable fortune — Forbes puts his worth at $3.1 billion — as the owner of supermarkets, but these days he is looking more and more like a real estate developer.
While grocery stores have shrunk to less than 2 percent of the assets of the Manhattan-based Red Apple Group, real estate development in New York City now represents about 15 to 20 percent of Mr. Catsimatidis’s multifaceted company. And it’s growing.
Ocean Dreams, a 425-unit luxury rental complex overlooking the Atlantic on the western end of Coney Island, recently topped out and is expected to open next summer. Comprising two 21-story towers on a podium, it is the fifth project Mr. Catsimatidis has undertaken in Brooklyn in less than a decade, following four on Myrtle Avenue in Fort Greene, each more ambitious than the last. He also owns land on either side of the Ocean Dreams towers that he is itching to build on, as well as another beachfront parcel a couple blocks east.
“We tamed Myrtle Avenue,” said Mr. Catsimatidis, 70, who has lived in New York City ever since his Greek parents brought him here as an infant, and who ran unsuccessfully in the Republican mayoral primary in 2013. “Now we’re taming Coney Island.”
What he calls “taming” others might call gentrification, but terminology aside, his projects to date have taken a page from the same playbook: Buy land in what some may regard as off-the-beaten-path areas, hold it until the time is right — and development incentives have been extracted from the city — and then build projects for more affluent renters than those who have historically inhabited those neighborhoods. Increasingly, his buildings stand out for their design as well.
Consider the Fort Greene apartment buildings, all standing in a row across Myrtle Avenue from Ingersoll Houses, a 1940s public-housing complex where the average tenant income is $26,483 and the average monthly rent is $573.
Mr. Catsimatidis purchased the three-block parcel on which his buildings now stand back in the early 1980s, but he had already been investing in real estate for years, at first so he could ensure permanent homes for his supermarkets. (He founded the Red Apple chain and later purchased Gristedes, now merged with D’Agostino.) But in many cases, the land turned out to be vastly more valuable than the stores, and over the years he has sold many properties for considerable profit.
He held onto the Myrtle Avenue site, however, until a zoning change prompted him to try something different.
In 2010, he completed a nine-story building at the intersection of Myrtle Avenue and Navy Street and called it the Andrea, after his eldest child, 28, who works in the family business. Five years later, the 15-story Giovanni went up next to it. It is named for John Jr., 25, who also helps run Red Apple, but, as Mr. Catsimatidis’s wife, Margo, explained, “no one wants to live in ‘the John.’” In 2016, the 16-story Margo was completed in her honor.
The fourth and final Fort Greene building — twice the height of the Margo and with 440 units, including 29 affordable apartments awarded through a lottery — opened this year. The luxury rental tower (StreetEasy recently listed units ranging from a $2,662 studio to a $6,689 two-bedroom) is named the Eagle because, Mr. Catsimatidis said, he wanted his building “to soar.”
While the first three buildings in Fort Greene are relatively modest in design and mostly brick (like their neighboring buildings), the new tower, designed by Hill West Architects as a cylinder enclosed within a rectilinear form, is sheathed in glass.
David West, co-founder of Hill West, said Mr. Catsimatidis liked the Eagle’s curves and glass in part because it evoked the glamour of Miami architecture. Ocean Dreams, another Hill West design, will also have a glass facade, the better to take in those water views.
The Ocean Dreams complex fronts on Surf Avenue between 35th and 36th Streets, steps from the private Seagate enclave. To the west is a smaller parcel that has already been approved for an 11-story apartment building. But Mr. Catsimatidis has a bigger vision for the spot, according to an updated rendering he shared for a building that would be considerably taller than the 21-story towers that have just topped out.
And to the east of Ocean Dreams — where a shuttered complex that once housed a social-service agency is set to be demolished, despite efforts by locals to convince the city to turn it into a community center — the rendering shows two more towers that would also eclipse the ones currently being built. Red Apple owns this site, but its current zoning only allows four- or five-story buildings.
Mr. Catsimatidis, who goes by “Cats” on his radio talk show on WNYM, “The Cats Roundtable,” clearly envisions his own boardwalk empire. Whether he will get permission to realize it remains to be seen. “We’ve got to talk to the city,” he said.
John Catsimatidis’s Red Apple Group has expanded beyond supermarkets to real estate development, including a project in Coney Island.Credit…Jillian Nelson
For now, work proceeds on the two towers, which have angled sides to increase the number of apartments with ocean views, as well as terraces and balconies. Three-quarters of the apartments will be studios and one-bedrooms, with the remainder mostly two-bedrooms. Although rents won’t be set until closer to the start of leasing in the spring, Mr. Catsimatidis said that a two-bedroom might be priced at $4,000 to $5,000, “depending on the floor.” A 24,000-square-foot common terrace on the second floor will include a bocce court and a putting green, among other things.
Mr. Catsimatidis — who said he had “one more” political campaign in him but would not elaborate on which office he might run for — is also including public amenities in the project. In the rear of Ocean Dreams, the Coney Island boardwalk will be widened and outfitted with exercise equipment, benches, and plantings by Weintraub Diaz Landscape Architecture. At the front of the building facing Surf Avenue, ground-floor retail space has been earmarked for a grocery store and a pharmacy.
The Stillwell Avenue subway station is a mile away, but Red Apple plans to run a shuttle bus for building and area residents styled after San Francisco cable cars. The complex also has 301 parking spaces. Some local residents have expressed concerns about increased traffic from the complex and other new developments in the neighborhood.
Coney Island is known as a popular summer destination, but it has a year-round population of 50,000, much of it poor, and the neighborhood experienced severe flooding during Hurricane Sandy. Ocean Dreams, which is costing $270 to $280 million to build, according to Mr. Catsimatidis, stands on hundreds of piles, with its first floor five feet above sea level. He thinks the trouble will be worth it.
Mr. Catsimatidis is betting that people will be lured by the chance to overlook the ocean. “When you’re up there and you open the balcony doors and breathe in the ocean air,” he said, “you’ll live 10 years longer.”
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