Standing on the unfinished 30th floor of 43-10 Crescent Street in Long Island City last month, Justin Elghanayan could see his family history laid out before him.
The site where he was standing — soon to become a 42-story rental apartment building called Linc LIC — was purchased 25 years ago by his father and uncles, the founders of Rockrose Development. The under-construction building, which is to have 709 residential units, is slated for occupancy in the spring of 2013.
Nearby sprawls the 22-acre East Coast project, where Rockrose acquired the site of a former Pepsi plant in 2003 and began constructing residential towers two years later. Now, six of the seven building sites there are owned by Justin’s uncles K. Thomas and Frederick, who in 2009 formed a new company called TF Cornerstone.
Thirty-four-year-old Justin, who quietly became the president of Rockrose in April, knows he has big shoes to fill.
“Lucky for me,” he said, “being a leader turns out to be really fun.”
His father, Rockrose CEO H. Henry Elghanayan, said he has full confidence in his son, especially when it comes to Justin’s first big challenge: overseeing the company’s $750 million worth of planned development in the Court Square area of Long Island City.
In fact, the elder Elghanayan said his own hands-off approach at the Court Square project — the centerpiece of the company’s newest efforts — is a reflection of that confidence.
“This is the first time I’ve ever been here,” Henry said as he looked around the 30th-floor observation deck at Linc LIC, which will have a grocery store in its ground-floor retail space. Besides Linc LIC, the Court Square project includes two additional towers on a neighboring lot that will add another 1,100 units. On a third lot, a steak house from the owners of the Queens-based restaurant M. Wells will open this fall.
Justin is “one of the smartest people I know,” said Henry, who, at 70, now focuses mostly on the company’s commercial acquisitions, finance and human resources. “He’s a hard worker.”
Justin Elghanayan joined the family business seven years ago after studying English literature at Princeton, working as a teacher in a troubled city high school and spending a year at Yale Law School.
Justin is the first president of the newly reconstituted Rockrose (before the split, the position was held by his uncle Tom). The option of moving into that slot had been available to him for some time, he said, but he first wanted to gain experience in lower-level jobs in the company, especially in construction. Then, after his March wedding to Legal Aid Society lawyer Alexa Cato, he said, the time seemed right for the promotion.
As The Real Deal and others have reported, however, his ascendance, and the events leading up to it, came at a cost to the larger Elghanayan family. Several years ago, Henry moved to divide the family business and branch off from his younger brothers Tom and Fred.
Henry famously sought the split — which he said his brothers opposed, and which came very shortly after the death of their parents — largely to clear the path of succession for Justin.
Neither of Justin’s two brothers are in real estate; one is a philosophy professor and one is a law student. But given that other young family members worked for Rockrose, Henry said he feared disaster would ensue when it was time to determine the next generation of leadership at the company.
“I said, ‘This is going to get complicated,’ ” Henry recalled. “It was almost like identifying a torpedo coming at you. It’s very far away, and you can see it coming, and you say, ‘I’d better do something before it gets here.’”
Justin added, in a separate interview: “For us, the decision really had to do with, ‘Look, as much as I love my cousins, this is going to be too many personalities, too many people. Too many cooks are going to be in that kitchen.’ ”
The brothers began the difficult task of divvying up Rockrose’s property. Henry retained use of the Rockrose name and three development sites in the Court Square section of Queens, among other properties; TF Cornerstone’s holdings include the East Coast sites and Manhattan rentals like 505 West 37th Street and 2 Gold Street.
In the aftermath of the split, Henry said, “There are some scars. You can’t do this without scars.”
Still, with projects geographically close to one another, Rockrose and TF Cornerstone share the common goal of seeing those areas succeed, Justin said.
“If you’re building in the same neighborhood,” he said, “your competitors are your friends.”
Leaving in a box
Rockrose’s priorities now include acquiring commercial properties in New York and Washington, D.C., Justin said, and finding residential sites in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Long Island City.
At a site the company owns at 37th Street and 11th Avenue in Manhattan, across from the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, Rockrose is planning 300,000 square feet of residential development and another 700,000 square feet of commercial space, to coincide with the opening, at an undetermined date, of the second phase of the Hudson Yards project’s park.
Justin, who lives in a non-Rockrose building in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, said outside of work, he maintains an interest in educational policy and a desire to stay involved with that cause, perhaps philanthropically.
“He’ll do it,” his father said. “When Justin puts his mind on something, he does it.”
One thing he will not do anytime soon, though, is take over as CEO. That job, both Elghanayans said, is taken for the foreseeable future.
“He loves what he does, and I think he intends to do it as long as he possibly can,” Justin said of the man he calls “Henry” in work-related conversations and “Dad” on personal matters.
Henry was more blunt.
“They’re taking me out in a box,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, you retire, you die.”