The Real Deal New York

East End mayor rehanging his shingle as broker

Greenport's former mayor returns to real estate

March 31, 2008
By Marc Ferris

For 13 years, David Kapell was mayor of Greenport, N.Y., where he implemented controversial programs like welcoming the Guardian Angels to help police the streets.

But Kapell was not just dealing with policing and tax policy. A licensed real estate broker, he also inserted Greenport, a fishing village on the North Fork of Long Island, into several high-profile land deals while in office. Kapell was at the helm of the village as it saw a boom in real estate values, and even sold a Greenport home to Kofi Annan just before the diplomat started his stint as secretary general of the United Nations in 1996.

Last year, Kapell, 58, retired from public life to return full time to the real estate agency he runs with his wife, Eileen, and his son.

“As mayor, I made a market for Greenport real estate,” he said. “But as mayor, I was too preoccupied with my official duties to exploit the market personally, and my competitors ate my lunch.”

Kapell said he tries to stay under the radar in his real estate dealings: He avoids name advertising and eschews the MLS. He noted that the commercial side of the real estate business has been strong (he recently sold a gas station convenience store for $1.2 million). But, he said, residential sales have been “extremely challenging.”

Kapell’s interest in real estate began with industrial buildings in what is now Dumbo in the 1970s. While playing bass in a blues-rock band, he scouted properties.

In 1979, he moved from the Upper East Side to Greenport, and put up his own shingle to sell houses. Though Kappell described the weathered Victorian village as a “welfare dump,” its charms lured him to stay.

He got involved in local government in the 1980s and was elected mayor in 1994 just as a police scandal erupted.

Officers in the village had been colluding with drug dealers and engaging in sexual escapades (including on the chief’s desk), so Kapell disbanded the force and turned policing functions over to the Town of Southold, saving Greenport $800,000 a year.

He refunded a chunk of the money by handing out checks on the steps of village hall, which gave him considerable political capital. Next, he turned his attention to the former site of Mitchell’s restaurant, which was boarded up and considered an eyesore.

“It was like having a blighted building where the Plaza Hotel stands; that’s how prominent it is,” said Kapell, who went to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government for a one-year mid-career master’s program in public administration while in office. He earmarked funds from the police surplus toward the project and converted the 3.2-acre parcel into a public park, with a carousel, marina, amphitheater and ice skating rink.

Denise Civiletti, co-publisher of the Suffolk Times, a weekly that covers the North Fork, said Kapell “knew how to advance his agenda, but he was a controversial figure — you either loved him or you hated him.”

Opponents called him a “Rudy Giuliani type” with a “take-no-prisoners attitude.”

Kapell said he acted like a “seller’s broker” for the village — without the commission payments, that is.

In 1995, after Cablevision took down a 350-foot tower that had been located on village land, Kapell opened talks with Sprint PCS, which built an identical tower on the same spot. He negotiated leases with four other cell phone companies and a radio station.

“It gave us $250,000 a year on a tower someone gave us that sits on our land,” he said. “It was like a free lunch, since people were already accustomed to the tower.”

A few years later, he enabled the construction of a new power plant that supplies energy to the Long Island Power Authority. The generator, which is in the woods, hidden from the road, pays $350,000 in annual rent.

And, in a creative arrangement, he established a hybrid auction and offered a 3 percent fee to any private broker who landed a buyer for three municipal properties. The village suggested a price based on an appraisal, set a relatively short termination date for the listing, and reserved the right to accept the highest bid without obligation to any broker or buyer. In each case, closing prices exceeded the appraised value.

Kappell also welcomed the Hell’s Angels to rumble through the village; he rankled some locals when he invited Curtis Sliwa, the radio talk show host and founder of the Guardian Angels, to patrol the town.

But his efforts were not enough to ensure his heir apparent, William Mills, a victory. Mills lost in the last election to David Nyce, a local gallery owner, furniture maker and recent transplant to Greenport.

Still, Kapell’s big-city style keeps him in the headlines. A few months ago, he sued the village for stripping away his retiree health benefits. And he is plugging away at his real estate business, looking toward his next big sale.

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