The Real Deal New York

Casandra Properties is on a mission to make Staten Island cool

Company works on some of borough’s most visible projects, including Empire Outlets
By Eddie Small | May 07, 2018 08:00AM

James Prendamano with renderings of Urby and Empire Outlets (Credit: Urby Staten Island, Empire Outlets NYC)

Staten Island may commonly be known as New York City’s “forgotten borough,” but broker James Prendamano and his company Casandra Properties are trying hard to turn that into an outdated moniker.

“Did we agree with it? Yeah, we agreed with it for a long time,” he said of the disparaging nickname. “It’s really what inspired me 10 years ago to dig in on the North Shore, where there was some progressive zoning, and go fight.”

These days, Casandra Properties is tasked with handling some of the most high-profile projects in Staten Island, including Empire Outlets and the Urby rental complex.

“It’s been hard to get out of the shadow of Manhattan, but we’re doing it,” he said. “I think we’re doing it a little more every day.”

Prendamano’s mother Casandra Zappala founded Casandra Properties in 1989, at a time when there were few women in the commercial real estate industry. She described it as “a man’s world at this point, especially for the types of deals that I was going for, which was the large banks, the drug chains and so on.”

She found success, which she attributed to one factor.

“They knew I knew what I was doing,” she said. “It was that simple.”

Prendamano, the managing director, had been interested in his mother’s work since he was a child.

“The other kids had doctors and politicians and lawyers and everything else,” he said. “My mom, she was the lady that people trusted to sell their homes and their businesses and their properties.”

Zappala took her son on as an employee after he graduated from college, and the two both said they balance each other out well, with Prendamano focusing on topics like organization and logistics and Zappala focusing more on sales and the creative side of the business. The company currently has a team of about 18 people and access to thousands of listings on Staten Island, according to its website.

Although Casandra Properties does some work in New York’s other boroughs, Staten Island is the primary focus. Employees handled almost 200 transactions in the borough in 2017, compared to about 10 outside of it, according to the company.

“To do large projects out here, you really do have to be part of the fabric of the community,” he said. “We are a tight knit borough, and they want to see a familiar face that they can trust. Yes, we are branching out beyond the borough, but our focus I think ultimately will remain here.”

This familiarity with the borough, along with a strong emphasis on personal service, also helps the firm compete against larger Manhattan companies trying to establish a presence on the island.

“There are so many nuances and details unique to individual neighborhoods, and Staten Island is no different,” Prendamano said, adding, “It’s got its nuances, and it’s got its unique attributes throughout the borough just like Manhattan does.”

In the rezone

Though Staten Island is gradually shedding its reputation as New York City’s token suburban afterthought, another rezoning and a commitment to transit infrastructure will be necessary to compete with the rising neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Jersey City and Queens, according to Prendamano.

“If you don’t have a car, and you’re not able to drive, there’s not much going on out here,” he said. “That’s why a lot of those kids, I believe, were leaving and going to Brooklyn and Jersey City and Queens and the Bronx, wherever that next neighborhood was that was up and coming.”

He sees promise in Staten Island’s Urby development — which Casandra Properties worked on — being a model to attract new residents. The 900-unit apartment complex from Ironstate Development would fit right in with new luxury buildings in Brooklyn and Queens, with amenities including a gym, a saltwater pool, fire pits and gardens.

The retail portion of the project is 100 percent leased, and the residential portion is close to fully leased, according to Prendamano. He hopes similar developments will rise along the Staten Island Railway, giving tenants easy access to the ferry and Manhattan. Although the borough still has a contingent of old-timers who are resistant to change, there’s a more pro-development crowd emerging, he said.

“For the most part, people have a progressive mindset,” he said. “They’re welcoming this, and they want to see growth.”

Sean Kelly, senior director at Ariel Property Advisors, said he thought Staten Island could eventually become more similar to Brooklyn, as the living styles of the younger residents were starting to shift away from single-family homes of the Levitttown variety toward urban, vertical living. The Urby is a prime example of this.

“What’s important about a project like that is that it is by far the most affordable rental product along the waterfront in any of the boroughs that is that close to Manhattan,” Kelly said.

Rents at Urby’s available apartments currently range from $2,095 for a studio to $3,200 for a two-bedroom, according to its Ironstate’s website. It takes about 35 minutes to get from the complex to Lower Manhattan using the Staten Island Ferry.

Investors are increasingly interested in acquiring property in Staten Island, where land costs are a sliver of those in Manhattan and many outer boroughs neighborhoods.

Staten Island saw $375 million worth of investment across roughly 170 transactions in 2017, according to Ariel Property. This was up from $265 million across 140 transactions in 2016 and $280 million across 150 transactions in 2015, the firm said.

Urby is a unique development for now, but more like it could be in the works, as Kelly noted that several development sites in Staten Island had sold recently.

“There’s been a handful, probably a half a dozen development sites that have sold in the past two or three years,” he said.

Seeing is believing

Staten Island’s retail market is getting a major upgrade as well thanks to Empire Outlets, an outlet mall on the North Shore that Casandra Properties is currently working on leasing. Prendamano described the development as a “game changer” for the borough.

BFC Partners is spearheading the outlet mall, and founding principal Joseph Ferrara said he had previously worked with Prendamano on the Rail, a 92-unit residential project completed in 2012 at 40 Prospect Street in Stapleton. The site was a municipal parking lot before BFC converted it into affordable housing, and Ferrara said Prendamano was instrumental in moving the project forward thanks to his close ties to key players in Staten Island.

With Empire Outlets, Prendamano has been particularly adept at convincing companies reluctant to sign on for an outlet mall to come out and see it for themselves.

“James really understood how frustrating it was becoming to us, but he did get our vision: how it was important to get these teams out to site,” Ferrara said, “and once they came out to site, it was a completely different story.”

Prendamano wouldn’t name names, but said many retailers rebuffed him in the beginning. He reached out to one retailer more than two years ago and consistently followed up before finally persuading them to come to the mall about six weeks ago. They liked what they saw and signed a letter of intent within three weeks.

“It’s one thing to talk about 70,000 people walking past your storefront a day. It’s another thing to see it,” he said, “and when you stand there at the ferry and you see every 20 or 30 minutes, depending on what time of day it is, just thousands of people pouring off of that boat…it’s powerful, man.”

Rents at the complex been in the range of $100 a foot, and stores that have signed on so far include Banana Republic, Nike, Samsonite and H&M.

Empire Outlets is now 80 percent leased, and Prendamano said its arrival on the North Shore will help bring some newfound attention to the borough.

“When you start attracting investment developers like Empire Outlets and Urby in your community, it changes things,” he said. “It puts the spotlight on.”