Jerry Wolkoff, prolific New York developer, dies at 83

Head of G&M Realty rose from poverty to be one of the biggest builders in the five boroughs and Long Island

New York /
Jul.July 19, 2020 09:30 AM
Jerry Wolkoff (Photo by Studio Scrivo)

Jerry Wolkoff (Photo by Studio Scrivo)

Gerald “Jerry” Wolkoff, the brash and prolific New York developer, has died at 83.

Wolkoff suffered a brief neurological illness and died Friday evening at his home in New York City. Long Island Business News first reported the news.

Born on Nov. 8, 1936, the Brownsville-native began working at an early age, following his father’s death when Wolkoff was 11. In a 2018 interview with The Real Deal, he described how he and his two brothers had to help their single mother make rent each month.

“We all went to work, and whatever we made we put into a pot,” he said. “Money was never a thing that we would concern ourselves with. We just wanted to make sure we had enough to eat.”

Wolkoff launched his real estate career in the 1960s, when he sold his floor-waxing business to fund the construction of two houses. He would eventually become one of the largest homebuilders in the five boroughs. His firm, G&M Realty, amassed a 12 million-square-foot portfolio in New York City and Long Island.

Though prolific in his own right, Wolkoff was a different breed of developer. He never went to college, and took a different approach to real estate investing than his Ivy League counterparts in the business.

5Pointz before demolition (Wikipedia)

5Pointz before demolition (Wikipedia)

“I build different than most of them because I’m not doing anything unless I know I can afford to build it with very little debt,” he previously said. “They know how to play the game in their offices, but fuck it.”

Wolkoff is best known for owning 5Pointz, the iconic street art mecca in Long Island City — and the later “whitewashing” incident that landed him in court.

The developer had purchased the former water-meter factory in the 1970s, and for 25 years allowed graffiti artists to use the structure as a canvas. But when he began planning a massive 1.3 million-square-foot mixed-use project on the site, tensions rose. Then, one night in 2013, Wolkoff had the site painted over. The action drew a lawsuit and a $6.75 million fine, which he had appealed.

A strong advocate for business, Wolkoff was sometimes at odds with organized labor — his local City Council member, James Van Bramer, promised to never approve another of his projects after Wolkoff said he would not use union labor at 5Pointz.

“So Jimmy Van Bramer doesn’t want to bother with me, whatever,” Wolkoff said in 2018. “All these people have term limits — eventually they’ll be out of here — and my children are young. Thank God for term limits for our industry.” (Wolkoff has previously said his plan was to pass G&M onto his sons, David and Adam.)

The developer also rallied against the campaign that led Amazon to back out of bringing its headquarters to Long Island City.

A rendering of Heartland Town Square (Heartland)

A rendering of Heartland Town Square (Heartland)

Wolkoff’s firm has yet to break ground on Heartland Town Square in Brentwood, which would be New York’s largest planned community since Levittown, a project which the developer envisioned nearly two decades ago. The $4 billion proposal would see 9,000 apartments and 3 million square feet of office and retail space built on what is currently an abandoned state hospital.

Wolkoff is survived by his wife of 59 years, Michele — the “M” in G&M Realty — and his sons, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren.

David Wolkoff, who will helm the family firm with his brother, Adam, called his father a visionary.

“He was full of dichotomies — focused and intense, but warm and generous,” said David Wolkoff. “But he still had time for everybody, not just high-level businesspeople and bankers, but the guy on the construction site.”

The elder Wolkoff, who still drove a Prius and flew JetBlue despite his firm’s success, said he never planned to retire.

“I hate sleeping,” he said. “People love sleep. What is that? Did you ever make one penny sleeping? Never.”


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