Donald Zucker is the founder of the Donald Zucker Company, a Midtown-based firm that builds, buys and manages apartment and retail properties. The company, which started as a mortgage brokerage in 1961, has since developed nearly 30 buildings — a mix of rental, condo, co-op and retail — and acquired roughly 3,000 additional apartments. Zucker’s largest ground-up projects include the 35-story rental tower Rivergate, which he sold in 2011 for $443.4 million. His 300-person firm has recently gone on a buying spree of net-leased retail properties housing banks and McDonald’s restaurants along the East Coast. Zucker, who serves on the Real Estate Board of New York’s executive committee, is one of the top political donors in the industry. He was a full-time adviser on construction to then mayor Ed Koch and served as chair of the School Construction Authority under then mayor Rudy Giuliani.
What was your childhood in South Brooklyn like?
My dad was the sales manager of a very large men’s clothing manufacturer. He was away two months at a time, three times a year. As a result, my mother really brought me up. I went to Lincoln High School in Brighton Beach. Years later, in 2002, I built a new library for the school. They were still on the Dewey Decimal System — I couldn’t believe it.
What was your role in the U.S. Army?
I came in at the end of the Korean War. I taught and gave high school equivalency tests. There were many battlefield-commissioned officers who never graduated and had to get that degree in order to keep their rank. Thank God I didn’t grade the papers. All the tests went to Fort Leonard Wood to be graded.
After the war, how did you get into real estate?
I worked on Wall Street while studying at New York University. I always thought that I was going to be the second coming of Bernard Baruch, but it didn’t turn out. I drifted into real estate, at mortgage brokerages Pearce Mayer & Greer and then J. Halperin & Co.
How did you meet your wife?
My first marriage was in 1953, when I knew zero. Barbara, the lady I’m married to now, we’ve been together 36 years. In 1959, she and I both worked for J. Halperin. She was a secretary, and I was a salesman. I started my own mortgage brokerage in 1961, and once I could afford to pay her I hired her as my secretary. She stayed until 1963, when she got married. She came back in my life in 1979. She was then a real estate agent in Sparta, New Jersey, and I helped her get a listing.
Sounds like it was meant to be.
She came back to work for me. Neither of us knew that the other’s marriage had been failing. I knew my marriage was over a long time before that. She got divorced and I got divorced, and we got together.
How did you get into developing?
In the mid-1960s, my accountant said I needed a tax shelter. I was able to buy property to develop a 20-story building at 12th Street and Fourth Avenue. I can’t believe what was going on in those days — [due to a glut] we were giving people trips to Europe to rent an apartment.
Are you still actively developing?
I finished my last building a few years ago. I just can’t compete in a marketplace where I can’t make sense of the economics. I’m not interested in developing condos anymore, because the tax world punishes you terribly. I would do another rental.
There was some community backlash in the late 2000s over your purchases of several Hamptons storefronts. What did you make of that?
It’s not that the locals had any problem with me as a landlord. They had a problem — and they’re not wrong — that gradually the retail in East Hampton became more like Madison Avenue. The rents kept going higher and the locals got forced out, but there are still a few left. Ralph Lauren is one of my tenants. I’m not going to deny that if I can charge higher rents, I will.
Having worked in two mayoral administrations, what is your take on Mayor de Blasio’s relationship with the real estate industry?
Bill is a friend of mine. We had dinner a couple weeks ago. I think his heart is in the right place. I totally agree with his thoughts on affordable housing. I certainly am a Democrat. But he lacks experience. He’s learning, but it’s not an easy way to learn. Then he unfortunately got involved in this feud with the governor, and we, the city, are suffering because of it.
What’s your approach to making political donations?
I have to meet with everybody and believe in what they’re doing. There is nothing that happened to me in the past several years that’s worse than living in a state where the head of the Senate and the head of the Assembly are both going to jail. I never liked either one of them. But I didn’t know they were dishonest.
Leonard Litwin, a fellow developer with whom you founded a research center for Alzheimer’s disease, was tied to those scandals. How’s he doing?
He’s turning 102 this month. I saw his daughter Carole at a REBNY meeting recently and she said he’s doing OK. I got permission to call him about six months ago, and I did. I said, “Hi, Lenny, how are you doing?” He said, “Not good.” I started to talk about real estate, and he said, “I can’t talk any longer. I got to go.” And he hung up. Something happened after he turned 99, and he didn’t come to meetings or go to work anymore.
How involved are you in the day-to-day business at your company?
I am involved up to my neck in everything. I still run this business. My daughter Laurie heads the rental division, in that she sets the rents and decides what deals to make. My wife, who runs the family foundation and is involved in the business, has an office down the street. She used to have a desk in my office, but she wanted more privacy.
You’ve said Laurie will take over when you step down. Do you have retirement plans?
Retirement is death. I never went to work one day in my life, because I love what I do.