Yair Levy is an investor and developer who rose to real estate prominence through several high-profile residential condo conversions during the boom, including the Sheffield, 225 Rector Place and the Park Columbus on the Upper West Side. But Levy’s roughly $400 million Manhattan real estate empire unraveled during the recession, with financial troubles and allegations of impropriety. In 2011, a state Supreme Court judge found that Levy was using the reserve fund at Rector Place for personal expenses and ordered him to pay $7.4 million in restitution. He was permanently banned him from selling condos and co-ops in New York State. Now Levy, who has denied that he stole from the fund, is getting back into the New York City real estate game. He recently bought five, four-story row houses in Tin Pan Alley on West 28th Street and is looking to capitalize on the city’s rising retail market.
Name: Yair Levy
Hometown: Tel Aviv
Marital status: Married
Children: 2 daughters
Why did you leave Tel Aviv?
I had ambition. [But] I grew up in the city, very close to the beach. We used to go twice or three times every week to the beach.
Where do you live now?
Right by Lincoln Center, in a condo.
What’s your vice?
I smoke a cigar about once a week.
What were you like as a kid?
I was one of six — three boys and three girls. Since I was a little boy, for some reason all I thought about was business. I was thinking about how to make money all the time. I used to sell all different types of items after school, like flowers and notebooks. I would buy flowers from the wholesaler and then sell them door-to-door after school when I was about eight. I left high school when I was 13 … to help improve my family’s quality of life.
What did your parents do?
My mom used to make custom evening dresses and my father was a real estate broker.
Weren’t you a diamond cutter at one point?
I had all different kinds of businesses. But when my businesses weren’t doing well, I used to work as a diamond cutter. I had a boutique shop, selling men’s clothes, that opened when I was 19. When the store wasn’t doing well, I would go in the morning and work on the diamonds. It was sure money. You’re paid by the diamond.
How did you end up moving to New York?
I had started my own line making men’s sweaters and had a brother who owned some clothing shops in the Village at that time. I smelled the opportunity in the United States. I thought I’d come to the United States and open my clothing line here. We decided to open a ladies line called Cactus. We opened a store on 58th and Lexington in 1974 and two stores on 34th Street. We sold all over the country: in Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s and Neiman Marcus.
How long have you been married?
Since I was 22. Sony [Sosana] and I grew up in the same area. When I had the shop [in Israel], she used to come by.
Do you have kids?
I have two daughters. One is 39 and one is 40. Both of them are residential brokers. They used to work for Douglas Elliman. Now they work for [the brokerage] Homestate Properties. I have six grandchildren.
How did you get into real estate?
I always had real estate mixed with my fashion. We paid all cash for our building on 58th and Lexington. At some point, I began to feel like I could do better in real estate. I’d had enough with the fashion. I sold my stake in the label to my brother [in 1997].
You made headlines for the bankruptcy at the Sheffield a few years ago…
The Sheffield was one of the most exciting buildings I bought. Then I brought in partners, Kent Swig and Serge Hoyda. We got Kent Swig to manage the building and he went way over budget. My plan was to go in and out, and sell quickly as-is. He kept getting fancier and fancier. He thought the market was going to stay forever, but he took way too long and the market collapsed.
There were infamous reports of you pummeling him with an ice bucket over the dispute.
We had a meeting about the Sheffield, and he started screaming and fighting with my lawyer. He stood up, and I said, ‘Sit down.’ He came at me and I grabbed the ice bucket to protect myself. He’s a much younger man — younger by 10 years. He got wet and I dropped the bucket. He tried to use it for publicity and make me out to be the bad guy.
The AG banned you from selling condos for allegedly stealing money from the reserve fund at Battery Park City’s Rector Square. What’s your response to that?
They used me for publicity by doing this before the election. Money for me is not everything. What bothers me is that they use my name and lie about me stealing money when it’s not true. They refused to look into documents I prepared to prove everything I was saying. I’ve been a New Yorker for 43 years. I’ve never had any problem with anyone besides Kent. I felt it was an embarrassment.
How do you feel about the ban?
This country is a very big country. There are so many states. Nothing can stop me doing business. I don’t have to do condo.
What’s your goal in this round of real estate investment?
My family is investing in income-producing deals and no development. The goal is to be involved in trophy-type buildings.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve taken away from this whole saga?
I won’t listen to a lawyer again.