The Real Deal New York

Don Capoccia: Not afraid to do battle

For controversial developer, Toren project is just reward
By Gabby Warshawer | June 03, 2008 03:18PM

For a developer who has often found himself in the hot seat, Don Capoccia has a temperate perspective.

“This
is such aggravating, difficult work on a day-to-day basis that you have
to be passionate about it from the outset,” says Capoccia, one-third of
development firm BFC Partners. “You can’t waver.”

Then again, he has reason to be encouraged.

On
a tour last month through the downtown Brooklyn sales office for Toren,
the latest project BFC Partners has brought to market, the sun
reflected off the glass casing of the model for the 38-story tower
that’s being built on Myrtle Avenue.

“We’ve
been on the market for almost six weeks now,” says Capoccia, who notes
the building is selling for $750 a square foot. “Out of 199 market-rate
apartments, we have 32 executed contracts back and 11 out right now.”

Capoccia
notes that with 1,300 applications in on the condo’s 42 affordable
units, “we’re almost a third sold out in a little more than five
weeks.”

The
sun appears to shining for Don Capoccia. But that hasn’t always been
the case for the developer, who’s been in the New York City real estate
game since the early 1980s.

Over
the course of more than two decades, Capoccia has courted controversy
time and again. He has concentrated on emerging areas — the East
Village in the ’80s, East Harlem in the ’90s and, more recently, the
Williamsburg waterfront and downtown Brooklyn. He’s often been on the
receiving end of protests and negative media coverage for things like
bulldozing community gardens on the Lower East Side (think of epic
tenant-landlord battles in the play “Rent”) and using non-union labor.

Capoccia, who is openly gay, does not have a history of shying away
from public confrontation. A few years ago, he resigned from a federal
commission that President Bush appointed him to after the president
came out against gay marriage.

And he does not feel like he has much
to apologize for, especially when it comes
to the choices he’s made in his development career.

“There
isn’t a more anti-development city in the world than New York. Once a
New Yorker gets his or her housing situation worked out, it’s
basically, ‘F— everyone else,'” he says. “I think the only thing you
can do is build the best job you can and let the completed project tell
the story.”

East Village years

Donald
Capoccia grew up in Rome, N.Y., and moved to the city in the late ’70s
to get a master’s degree in urban planning at Hunter College. It took
him three years to complete what is typically a two-year program.
Before that, it took him seven years to finish a bachelor’s degree.

He
says his entry into the development world was “all very accidental.” It
started when he closed on 72-76 East 3rd Street in 1982, properties he
was able to acquire in order to build condos through the city’s Dollar
Building Program. Only one hitch: One of those properties, a vacant
lot, was “filled with motorcycle carcasses,” care of a Hell’s Angels
branch headquartered across the street.

“I
closed on the property and rented a pickup truck, hired 10 or 12 day
laborers and brought a set of bolt cutters. I did not look behind me
because the Hell’s Angels were just across the street,” says Capoccia.
“I cut the gate and started to drag the stuff out. Had there been a
desire to get in my way, I have no idea whether I’d even be in this
business today.”

BFC
Partners, which Capoccia began with the fathers of the two other
principals now at the firm, Joe Ferrara and Brandon Baron, went on to
work on hundreds of units of housing in the East Village and Alphabet
City over the next eight or so years. The majority of BFC’s
developments involved affordable components. Capoccia says the company
completed the first New York City Housing Partnership project in the
East Village (Del Este Village on Avenue A and 13th Street) and the
neighborhood’s first 80/20 rental building.

Ferrara,
who has been involved in the business since he graduated from college
almost 20 years ago, says that he is typically responsible for
spearheading marketing on projects, while Baron concentrates on
construction issues and Capoccia usually takes the lead in identifying
and selecting development sites.

Jumping Uptown

Over a five-year period beginning in 1996, BFC Partners built close to 1,200 units in East Harlem.

“That
included an important project — at least to us — called Madison Park up
on 120th Street. This was an area that was really a no-man’s-land,”
Capoccia recalls. “So we had to design, with our architect, a building
that would attract a market to Harlem that had not been seen for many,
many, many decades, sort of a middle-class buyer who would qualify for
a six-figure share loan.”

Capoccia
says he decided to add to his risk by transferring unused FAR from a
parking lot in order to make Madison Park a 128-unit development. In
the end, he notes, “it was an enormous success; there were 2,225
qualified buyers who all wanted in.”

He
says BFC now finds itself “priced out” of East Harlem. “The interesting
thing to me was I watched that neighborhood turn around in five years,”
he says. “It took me more like 10 years to see anything happen in the
East Village.”

Brooklyn beckons

In
2002, BFC Partners began negotiating with the city to build Schaefer
Landing, is at least a 10-minute walk from the closest subway line.

The
Water Taxi stop had been an integral part of Schaefer’s marketing
drive. Capoccia says that a new prototype barge designed for Schaefer
is coming; if it works, there’ll be 17 of them all around the city.
“People felt compelled by the Water Taxi, but they don’t really use it,
in part because it’s not a regular enough service,” he says.

Building on Bond

On
the luxury end of the spectrum, another recent Capoccia project, 48
Bond Street, recently sold out at prices that averaged about $1,600 a
foot, with about a third of the units going for north of $2,000 a foot,
according to public records.

Deborah
Berke, a noted interior designer, was the architect for the 17-unit
Noho condop, which Capoccia developed separately from BFC.

At
the same time Capoccia was developing 48 Bond, two other high-ticket
condos were rising on the same block: Tony Goldman’s 25 Bond Street,
and 40 Bond Street, which was developed by Aby Rosen and Ian Schrager.

“These
are big people to try to compete with, and I didn’t want to try to
compete with them,” says Capoccia. “I didn’t want to get too far afield
from what was happening on Bond Street, and what has happened there
over the past 100 years.”

Political ties

One
of the first hits that pops up when the name “Don Capoccia” is entered
into Google is an article from the late ’90s published in a left-wing
newspaper called “the Shadow.” The article talks about the developer’s
plans to destroy the community gardens in order to build the Del Este
Village condos through a sweetheart deal with the Giuliani
administration. The mayor’s office is depicted as hell-bent on
privatizing public spaces and accepting cash and gifts from Capoccia.

But
Cappocia’s political ties are not black and white. While campaign
contribution records show he’s given tens of thousands of dollars to
Republican candidates over the past several years, he’s also given a
fair share of cash to Democrats, most recently to Barack Obama’s
presidential campaign. And Capoccia’s relationship with the political
sphere has been extremely public. In 2002, President Bush appointed him
to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

Capoccia
describes his political endeavors and appointments as mostly separate
from his work as a developer. “My interest in politics largely revolves
around questions of equality in sexual orientation,” says Capoccia. He
said that while he was a Bush appointee on the fine arts commission, “I
had to resign my position when he went out to support a constitutional
amendment barring marriage between gay men and women.”

“I
worked very successfully with Governor Pataki, along with many others,
to get a sexual orientation nondiscrimination act passed in New York,”
he says.

Courting controversy

Capoccia
isn’t afraid of public confrontations. He has seen plenty of his
projects attract negative media attention through the years. Most
recently, union activists set up a huge inflated rat near the Toren
construction site. Capoccia responded by putting up a big sign next to
the rat that read, “BFC salutes the Lunar Chinese New Year, 2008, the
Year of the Rat.”

The
most notorious situation, however, was at Del Este Village. Units in
the development were sold to applicants making between $30,000 and
$70,950. But to build Del Este, the developers destroyed several
community gardens, and community acrimony flared. In late 1999,
activists chained themselves to the gardens’ fences to try and prevent
their destruction.

Capoccia says the ends justified the means.

“We
have buyers in that project who are still there today who came out of
households that were doubled up in the Lillian Wald Housing Authority
projects along the East River,” he says. “That’s where we drew our
market from. I think people should say what they have to say, but at
the end of the day, if the builder’s done the right thing, it just
works in the neighborhood.”

Where to next?

Staten Island may be Capoccia’s final frontier in New
York City.

BFC
Partners is constructing 167 middle-income co-ops in the Staten Island
neighborhood of Stapleton, and Capoccia says he hopes to lure buyers
from Southern Brooklyn neighborhoods like Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst.

“We think there’s an opportunity here that no one else has seen,” he says.

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