The Closing: Joshua Muss

The outer borough mega developer on being born into the business, gambling and venturing over the wrong bridge

Aug.August 01, 2015 07:00 AM
Joshua Muss Development

Joshua Muss

Joshua Muss is the principal of Queens-based Muss Development, a family company founded by his grandfather Isaac in 1906. The firm has developed more than 15 million square feet of real estate in New York City. Its projects have included a 1,200-home residential community in Staten Island called the Woodbrooke, which it built in the 1980s, and the Renaissance Plaza in Downtown Brooklyn, which has a 900,000-square-foot office building and a 667-room Marriott Hotel. More recently, it completed Oceana, a 15-building, 865-condo community in Brighton Beach as well as Sky View Parc, a $1 billion, three-tower project in Flushing. Muss’ son Jason has taken over the firm’s day-to-day operation, although the elder Muss still works. The firm’s current projects include a 30-story residential building in Sheepshead Bay that it’s developing with national real estate investment trust Avalon Bay.

Name: Joshua Lawrence Muss
May 15, 1941
Hometown: Queens
Marital status: Married 53 years

Where did you grow up?

Flushing and then Forest Hills. My father [Hyman] graduated law school in 1932 and became a pulpit rabbi. Eventually, he joined the family business, which my grandfather started when he came to this country from Russia via Shanghai and South Africa.

You were 21 when you got married. How did you meet your wife?

My first date with her was at her cousin’s Sweet 16 party. She invited me. I was her tennis counselor at camp and everything after that was inevitable.

Where do you live now?

Lawrence, Long Island. We [also] have a small apartment in Miami Beach. We’ve owned it for about 10 years and we’ve been in it a total of three weekends or something.

Did you always plan to join the family business?

It was inevitable. At the time, I thought my father was a builder; that’s what we called ourselves. Then eventually we became builder-owners and then developers. Now it’s a matter of financing. No one is a pure
developer anymore.

You went to law school before getting into real estate.

My whole life was prescribed in advance, where I was going to elementary school, high school and college. I rebelled on law school. My father wanted me to go to Columbia, where he went, and I went to Harvard.

What’s it like to run a company that’s been around for more than 100 years?

The incredible thing is that you survive in this business. My father saw the Depression and was always very conservative. I didn’t know what conservative meant. But I saw the Great Recession in 2007-2010; it does make you think twice about what you do the next time.

Who has been the greatest influence in your life?

My father. He would say, ‘If the project is good, you don’t need a partner; if the project is bad, you don’t want a partner.’ His only mistake was, when he crossed the bridge to do his greatest developments, it was the Verrazano and not one of the East River bridges.

Which project gave you the most trouble?

They all give you trouble. There’s not a night that you don’t get up and say, ‘What the hell was I thinking?’ — which is the name of the book I might write some day.

You wrote a chapter in Donald Trump’s “Best Real Estate Advice I Ever Received.” What’s your best advice?

I think the best advice is don’t try to do beyond what you can do. At some point, you’re going to put yourself at risk.

What do you think of his current presidential campaign?

He’s a great showman. I once called him the quintessential New York developer, although he’s outgrown that.

Are you the quintessential New York developer?

I’m not quintessential because I never really played with the big boys in Manhattan, but I certainly was on the vanguard of developing the boroughs. All of a sudden everyone’s found Brooklyn.

What do you make of that?

I wish I [had] bought more land. I never had enough money to buy as much as I’d like.

What do you find exciting about development?

As a kid, when you build a sandcastle and it gets all the way to the top, you say, ‘Wow!’ It’s the same thing. You’re playing with Tinkertoys. Every kid does that. But every adult can’t do that.

What do you think of the super-tall condos being built?

I wish I could build them. I’d like to be a part of it, but the fact of the matter is I was part of it 10 or 15 years ago. Now I’m doing it vicariously through my sons.

What’s been your biggest challenge?

Trying to balance my personal and professional lives. One is going to suffer if you concentrate on the other. I’m not prepared to say my family suffered, but I spent more time in the business than I should have.

What do you do in your spare time?

Visit with my 13 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. And I’ll golf any course that allows me to play.

Your son Jason is a company principal. Was bringing him into the business a given?

It’s a very seductive profession. It can make you wealthy. It can also make you broke if you’re not careful. But it’s not an easy business to get into. You can start off as a contractor, broker or lawyer. But the best thing to do is to start off as a son or a daughter.

Do you feel you got a leg up in that way?

If you walk into a bank and say, ‘My name is Joe Smith,’ they will look at you and say, ‘Who are you? What have you done?’ I walked in and said, ‘I’m Joshua Muss,’ and it was like, ‘Oh, you’re Hyman’s son.’ When I said ‘I’m building 1,000 houses on Staten Island,’ they didn’t laugh at me. I laughed at myself. I didn’t know a two-by-four from a lally column.

Is that a lot of pressure?

There are times when it’s tremendous pressure. We had some major difficulties during the Great Recession.

What’s your greatest extravagance?

Giving to charity and playing as much golf as I can.

Do you gamble?

I gamble every day [in real estate], but not in Atlantic City. A long time ago, I realized I might as well give the money away.

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