Housing prices have declined in Westchester County, but that doesn’t mean developer Martin Ginsburg is slowing down.
Ginsburg, the founder and president of Ginsburg Development Companies, a Valhalla-based firm he launched four decades ago, is pushing forward with plans that will add hundreds of new condo units in towns up and down the Hudson River.
“There’s no question sales are slow, but not necessarily uniformly,” said Ginsburg.
Altogether, GDC has built more than 10,000 residential units in Westchester County, making Ginsburg one of the county’s most active two or three developers. Much media attention has been paid to Louis Cappelli, another prolific Westchester-based developer whom locals sometimes call the “Trump of Westchester,” but little is written about Ginsburg, who maintains a low profile.
Yet with reported annual revenues at nearly $200 million, Ginsburg remains one of the steadiest developers in the suburbs north of the city. The company now has four significant residential housing projects for sale or under construction in Scarsdale, New Rochelle, Ossining and Peekskill.
Little by little, Ginsburg’s mix of projects are significantly re-casting waterfront cities on both sides of the Hudson Valley into places that are slightly more urban and dense.
Although Ginsburg characterizes his business philosophy as conservative, his development plans and “let’s get on with it” demeanor frequently inspire local opposition. The developer has been the subject of frequent and unpleasant criticism, accused of crafting insider deals at the public’s expense and, most recently, of bullying property owners who oppose his plans with eminent domain.
Two years ago such charges reached a fever pitch. Writing in the Journal News, columnist Phil Reisman claimed Ginsburg was one of the “money guys” who orchestrated a cruel propaganda campaign to discredit a bill to protect property owners “from the worst, most rapacious designs of eminent domain.”
Ginsburg admits that reconciling the desire of some Westchester groups to preserve the status quo with his vision frequently can cause tension. Yet finding common ground isn’t always a first instinct. Recently the developer compared opponents to West Village preservationists, whom he disdainfully considers leftists.
Building has always been a passion for Ginsburg. He grew up in the Bronx and later attended architecture school at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. After graduating, he lingered upstate, taking a chance by building a house in the Westchester village of Ardsley on spec. The gamble paid off. Ginsburg sold it for what was then a princely sum of $33,500.
Times have changed since he built that spec home with no buyer lined up. Ginsburg’s latest project is Christie Place, a $50 million luxury condominium project in Scarsdale being marketed to empty nesters.
“We anticipate that project will be sold without any advertising. Everything is relative to supply and demand. And there is no supply in Scarsdale. We are the supply,” Ginsburg said.
Built in the same Tudor-style architecture prevalent in the village of Scarsdale, the project features 42 one- and two-bedroom units ranging in price from $800,000 to over $2,000,000. The development is slated to be completed in 2008.
Ginsburg sees lots of opportunities in riverside communities. On the east banks of the Hudson, he and Louis Cappelli are collaborating on Harbor Square in Ossining. The $78 million project, a mixed-use condominium and retail complex, met with significant community opposition, including a lawsuit filed by activists trying to preserve a fishing shack. In response, GDC redesigned the project, scaling back to only 150 condominiums in one seven-story building. Pre-construction sales are expected to begin in 2008.
Further up the Hudson in Peekskill, Ginsburg’s $200 million waterfront redevelopment effort has slowed because of upcoming bridge construction undertaken by the Department of Transportation and because of mounting local opposition. Work on the 40-acre, mixed-use project, which will feature 500 condo units, a parking garage and 75,000 square feet of commercial space, may resume next year.
Peekskill’s mayor, John Testa, a proponent of the project, said he fears a local election win by opposition Democrats in November could prompt Ginsburg to cancel his project there, with dire consequences for the downtown. While Testa believes the project is widely if quietly supported by Peekskill residents, his municipal opponents worry their city is gentrifying too quickly.
GDC also owns significant holdings outside Westchester County in Orange, Rockland and Duchess Counties and eastern Connecticut. Ginsburg’s investment arm, called GDC Properties and run by his younger brother Samuel Ginsburg, owns 4 million square feet of commercial property in New York, Georgia, Florida and Colorado.
But Ginsburg’s focus remains directed at Westchester County, where his long-term goal is to help create a revitalized, tourist-friendly Hudson River, where communities are connected by the Greenway Trail and a ferry service. Despite setbacks, it’s a vision that’s coming together. In September, the New York Water Taxi began running boats between Manhattan and a Ginsburg riverfront property in Haverstraw.
While GDC says it hasn’t experienced difficulty in obtaining financing during this quarter’s worsening credit squeeze, the cost of labor and materials has yet to diminish, and Ginsburg says he’s looking at different ways to cut costs, including constructing smaller or less-expensive units.
The company is also anticipating and adjusting to a housing market slowdown. According to the Westchester County Board of Realtors, condo and co-op sales in the second quarter decreased 3 percent from the year-ago quarter. Median single-family home prices are down more than 2 percent from $715,000 in the second quarter of last year to $700,000 in the second quarter of this year.
“We build in relation to sales,” said Ginsburg.
Ginsburg remains sanguine about his projects.
“In the final analysis, even though people fight us, they’re very rarely dissatisfied at the end of the job,” he said. “Everybody, even the most aggressive opposition, usually says ‘Well, if I’d known you would have done it this way, we probably wouldn’t have done what we did.'”