5Pointz unvarnished: the developer’s side

The Wolkoffs defend decision to whitewash their famed graffiti-covered buildings and talk about their first residential project in decades

David Wolkoff and his father, Jerry Wolkoff, at the 5Pointz site, where they’re planning a $400 million luxury rental project
David Wolkoff and his father, Jerry Wolkoff, at the 5Pointz site, where they’re planning a $400 million luxury rental project

G&M Realty’s Jerry and David Wolkoff have kept a relatively low profile despite years of developing projects in the outer boroughs and on Long Island, as well as managing 15 million square feet of industrial and commercial space.

But the father–and-son duo were recently thrust into the spotlight when they whitewashed the so-called 5Pointz building they own in Long Island City, which since the 1990s was a premier destination for street artists, who adorned it with brightly covered graffiti. The controversial middle-of-the-night paint job was done to make way for two high-rise towers containing 800 luxury rentals and more than 200 affordable units, for a total cost of $400 million.

The project will be the Wolkoff family’s first residential play in the city in three decades, and opposition, not surprisingly, has been fierce.

Soon after plans were announced, a cadre of 17 artists filed a lawsuit in federal court in Brooklyn to block the demolition. However, on Nov. 19, after both a federal judge and the Landmarks Preservation Commission refused to stop the plans, the Wolkoffs had the building quietly painted over. The family received a permit for remediation in mid-March and hopes to receive a demolition permit in the next month.

Despite the negative press, the Wolkoffs told The Real Deal they have no regrets.

“I don’t have any mixed feelings about the demolition,” David, 47, said during an interview last month. “I think this is a very exciting project. I think it is going to be great for the community and the neighborhood.”

Jerry, 77, added that the new development will still honor the old 5Pointz with large walls for graffiti.

“I will bring back the aerosol artists, because I like them and I like what they do,” he said. “The work these artists do with a spray-paint can is mind-boggling to me. I really appreciate their work.”

5Pointz is born

Jerry Wolkoff was in his late teens in his native Brownsville when he cut his real estate chops building houses, a business he learned from his brother. A born entrepreneur, he had already sold a successful floor-waxing business before graduating high school, and then used the capital to start his own residential development company. As a result, his son also spent his youth around real estate.

“Growing up, my father and uncles all had real estate businesses. All the adults I knew were builders,” David said. “I remember being 11 years old and out in the field.”

By the time David was studying real estate and finance in college, his father was a major Brooklyn and Staten Island homebuilder, before transitioning the business into commercial and industrial development. At the time, the late 1970s, Long Island City was a bustling manufacturing hub, and the Wolkoffs were buying up property in the area. One such site was 5Pointz, a cluster of 10 interconnected industrial buildings on a full square block at 45–46 Davis Street.

Jerry paid just over $1 million for the properties, which total 200,000 square feet and served as a garment hub until the 1990s, when manufacturing began to die off in New York. At that point he converted the complex into studios to house roughly 200 artists and met Pat Delillo, the aerosol artist behind the Phun Factory, an organization that gave talented-but-publicly maligned graffiti artists a legal space to express themselves.

Sympathetic to the arts, the Wolkoffs gave Delillo and his ragtag painters permission to cover 5Pointz with their aerosol art. As the project grew, 5Pointz became a prestigious space where acclaimed street artists were invited to show their work, with Jonathan Cohen, known in the graffiti world as Meres One, as curator.

“Graffiti is a wonderful self-expression,” David said. “We like to think of ourselves, as developers, as creative types in some form or fashion. I find that street art can be very poignant. I love the colors, the movement and the depth of what these artists can do.”

But despite his longtime relationship with the Wolkoffs, Meres One was one of the most vocal opponents of the demolition. However, the developers claim that they were always upfront with the artists about their long-term intention to demolish and replace 5Pointz. They had, in fact, issued only month-to-month leases for over a decade for that very reason, the Wolkoffs told TRD.

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“I believe I was on the forefront of showing that aerosol art could be done in a proper manner,” Jerry said. “For 20 years I allowed more than 100,000 paintings to exist on my building, but now that I want to build something great for the neighborhood, Meres and the others acted like the building was theirs, even though they knew all along that this was temporary.”

While some opponents characterize the Wolkoffs as ruthless capitalists willing to destroy a much-loved cultural institution to cash in on luxury development, the pair rebutted that notion.

“There is nothing to be ashamed or upset about. We have had this planned for the last 12 years,” David said. “It just took a long time for Long Island City to have enough momentum to support a project like this.”

Beyond 5Pointz

And the momentum in Long Island City is, of course, palpable.

Approximately 9,000 residential units, including those at the 5Pointz site, are planned for the neighborhood, according to estimates from the brokerage MNS.

According to the Wolkoffs, the new 5Pointz will function more as “community” than a traditional residential building, with 50,000 square feet of retail, 12,000 square feet of artist studios, graffiti space on the concrete walls, tennis and basketball courts, a swimming pool, a gym, media and party rooms, a 250-space parking garage and a new public park.

While the project is still in the planning stages, the Wolkoffs said that the vast majority of the units will be studios and one bedrooms, with some two and three bedroom units. Apartments at the project, which is scheduled for completion in 2016, will range in size from 500 to 1,200 square feet. Rents have not yet been set.

And area brokers, even those who are graffiti art collectors, are on board.

“The old 5Pointz was nice while it lasted, but things progress,” said Eric Benaim, CEO of the Long Island City-based residential brokerage Modern Spaces and a street art collector. (Benaim’s collection includes works by the British graffiti artist Banksy and other well-known names like KAWS, Nick Walker, FAILE and Mr. Brainwash.)

“I’m excited for the art studios that will be coming at the base of the building. Plus there is a good portion of retail, which we need more of in Court Square,” he said.

As evidenced by the amount of time they spent waiting to redevelop 5Pointz, sources say the Wolkoffs are actually conservative developers, rarely taking on debt and seldom partnering with other builders or outside property managers.

And 5Pointz isn’t their only ambitious project right now. In Brentwood, Long Island, on the grounds of the a former hospital, they are building the Heartland Town Square, a $4 billion mega “village”. The project will feature 9,000 rental apartments, 3 million square feet of Class A office space, a 1-million-square-foot retail center, a hotel and convention center, restaurants, a movie theater, an aquarium and public parks.

“Jerry and David’s vision is very exciting,” said Andrew Barrocas, CEO of the brokerage MNS and a longtime friend of the Wolkoff family. “They are building projects that are totally unique to the marketplace.”

For his part, Jerry said he has always believed that the outer boroughs were the place to carry out his vision.

“Every year for the last 20 years, we’ve built between 200,000 and 300,000 square feet of commercial and industrial space on Long Island and in the boroughs,” he said. “Manhattan has always seemed too risky. I like to build from scratch, which is more complicated in the city.”