A glass ceiling made of steel

Brooklyn developer Mona Gora talks business

The founder of Golden Lioness, a development and property management firm based in Brooklyn Heights, Mona Gora is one of New York’s few female developers. She is also a principal in Moe-Joe Developers, the company behind the 2006 Chelsea Club, a 12-story, 42-unit condo at 444 West 19th Street in Manhattan. She is currently in the process of spearheading leasing efforts at 32 Court Street in Brooklyn Heights, a building her family has owned for decades, and is renovating a 16-unit building at 338 Berry Street in Williamsburg, which she bought for $12 million in 2005. Gora sat down with The Real Deal last week at Her Court Street property to discuss how she made a name for herself, how the recession impacted her business and what’s ahead for her company.

How did you get into real estate?

My family had been in real estate from an investment standpoint since the 1970s, but I’ve been actively working in the industry since 1995.

How many buildings are in your portfolio?

I’m involved in quite a few. I would say the most notable ones are currently 32 Court Street, which is my flagship office building, and another that’s very exciting to us right now is 338 Berry Street.

Wasn’t there a dispute with the tenants at your Berry Street property recently? [A group of Williamsburg artists who were appealing eviction from the building lost their 16 month-long legal battle in April.]

The tenants had made an agreement with the previous owner. When I purchased the building I inherited those tenants with a stipulated order stating [they would move out in seven to nine years]. All the tenants were in agreement and signed it freely. Unaffected were tenants with leases that expired in 2009; subsequently, the loft board had a new law that came into effect in June 2010 [about eight to nine months prior to the expiration of the 2011 leases], which extended rights and rental protections to residents living in illegally converted lofts. These tenants thought they could dig in under the new law. In the end, the courts ruled in our favor and the stipulated agreement prevailed.

What’s happening with that property now?

We intend to do something not done before in Williamsburg and the interior lends itself to something quite unique. We are also in the process of installing a 50Kw solar canopy on top of the building which will be visible from the Williamsburg Bridge. [The building will likely be residential, Gora said.]

How did the recession affect your business?
Our tenants are mostly professionals and when the recession first hit Manhattan and Brooklyn, a tremendous amount of sublease space became available. Professionals that had been here for many years crossed the bridge to Manhattan to take advantage of the newly affordable space. We, however, stayed focused on our property and embarked on a campaign to invest in our vacant spaces, which we’ve continued for the better part of the last three years. We’ve put a lot of money back into our buildings.

Have things improved since then?
Since the last quarter of 2011 through today, we’ve signed a tremendous amount of leases helping us achieve pre-recession occupancy. Rents had dipped but have rebounded really strong. It helps that we’re giving spectacular loft-style build outs.

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Did the recession impact other areas of your business?

One inherent outcome of the recession was the availability of distressed assets and we have invested quite a bit of time and money in a portfolio of residential mortgages.

Has that been challenging?

It’s been extremely challenging and navigating the court system takes years. However a new business has been born out it. Each asset provides a new development opportunity and we have quite a few properties that we have rehabbed then rented or sold.

Have you hung onto any exciting properties?

We intend to hang on to most of our Brooklyn portfolio of brownstones [in various neighborhoods including Bushwick, Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant], which I have a great feeling about. I will probably redevelop and reposition each one of them.

Are you looking to acquire other properties in 2012?

We are actively looking to purchase or joint venture with other people. I would say my sweet spot is for deals between $5 million and $20 million. I’m not really looking to compete with the big boys. I’ll invest in any property type if it makes sense.

Is it difficult to be a female in what’s considered traditionally to be a man’s world?

There’s many times when I have meetings and I’ll realize that I’m the only female in the room but I don’t even think about it when I’m conducting business. As a businesswoman I just try to be very transparent and straightforward and really hope to come through as a person of my word.