Shaya Boymelgreen: The Brooklyn Paper interview

Real estate magnate Shaya Boymelgreen — the man who built 1,500 apartments across the borough in a mere 13 years — sat down with The Brooklyn Paper and discussed everything from the bearish real estate market to Borough President Markowitz’s potential run for mayor. Here’s what the elusive developer told our reporter, Dana Rubinstein.

Q: You are a player in the development of Fourth Avenue. Tell me, what will Fourth Avenue look like in 15 years?

A: You know, when I came to Park Slope [about eight years ago], Fifth Avenue was the border. And we started buying property between Fifth and Fourth avenues. We didn’t think about Fourth Avenue then. A few years later, the city said they wanted to downzone Park Slope and upzone Fourth Avenue. And so I thought, ‘Fourth Avenue can be like Park Avenue.’ They’re very similar. You can make there a boulevard. [But] it depends on the city.

Q: How does it depend on the city?

A: [They need to rezone] the Gowanus Canal area to residential. Four years ago, we started buying property [in the Gowanus Canal area] … All this area was empty. And so I said, “Look at the canal. It [could] be a beautiful place.” And the city said, “Yes Shaya. We would like to see somebody come.” That’s why I bought it.

Q: So you’re still planning to build Gowanus Village?

A: Yes.

Q: So you haven’t sold any of your properties there?

A: No, we haven’t sold. We are very much staying there. … Both sides of the canal will be a very residential, beautiful area.

Q: There are rumors that you’ve bought up even more property there.

A: We’ve bought a couple of other sites. I don’t remember which ones. … It will all mid-rise and low-rise and next to the water, with a lot of space for people from the neighborhood to go and walk.

Q: As perhaps the first developer to recognize the potential in Prospect Heights, what do you think of the Atlantic Yards project?

A: Shaya Boymelgreen is a developer. I believe in developers. I believe developers are building cities, building neighborhoods. … Of course we have to watch them to make sure it’s not just about the dollar.

Q: But in particular, what do you think of the Ratner project?

A: I think that Ratner took a very, very special architect who will give Brooklyn a very special flavor. If you ask me, can you improve it, I’d say, yes, you can improve anything, anywhere, endlessly. I’m sure you get up in the morning and look in the mirror and you could work on your face and then you can go on and on and on and not go to work.

Q: Ouch.

A: The question is, when do you stop? And I’m not the judge because I don’t know the details. But when I heard that Ratner was going to build here, I said, “Wow, jobs, new parking, new stores.” It’s all prosperity. … I went to visit [project architect] Frank Gehry in Los Angeles recently. It’s unbelievable the way he works. He has huge hangars and every project is on a table. He goes from table to table to table. And I can tell you, I saw the Brooklyn project. It was on a few tables, in the center of the place. This is central for him, it’s special to him. And just look at the model he’s building. It’s remarkable. I think it will be a beautiful thing.

Q: Speaking of Atlantic Yards, last week, a building owner named Henry Weinstein won a lawsuit against you that charged that you illegally transferred your lease in one of his buildings to Ratner. Any comment about the court ruling in Weinstein’s favor?

A: Weinstein is just pure business. Most of the people on the block just want to see how much they can take from Ratner.

Q: So you think that’s why they’re taking part in the eminent domain lawsuits, to increase their bargaining power with Ratner?

A: Of course! Of course! Come on! It’s so obvious! If you ask Weinstein face to face, he’ll say it, unless he has a good poker face. He came to me and asked me how much money I thought he could take from Ratner.

Q: Like Ratner, though to a lesser degree, you’ve encountered opposition in Brooklyn. There are those who complain about your sense of aesthetics, your use of non-union labor, a lack of regard for the context of the neighborhood. Is Brooklyn a more difficult place to work than other cities?

A: I don’t think Brooklyn is more difficult. I love Brooklyn. I live in Brooklyn. My children live in Brooklyn. I moved to Crown Heights [in the 1990s] and I haven’t moved anywhere since.

Q: But the criticism must bother you.

A: If you show a bunch of people anything, from a woman to a building, to clothes, they’ll all have a different opinion. Sometimes, I see something in my head that I think will be beautiful. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t come out like I want, because of the zoning, because of the architect, because of the finishing. You’re not 100 percent in control.

Q: You mean, you’ve made buildings that you don’t find particularly attractive?

A: Sometimes I see something that’s finished, and it’s not quite right, and I can’t quite change it.

Q: Any examples in Brooklyn?

A: I can’t names buildings. … I can only be honest. … My intentions are good. What do people think, that I don’t want to come and look the best? … I would like to build the most beautiful building and the best lifestyle for people, but I’m just a businessman and I have the tools that limit what I can do.

Q: The unions, in particular, have been frequent critics of yours. Do their complaints have merit?

A: If you are going to use union labor, you will lose your shirt. It costs you 40 percent more. And who will buy a house at 40 percent more? Unions are all about the money. I put them and Weinstein in the same category. Weinstein wants the most dollars. They want the most dollars. If you dig into how unions do business, all of them would go to jail, I think. You think they care for the workers? B.S. They care for people? Give me a break. They care just for the dollar.

Q: On a lighter note, what do you think about Marty Markowitz’s talk about running for mayor?

A: He didn’t ask me. He’s funny, so you think sometimes he’s not serious. But this guy is very, very serious. When things bother him, he’s more serious than serious people I know. When he thinks I’m wrong, he picks up the phone and yells at me, even in front of people, too, at a party. Because he cares. He cares a lot.

Q: So you think he’d make a good mayor?

A: I don’t know what a mayor has to be. If a mayor has to care for his people, he’ll make a good mayor. If a mayor has to be an economist, I don’t know if Marty…I have no idea.