360 View: LeFrak Goes Upscale With Its Latest Tower in Jersey City

360 View: LeFrak Goes Upscale With Its Latest Tower in Jersey City

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Mr. LeFrak “actually knows how to build,” said Steven C. Witkoff, a New York real estate developer whose offices are at 40 West 57th Street, a building owned by the LeFrak Organization.

“He grew up in a family with a master builder,” Mr. Witkoff continued. “Sam was a legend. Infrastructure is everything he’s done, on steroids.”

President Trump has yet to unveil his infrastructure plan, but he has talked about a $1 trillion investment. “Everybody loves infrastructure, nobody wants to pay for it,” Mr. LeFrak said. “That’s really what the problem is.”

Mr. LeFrak, left, and his son Jamie in their Newport development.

Credit
Luiz C. Ribeiro for The New York Times

Mr. LeFrak has been a friend of the president’s for half a century. His father, who died in 2003, did not appear to share such warm feelings for Mr. Trump, telling Business Week in 1992, “Like I always said, he might be strutting around like a peacock today, but he’s gonna be a feather duster tomorrow.”

Stroll along the streets of Newport, and it feels like a world set apart from the grit and congestion of Jersey City farther inland. Land that was barren, without roads or sewage lines, now has an outdoor ice rink, a waterfront park with a beach, a Morton Williams supermarket and a mall, which is owned by Simon Property Group. The city’s first Starbucks opened in Newport, in 1998.

“You had the ability to create a community from scratch,” said Mr. LeFrak, who, with his family, is worth $6.5 billion, according to Forbes.

A tour of Newport offers a glimpse of what a neighborhood looks like when it is largely owned and built by a single family. The neighborhood has a private school but not a public one. With one landlord in town, the neighborhood has its own Residential Customer Service office (near the Duane Reade) where tenants can go to complain. Many streets are private, so parking meter fees on those blocks go to the LeFrak Organization, not the city.

Residents in Newport Town Square.

Credit
Luiz C. Ribeiro for The New York Times

Newport did not happen without public support. In 1983, two years after Samuel LeFrak first took an interest in the area, but before he bought any of it, Jersey City received a $40 million federal urban development grant to build infrastructure on the waterfront. At the time, it was the largest such grant in United States history.

To hear the LeFraks tell it, the public money was just a small piece of the infrastructure puzzle.

“The lion’s share of it was paid for by us,” said Jamie LeFrak, 43, Richard’s younger son. (His older son, Harrison, 45, is also involved in the company.) The LeFraks and their partners say they have invested billions in the community, building roads and sewer lines and, later, attractions like a 4.25-acre park with a carousel.

But talk to Gerald McCann, who was Jersey City’s mayor twice in the 1980s, and Newport’s creation story looks a little different. The city lured Samuel LeFrak to Jersey City, after first bringing in Melvin Simon, a mall developer, to build the mall. (Mr. Simon cold-called Mr. LeFrak, plucking his name from the top of a list the city provided.) The vision of a shining city on the waterfront does not entirely belong to the LeFraks, either, as Jersey City helped hammer out a redevelopment plan to allow for mixed-use development on the waterfront.

“Everyone saw Jersey City as an industrial city,” Mr. McCann said. “We saw just the opposite. We saw us as the new Park Avenue on our side of the Hudson River.” If Richard LeFrak “wants to take all the credit for it, God bless him.”

The city sold the land to the LeFraks. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey undertook PATH train and station improvements, making it easier to transport commuters from Manhattan to Newport in just a few minutes. The Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, one of the largest public works projects in New Jersey’s history, was built through a public-private partnership; it began operating in 2000 and stops in Newport. The LeFrak Organization has also received tax breaks over the years.

“It was infrastructure that made Newport possible,” said James W. Hughes, the dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. Yet Newport helped make the rest of Jersey City’s revival possible, too, as it drew New Yorkers who, eventually, turned around and noticed that the city was much larger than its waterfront. “I don’t think Jersey City would have become a millennial hot spot without the waterfront development,” Dr. Hughes said.

Richard LeFrak said: “The whole place changed. Now people don’t go, ‘Where do you live?’”

In recent years, the LeFrak Organization has spread its wings, investing in the energy industry and venturing beyond the New York metropolitan area, building a hotel in Miami and an office building in Beverly Hills, Calif. Mr. LeFrak points to his sons, Jamie and Harrison, as the source of the company’s national ambitions. “They want to do stuff, and I don’t want to stop them from having the fun that I had,” he said.

The LeFrak brand has also shed its reputation for building utilitarian, middle-class housing stock. The Ellipse has apartments with oak floors and floor-to-ceiling windows. The 24,000 square feet of amenities include perks like an outdoor pool, a terrace with a barbecue area and a children’s playroom. Rents for one-bedrooms start at $3,330; two-bedrooms start at $4,535; and three-bedrooms start at $5,300 a month.

“I think the sons, as the organization evolved, they were probably instrumental in raising the architectural standards,” Dr. Hughes said.

The family is far from done in Newport, with roughly 50 acres left to develop. “Estimating the remaining time?” Jamie LeFrak said. “It’s impossible to do.”

Richard LeFrak put it more bluntly: “It’s another lifetime.”

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