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Leonard Litwin, New York Real Estate Mogul, Dies at 102

Leonard Litwin went into building with his father in 1946, starting with garden apartments on Long Island and later dozens of upscale properties in Manhattan. Creditvia Glenwood Management

Behind the scenes, Mr. Litwin’s influence and that of Glenwood Management reached far beyond the buildings he owned. He forged political connections in Albany and City Hall with campaign contributions, lobbying and payments that shaped rent laws affecting millions of tenants, as well as state and city regulations that helped the real estate industry thrive in New York.

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Liberty Plaza, at 10 Liberty Street in Manhattan, was one of Mr. Litwin’s major projects and the first new apartment building erected in Lower Manhattan after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.CreditMichael Appleton for The New York Times

In 2015, two extraordinary federal corruption trials in New York led to the convictions and resignations of the state’s two most powerful legislative leaders in Albany and exposed long-hidden bribery connections to Mr. Litwin’s empire, laying bare a seamy world of payoffs, political favors and legislation that reaped staggering profits and savings for the real estate industry, and for Glenwood Management in particular.

Mr. Litwin was not charged with any crime, though he was named a co-conspirator in one case, and never appeared in a courtroom for either trial as the juries convicted Assemblyman Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat and former Assembly speaker, and State Senator Dean G. Skelos, a Long Island Republican and Senate majority leader, of bribery, extortion and conspiracy charges.

In both trials, prosecutors showed that Glenwood had received favored treatment in Albany by giving $10 million to political campaigns since 2005, mostly through a maze of 26 limited liability companies. Under a nonprosecution agreement, Mr. Dorego, a senior executive of Glenwood, testified that payoffs to leaders and members of the State Legislature assured Glenwood of continued benefits in taxes, state financing and rent laws. One program alone, he said, saved up to $100 million.

In the Skelos case, the jury found that the senator and his son, Adam B. Skelos, had pressured Glenwood and two other companies into providing benefits worth $300,000 to the son, who was also convicted. By naming Mr. Litwin a co-conspirator of Dean Skelos, prosecutors were able to elicit testimony from Mr. Dorego about conversations he had with Mr. Litwin on the amounts and recipients of payments.

By 2006, when Forbes listed him as a billionaire — No. 374 among the 400 richest Americans — Mr. Litwin was one of a core group of builders and property owners that dominated the city’s residential real estate industry. It was an exclusive club that included Stephen M. Ross of the Related Companies, the Elghanayan family, Donald Zucker, the Resnick family, the Rudin family and Larry A. Silverstein.

Even to tenants who never knew his name and could never afford to live in one of his buildings, Mr. Litwin was an unseen power: a voice in the Rent Stabilization Association, the landlord organization that battles tenant groups annually over rent increases, set by the New York City Rent Guidelines Board, that may legally be charged in hundreds of thousands of rent-stabilized apartments in the city.

Mr. Litwin retired in his late 90s, although at 96 he was still actively involved in business.

“He comes to the office every day, goes to all of our meetings and has the final say on almost everything,” Gary Jacob, the executive vice president of Glenwood, told The New York Times in 2011. “He’s actively involved in our new construction projects — he pores over the architectural plans to make sure we have the proper amount of closet space, and is very detail-oriented.”

While Mr. Litwin carefully avoided publicity, he was in the news periodically for his political donations. Campaign finance records showed that over many years he gave millions to governors, state legislators, City Council members, candidates for office, and Republican and Democratic organizations. Public records also showed that he spent millions on lobbying.

In July 2013, the New York Public Interest Research Group reported that Mr. Litwin had given Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo a total of $625,000 in campaign contributions since December 2010, apparently making Mr. Litwin the governor’s largest donor. At the time, Mr. Cuomo was raising $1 million a month from contributors for his 2014 re-election campaign.

Mr. Litwin also gave large sums to former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, and to many Republican officials, including former Gov. George E. Pataki and state legislators, particularly members of the Senate who favored real estate interests. Money trails in the 1990s showed that Mr. Litwin and other developers were heavy supporters of Republicans who pledged to abolish or limit tenant rent protections.

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The Pavilion on 500 East 77th Street in Manhattan, an apartment tower that Leornard Litwin built that is also one of New York City’s largest. CreditHiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Like other wealthy campaign donors, Mr. Litwin circumvented contribution limits by funneling many smaller gifts through dozens of limited liability companies he controlled. While legal, such gifts are worrying to advocates of campaign finance reforms, especially when the donations are made by individuals or companies doing business with the government.

While politicians tend to minimize the impact of such donations, tenant advocates and others contend that the money is a prime mover in debates over rent laws and state and city regulations affecting the real estate industry. In any case, Mr. Litwin’s corporation benefited from special state financing, tax breaks, construction subsidies and other largess.

In 2002, federal investigators said Mr. Litwin and dozens of other property owners had received illegal tax breaks arranged by a consultant who was charged with bribing tax assessors in a scheme that cost the city $160 million in revenue over four years. But the suspect, Albert Schussler, died of a stroke before he could testify, and Mr. Litwin and other owners denied knowledge of a crime and were not accused of wrongdoing.

Starting in 1997, his company financed a series of buildings in New York using more than $1 billion in tax-exempt bonds issued by the state, a form of taxpayer subsidy that reduces interest costs to a borrower. The buildings included Liberty Plaza, a 45-story residential tower near the World Trade Center site.

Liberty Plaza won approval for nearly $100 million in special state financing and a 20-year real estate tax exemption, and was the first new apartment building erected in Lower Manhattan after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Leonard Litwin was born in New York City on Oct. 16, 1914, to Harold Litwin and the former Gertrude Meyer. The boy and his sister, Faye, grew up in Queens, attending public schools. Their father wrote two volumes of poetry under the name Harry Woodbourne. In 1933, Harold Litwin founded Woodbourne Cultural Nurseries in Melville, N.Y., with his son, who attended Columbia University briefly. The business, still in the family, did landscape work for builders.

The father and son went into building themselves in 1946, erecting garden apartments on Long Island, followed by a 105-family complex in Queens and a 400-family high-rise in Riverdale, in the Bronx. After his father died in 1962, Mr. Litwin built numerous apartment towers on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, including one of the city’s largest, the Pavilion on East 77th Street near York Avenue.

Over the next half century, Mr. Litwin built dozens of properties in Manhattan, almost exclusively rental towers with amenities like swimming pools, fitness centers and concierge services, charging rents of $7,000 a month for some one-bedroom layouts, and more than $30,000 a month for penthouses. He rarely took on cooperative conversions and almost never a condominium project.

Mr. Litwin, who also had homes in Great Neck, Manhattan and Boca Raton, Fla., is survived by two daughters, Carole Litwin Pittelman, now the president of Glenwood Management, and Diane Miller; four grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. His wife, Ruth, died in 2014.

Mr. Litwin and his wife gave millions to philanthropic causes, hospitals, and medical research on cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. He and Mr. Zucker founded a center on Long Island for the study of Alzheimer’s. The Litwin charitable investments were nearly all managed by Bernard L. Madoff and substantially lost in his Ponzi scheme, which swallowed up many fortunes before being exposed in 2008.

Mr. Litwin was a longtime governor of the Real Estate Board of New York, the industry trade group, and in 2012 was named its lifetime honorary chairman. In 2009, he received the organization’s highest honor, the Harry B. Helmsley Distinguished New Yorker Award for lifetime achievement.