Brooklyn councilmember aids Orthodox group that detained, beat Taj Patterson
City Councilmember Steve Levin, who is a member of that body’s Progressive Caucus and an LGBTQ community supporter, has given at least $64,500 in Council discretionary funds to a Brooklyn community patrol that attacked a gay African-American man in Williamsburg in 2013, leaving the man blind in one eye.
Levin, who was first elected to the City Council in 2009 and is now serving his third term having benefited from the one-time change to the city’s two-term limit, represents a district that includes Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and other Brooklyn neighborhoods.
In Williamsburg, the large Orthodox Jewish community is ostensibly protected by the Shmira Volunteer Patrol, which also uses the name Williamsburg Safety Patrol. In December 2013, Shmira members set upon Taj Patterson, now 28, when he was observed walking in the street on Flushing Avenue in Williamsburg. He suffered a broken eye socket, bruises, abrasions, and was left blind in one eye. No charges were ever filed against Patterson.
This patrol and others serving Orthodox Jewish communities say that they merely detain criminal suspects until police arrive. Witnesses to the attack who testified in the trial of one patrol member described a mob of roughly 20 men. Videos showed the men racing in cars to the site of the attack at roughly the same time.
Pinchas Braver and Abraham Winkler pleaded guilty to unlawful imprisonment in the attack. Charges against Aharon Hollender and Joseph Fried were dropped. Mayer Herskovic refused a deal and his non-jury trial took place in 2016 before Judge Danny Chun in Brooklyn Supreme Court. He faced multiple counts of unlawful imprisonment, assault, gang assault, and menacing.
Herskovic was convicted because his DNA was found on Patterson’s sneaker that had been pulled from his foot by the same man who jabbed a thumb in his eye and kicked him in the face, Patterson testified during the trial. That man took the sneaker and tossed it on to a nearby roof where police recovered it six days after the attack. Herskovic was sentenced to four years in prison in 2017, but was allowed to remain free while he appealed.
Last year, a state appeals court found that the evidence at trial was “legally sufficient to establish the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” but after using its “independent factual review power, we conclude that the verdict of guilt was against the weight of the evidence.”
The conviction was reversed and Herskovic’s indictment was dismissed. The issue was that the DNA sample was small and tested using high sensitivity DNA testing. It was also a mix of Patterson’s DNA and Herskovic’s DNA. The result was that the ratio that expresses the confidence that the DNA belongs to a particular person was lower than what is usually found with larger and unmixed samples.
Patterson has filed lawsuits in state and federal court against the patrol, individual members of the patrol, and the city. The federal case has been dismissed though Patterson has appealed that dismissal. The state lawsuit is ongoing.
Levin first supported the patrol with $9,000 in the city’s 2011 fiscal year. Since then he has given the patrol $15,000 in 2016, $16,500 in 2017, $12,000 in 2018, and $12,000 in the 2019 fiscal year.
In a motion filed last year in federal court by the city’s Law Department, the city said, “It is beyond dispute that plaintiff-appellant Taj Patterson was the victim of a horrific hate crime perpetrated by a vigilante group, and is entitled to justice.”
The city’s motion said the patrol was a “hate-filled mob” that decided “to illegally attack an innocent victim while cloaked in the dark of night,” that the attackers were acting on a “sadistic urge to violently beat Taj Patterson,” and that the attackers knew “that their conduct was illegal.”
The city also said that Patterson’s attackers “allegedly belonged” to “an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood safety patrol.”
Citing a statement issued by the patrol in 2014, Levin wrote in an email that only one of the five men who faced criminal charges, Winkler, was a patrol member and that he was expelled from the patrol in 2014.
“The assault on Mr. Patterson is incredibly serious and I firmly believe that anyone who took part in the assault must face the consequences,” Levin wrote in an email. “That said, I have not seen evidence that Williamsburg Safety Patrol, as an organization, took part in or condoned the assault on Mr. Patterson nor have I seen evidence that they have protected any of their volunteers from investigation or prosecution. In fact, they moved to remove one of their volunteers, Mr. Winkler, when he was charged with taking part in the assault.”
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I’ve written before about the malign influence of New York’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect. They want to shut out the modern world and recreate a medieval theocracy, and because their members vote in lockstep obedience to the commands of their rabbis, they wield outsized political power.
In the Brooklyn neighborhoods and other towns where they’re the majority, they’ve committed one outrage after another: taking over school boards and strip-mining public schools, trying to impose gender apartheid on public spaces, prohibiting boys and especially girls from receiving an education, perpetuating barbaric religious rituals, brutally harassing and persecuting ex-members… and they do all this while shamelessly siphoning government assistance from the society they live in, demanding that others labor to feed, clothe and house them while they engage in lives of endless religious study.
But today’s outrage may exceed all of those.
It comes from a post I saw on Reddit’s popular Legal Advice forum. The poster, who’s a gay man, wrote a plea for help with this title: I am being harassed by the orthodox Jewish “police” in my home. This has been going on for almost 2 years since I moved in. I am at my wits end, what can I do to stop it?
I live in Brooklyn NY. I purchased a condo about 2 years ago in a building where a good chunk of the apartments are rented out by Orthodox families. i would say that 45% of the building is occupied by Orthodox families renting and the rest are condos owned + occupied by non orthodox people. I honestly did not care and did not think this would be a problem.
However, it seems the other families in his apartment building don’t share his live-and-let-live attitude. They disagree with his “lifestyle”, so they’ve been trying to harass and intimidate him into moving out:
The issue is that they have been using the Jewish police to harass me. To give you an idea of the shit I am dealing with I’ll tell you what prompted this post. I chose to have a Superbowl viewing party today. About 30 minutes into the start of the party (when there were FIVE people here) I get a knock at my door and standing there are two fake police who try to tell me they got a ‘noise complaint’ and a complaint that we are using ‘illicit substances’ that i have to end my party. We were in my yard at this point literately just talking and smoking (cigs).
Yes, he said “fake police”. We’ll get to that.
But it gets even more shocking. The Hasidim’s harassment has been escalating over time, until it’s come to this point:
Since then, they have been standing outside of my building trying to prevent people I INVITED from entering and have been harassing my guess, treating to ticket them and demanding to search them.
When the poster was asked to clarify, he explained:
the main door opens by buzzer. ill buzz someone in and they will physically stand shoulder to shoulder in front of the doorway and tell my guest that they dont have permission to enter (after i just buzzed them in) and if they try to push past them will physically push them out and threaten to assault them if they keep trying to get in.
now whenever someone is coming over who doesnt have a key I always go down and open the door myself but i have to ask them 15 times to move to let me do so and sometimes have to call the nypd to come and make them move to let people in.
The group that’s harassing this person is called the shomrim, Hebrew for “guards”. They’re a neighborhood watch that’s active in ultra-Orthodox communities. They style themselves a civilian auxiliary whose only goal is to assist the police in protecting their neighborhoods from crime. The reality, according to this poster and to many others who’ve had experience with them, is that they operate as a vigilante mob – harassing outsiders, violently beating anyone they suspect of committing a crime, and treating ultra-Orthodox religious dogma as if it were law.
A New York Times article from 2016 has some examples, like this one:
Shortly before 5 a.m. on Dec. 1, 2013, a young black man named Taj Patterson was walking home through Hasidic Williamsburg after a night out with his friends. Mr. Patterson, a fashion student, was drunk. As he made his way up Flushing Avenue, a local shomrim group received a call about someone vandalizing cars. What was soon a throng of more than a dozen people stopped Mr. Patterson on a quiet stretch of Flushing in between Spencer and Walworth Streets. He resisted; there was a scuffle. Mr. Patterson soon lay on the ground with a crushed eye socket, a torn retina and permanent blindness in his right eye.
But while they’re swift to unleash mob violence on outsiders, especially people of color, they take a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil attitude when it comes to crimes committed by one of their own:
“Who is really controlling the Borough Park police station?” asked Joe Levin, a Hasidic private investigator who has clashed with the shomrim. “It’s not the N.Y.P.D.”
A few years ago, Mr. Levin said he handled a divorce case where a husband was beating his wife. One day, he added, the woman was hurt so badly that an ambulance removed her from her home on a stretcher. The police and the shomrim were also at the scene, he said, but no one did a thing when the husband rushed out, flipped the stretcher and knocked her to the ground.
“I saw this with my own eyes — everybody did,” Mr. Levin said.
The worst part is that, because of the Hasidim’s political pull, the shomrim have virtual impunity. The Legal Advice poster says that he’s tried many times to get the real police to intervene and stop this brazen harassment of him and his guests. Even with video evidence, they refuse to act:
To our dedicated readers:
We have the same question alleged by the subject of the Daily News Article attached hereto. We are simply posting a screenshot. We note that the case is apparently not sealed.
We cannot speak to the validity or the allegations or charges, this is simply a repost, with the sole purpose of asking the same question.
If you are not Hasidic, can you get a fair trial in Brooklyn?
Let them in — or else.
Four Brooklyn yeshivas are still refusing to let city Department of Education inspectors vet the education they’re providing their students, according to a new letter from schools Chancellor Richard Carranza to state officials.
Carranza asked the state in the letter to broker access for his agents to visit the schools — or deem them in violation of academic standards if the blockade persists.
Critics argue that the religious schools – which have rapidly expanded in recent years – are failing to provide basic academic instruction, thus depriving their graduates.
Carranza’s letter, which was sent Thursday, stated that the schools have wriggled out of 13 separate requests to visit since 2015, telling investigators that their schedules weren’t aligned.
If they are eventually cited for failing to provide proper coursework, the schools could eventually lose public funding.
Violators could also be stripped of accreditation — with attending kids then deemed “truant” and subject to intervention from child-welfare agencies.
“These four schools won’t let us in to determine if their students are getting the education they deserve, despite 13 requests to visit since 2015,” Carranza said in a statement. “We’re asking the State to help us access these schools, and if that’s not possible, to determine that these schools aren’t providing a substantially equivalent education.”
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Just after midnight at an Orthodox Jewish elementary school in Brooklyn, Elliott Gordon found a man turning blue on the floor of the chapel. Gordon had been sitting in a filthy dormitory room upstairs when he heard a voice in the hallway say that a man named Moshe had collapsed. It was Gordon’s first night at the school, where he was paying $150 a week to stay in a room stuffed with three beds. He had found two glasses of urine on the windowsill of the shared bedroom when he moved in that afternoon.
Gordon grabbed his phone and ran downstairs to investigate. Moshe was on his face in the tumbledown sanctuary, his body limp. Gordon called 911.
While EMTs worked to revive Moshe, another adult resident of the elementary school told Gordon that Moshe had a history of heroin addiction and had been passed out on the floor of the synagogue for nearly two hours. Gordon, unsettled, returned to bed, only to be woken again just after 6 a.m., when he heard more EMTs rushing through the halls.
Later, Gordon learned that two men had been taken to the hospital from the school building during the early hours of October 16: Moshe, who was in his 40s, and an 80-year-old man named Allan Shapiro, who police say suffered cardiac arrest. Both men had died.
“You’re talking two deaths at the same location within five hours,” Gordon said. “I said, ‘What the hell is going on here?’”
In the daytime, the building, on a quiet residential block on the corner of Brooklyn’s East 21st Street and Avenue T, is a small, coed Modern Orthodox elementary school. On Friday nights and Saturdays it is a synagogue. On Wednesdays it is a food pantry. And at all hours it is a mix between a homeless shelter and a boarding house, a place where adult men come and go as they please, and where some spend nights on chairs and on bathroom floors.
The two brothers who run the building, rabbis Abraham and Sroya Sorscher, served two months in federal prison in 2009 after admitting to defrauding a free lunch program for needy children. Instead of serving hot meals at the Avenue T school, prosecutors charged, the brothers had taken the money and fed students donated leftovers that made them sick.
Despite the brothers’ history, which also includes a 2007 guilty plea by Sroya Sorscher in state court in the Bronx to a misdemeanor charge of promoting gambling, no regulatory agency or Jewish charity has prevented them from caring for children and poor men in their disheveled facility. In fact, major Jewish charities, including the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty and UJA-Federation of New York, continue to refer men to the Avenue T shelter.
When contacted by the Forward, neither organization appeared to be aware of the brothers’ past, or of the dual use of the building. Met Council admitted that no one currently on its staff had ever visited the shelter. UJA-Federation did not respond when asked repeatedly whether its staff had ever inspected the Avenue T facility. Yet both groups have sent desperate men to stay there: UJA-Federation has referred four people since 2012, and Met Council has referred two in the past two years.
Sroya Sorscher said that he saw no problem with housing homeless men in the same building as an elementary school. “I think that some people may feel that, you know, because somebody is poor, it doesn’t present a positive profile for children,” he said. “That argument is bizarre in my mind.”
Still, it is unusual for an elementary school to rent rooms to homeless men. Joshua Goldfein, a staff attorney for the Homeless Rights Project at The Legal Aid Society, said that he saw no inherent operational reason that a shelter and a school could not be co-located. “But it does make me wonder about whether there are any regulatory agencies that are reviewing these places,” Goldfein said. “The concern that I would have is that it’s not safe, and that no one’s figured it out because there’s no government agency that’s applying any standards to it.” Unlike day care centers, neither private elementary schools nor private shelters are inspected by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
“It sounds like there needs to be a more prudent review,” said Alan Schoor, CEO of Met Council. “Someone should be looking at the facility.”
The Sorscher brothers have been controversial figures operating on the outskirts of New York’s Jewish community for decades. In the mid-1980s they alienated local rabbis while running a small yeshiva in the Zerega section of the Bronx. David Edelstein, executive director of The Jewish Community Council of Pelham Parkway, said that Sroya Sorscher had angered one rabbi with vociferous demands for support for his yeshiva. “They were offensive to him,” Edelstein said. “They were much worse than rude.”
Still, Edelstein said that the Sorschers’ Bronx yeshiva sincerely helped some students, including one man who approached Edelstein last year and told him that the Sorschers’ school had “turned my life around.”
By 2000 the Sorscher brothers had focused their operations in the Sheepshead Bay area of Brooklyn, where they ran a synagogue and school at Beth Aaron Synagogue on Bragg Street, near Marine Park. On August 31 of that year, a fire tore through the synagogue. Abraham Sorscher told the New York Post at the time that he had heard rumors that the fire could have been started intentionally. The Forward could not obtain investigation records from the New York City Fire Department by press time. The Jewish community in that part of Sheepshead Bay had been in slow decline for years at the time of the fire. While it has since rebounded, the building remains empty.
It was shortly after the fire that the two brothers settled in at the Avenue T building. Sroya Sorscher was walking out the door of that building when this reporter arrived, unannounced, on November 10. “I have nothing to hide,” Sorscher said. “I will show you the whole building. I will show you everything we have.”
The building has gone by a bewildering variety of names under the Sorscher brothers: Yeshiva Gedolah Academy of Beth Aaron, Beth Aaron Synagogue, Ahavas Achim Congregation, Yeshiva Residence, Rabbi Jacob London Madison Community Center and the Yeshiva Academy, among others. The brothers’ names, too, are confounding: Their last name is spelled both “Sorcher” and “Sorscher”; Abraham seems to also use the name Mordecai, and many only know Sroya Sorscher as “Rabbi.” Sroya Sorscher declined to clarify his or his brother’s name.
Inside and out, the space is unkempt. During a later visit, on November 13, a large sack of onions lay abandoned on the ground just inside the front door; a fruit fly circled a box of discount cakes that sat in a hallway; crumbled cookies lay beneath a desk in the school’s cramped office. Food sat out on a table in the sanctuary throughout the day, and the flooring was lifting in places.
In the school’s tiny coed classrooms on the building’s first floor, young students greeted Sroya Sorscher happily, shouting “Hi, rabbi!” as he walked in. Older boys studied with Abraham Sorscher in the chapel where Gordon found Moshe, lifeless, on the floor. Students receiving private tutoring sat with their teachers behind temporary room dividers.
Sorscher said that the school had about 75 students; roughly half that number appeared to be in the building November 10.
When a state inspector knocked on the door of the school here in December 2000, she found just 15 children present. The Sorschers had claimed in paperwork that they were feeding 120 students with food and cash supplied by the federal National School Lunch Program. Subsequent investigation, according to court papers, determined that the “vast majority” of applications purportedly filled out by parents claiming that their children were eligible for government-subsidized lunches through the NSLP were fraudulent. When inspectors went back a month later, according to a document filed in the criminal case, they ended the visit early because they “felt that the defendants were threatening them.”
Prosecutors claimed that the Sorschers had misused the NSLP funds intended to be used to buy lunches for their students, and that they had diverted deliveries of bulk NSLP food. Children at their school were served leftovers donated by a local deli. “Both students and parents complained to… agents that these reheated meals were often inedible, and on occasion, even made students sick,” prosecutors wrote in one court filing.
The brothers each pleaded guilty to NSLP fraud charges on the eve of trial. They were sentenced to two months in prison, three years of supervised release and a total of $75,000 in restitution, which they paid in June 2010. Abraham Sorscher, who had been employed by the New York City Department of Education since 1980, lost his job in 2010 as a result of his guilty plea. Asked about the NSLP case, Sroya Sorscher said, “It’s all resolved.”
The two floors of upstairs dormitories in the Avenue T building are separated from the elementary school by unlocked doors. On the third floor, Sroya Sorscher displayed two empty rooms, one of which had belonged to Moshe. A single bed stood in each of them.
“I would imagine he died of an overdose from painkillers,” Sorscher said of Moshe, whose surname he claimed not to know. He claimed that Moshe had been a wounded veteran of the Israel Defense Forces. The Office of Chief Medical Examiner confirmed the man’s death at the Avenue T synagogue and confirmed his first name, but would not provide his surname.
While the November 2014 certificate of occupancy on file with the Department of Buildings states that the upstairs floors will be used as dormitories for children, Sroya Sorscher said that adult men have been staying there for a decade. One floor had, at one time, housed high school students, Sorscher said, before the program switched its focus to elementary school. Complaints on file with the DOB about the space being used as a dormitory for adult men stretch back to 2010, with four separate complaints filed since 2014. The DOB does not appear to have taken any action.
Gordon said that the second floor room where he stayed was filthy. “They put me in a closet that had three beds,” he said. In addition to the urine on the windowsill, he found bedbugs in the beds, and broken fixtures in the bathrooms. One man slept in a shower during a portion of Gordon’s three-week stay, and two men slept on chairs in the downstairs synagogue.
“On the second floor there’s a stench. It’s dirty,” Gordon said. “It’s just absolute filth.”
When this reporter walked past the second floor with Sorscher, a man could be seen sleeping on a table in the hallway. “He likes air,” Sorscher explained.
Gordon said that some residents appeared to have mental health issues or alcohol dependencies. Hot meals provided for residents were left unattended on a table in the chapel for hours. Gordon smelled marijuana in the building in the evenings.
Sorscher said that the dormitory provided an alternative to the city shelter system. “This is not the Atlantic Avenue shelter here,” Sorscher said. “You’re not going to see God knows what types of people. These are Jewish people that, unfortunately, need a place, and, in a discreet way, they have a place.”
While Sorscher described the upstairs dormitories as “hachnasat orchim,” or an hospitality for guests, some residents described the housing, at least in part, as a business. Leibel Solkowitz, who said he has had a private room in the dormitory for four years, said that he pays $600 per month for his single room. “If you can’t afford it, you don’t get the room,” he said. “Either you can afford it or not. It’s not a charity.”
Still, Solkowitz is grateful to Sorscher, and praised him for allowing two men to sleep on chairs in the synagogue. “The rabbi is a saint,” he said. “He has a heart of gold.”
Gordon, a veteran of Rudy Giuliani’s mayoral administration who now works as a booking agent for motivational speakers, learned of the yeshiva dormitory through a classified advertisement in The Jewish Press, a Brooklyn Orthodox newspaper. Forced to leave his apartment, he planned to stay at the Avenue T building for a brief time while seeking new housing.
“I figured, I’ll try to find a bridge,” he said.
Gordon signed a three-page agreement with Ahavas Achim Congregation, paying $300 for two weeks in “Room 2 – Bed 3” on the second floor of 2102 Avenue T. He said that he didn’t look closely at the room before signing, and had put his things in storage before realizing how poor the conditions were inside the building. Gordon was shocked by the deaths of Shapiro and Moshe, and furious that Moshe had been allowed to lie on the floor of the synagogue for hours. He contacted police and the Forward soon after the incident.
“It may be an old building, it may not be 2015 here, but it’s certainly warm,” Sorscher said November 10. “In my wildest dreams to believe that any human being, that any Jew especially, would have anything but compassion and mercy and have a good feeling: ‘Ah, there’s a rabbi in the world that cares about a person.’”
After speaking with this reporter at length November 10, Sroya Sorscher proved elusive. Staff members in the school’s office said November 13 that he was unavailable but could be reached via telephone the following day. Seen outside the building moments later, Sorscher said that he had no time to speak. The next day and on subsequent days, no one answered at the number Sorscher had provided. The number had no answering machine.
In the midst of their legal trouble in the mid-2000s, the Sorscher brothers struck out on a bold adventure. In July 2005, three months before the federal indictment, they acquired a vacant middle school in the middle of the cornfields, three miles outside the tiny town of West Manchester, Ohio.
On paper, the property is owned by Beth Aaron Synagogue, the Sorschers’ Bragg Street synagogue, which still sits vacant. Today, the West Manchester school appears to be completely abandoned, too. Jeff Weireter, whose parents bought the vacant middle school after it closed and owned it until 2004, said that the school and the 10 acres on which it sits are now totally neglected. “The grass hasn’t been mowed in a year or two,” Weireter said.
Sroya Sorscher told the Forward that he and his brother had originally planned to build an out-of-town yeshiva there. “There was a rabbi at that time that was going to work with us in making an out-of-town dormitory school for kids, that it should be far away from civilization and more conducive to learning,” Sorscher said.
Whatever their intention, the building remained empty after their purchase, gathering graffiti. Then, a few hours before dawn on February 21, 2013, fire crews were called to the building as flames burst through the roof of the old gymnasium. Firefighters fought the blaze for nearly 12 hours.
Local press reports called the fire suspicious. A spokesperson for the Ohio State Fire Marshall told the Forward in October that the investigation into the fire is still open, though no leads are currently being worked and that no cause or origin had been determined.
“Of course it was suspicious,” Sroya Sorscher said. “They want to get rid of us. Not that we’re there. We’re not there. We have a caretaker that manages the grounds.”
But from Weireter’s perspective, if there is currently a caretaker for the property, “he needs to find another line of work.” Noting the property’s neglected state, Weireter said, “If that’s what he considers caretaking, it’s pretty sad.”
Sroya Sorscher said he did not know what the plans were for the West Manchester school.
Meanwhile, in the years in between the first visit by the state inspector to the Avenue T location and the federal indictment, other legal trouble found the Sorscher brothers: Both were indicted in New York State Supreme Court in the Bronx in 2004 for running bingo games for fake charities, though the charges against Abraham Sorscher were dropped.
According to a letter about the bingo case that federal prosecutors sent to the judge in the NSLP case, Sroya Sorscher was alleged to have obtained a license to run bingo games in support of “sham religious entities” and ran games out of a hall in the Bronx. Sroya Sorscher and three co-defendants pled guilty in 2007 to promoting gambling in the second degree.
Speaking at the cluttered office in the Avenue T building November 10, Sroya Sorscher dismissed the case as ancient history. He said that he had pleaded to the misdemeanor because he could not afford to fight the charges.
Sroya Sorscher said that the criminal cases against him were irrelevant to his current management of the school and shelter at the Avenue T building. He touted his referrals from major Jewish charities such as Met Council and UJA-Federation as evidence of his operation’s legitimacy. “They don’t owe me any good word or any bad word,” he said. But, he said, “They do know that if ever there is a Jewish man that needs a place, and it’s an emergency, that they call [me.]”
From left to right: Tom Elghanayan, Fred Elghanayan and Henry Elghanayan. CHESTER HIGGINS JR/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX
Amid the news about Amazon’s HQ2 announcement—the e-commerce giant chose New York’s Long Island City and northern Virginia’s Crystal City as the victors of its nationwide search—there’s the question of who in the real estate world is jumping for joy at the new opportunities. That likely includes a trio of low-profile billionaire brothers and real estate titan Jerry Speyer.
The Elghanayan family, which was worth more than $2 billion in 2015 when Forbes last estimated their fortune, traces their wealth back to Nourollah Elghanayan, an Iranian-native who started buying land in Manhattan in the 1950s and 1960s. His three sons, Tom, Fred and Henry, expanded the family business throughout Manhattan and Queens, acquiring and developing iconic buildings such as FBI’s former New York City headquarters and the Carnegie Hall Tower. In 2009, the family split up their holdings amid disagreements over succession plans. Henry reportedly won a coin toss and chose the Rockrose name and a portfolio of development sites and residential buildings; Tom and Fred took the rest, including more than 5,000 apartment units and properties in Long Island City, and rolled them into an entity called TF Cornerstone.
Since then, Tom and Fred Elghanayan have capitalized on New York’s up-and-coming neighborhoods, building gleaming luxury rental apartment towers in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen and in downtown Brooklyn. But it’s their bet in Long Island City that may prove to be the most prescient. In addition to two rental apartment towers the Elghanayans transferred to TF Cornerstone, the brothers have purchased or built four more rental buildings in the past six years, giving them over 3,000 rental units in Long Island City’s waterfront community of Queens West.
In July 2017, TF Cornerstone furthered its move into Long Island City, winning a proposal to redevelop two city-owned sites in Anable Basin, a waterfront district neighboring Queens West. Its winning bid calls for a 1.5 million square feet mixed-use project with 1,000 rental units, commercial, retail and light industrial spaces, and public park areas. Just months later, Plaxall—another family firm that manages over one million square feet of real estate—submitted plans to rezone nearly 15 acres of the Anable Basin into a mixed-use development spanning almost 6 million square feet.
Now the sketches of glass towers and open air parks have been fast tracked to reality as Amazon sets its sights on the Anable Basin. According to the Seattle company’s memorandum of understanding with New York, it has circled the Anable Basin area as its target site for HQ2. TF Cornerstone confirmed that it will partner with Amazon to build out its project. “As a family-owned company founded by Queens natives, TF Cornerstone is proud to welcome Amazon to Long Island City, bringing new jobs to the borough and preserving significant public benefits,” says Jake Elghanayan, a principal at TF Cornerstone and a son of Tom Elghanayan.
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With Amazon planning to take up 4 million square feet of office space over the next decade (and bringing on 25,000 workers), the Elghanayans are in prime position to take advantage of the increasing demand for office real estate and new apartments. With excitement already building in Long Island City, Tom and Fred’s fortune looks to be getting a boost in the near future.
But Henry Elghanayan, who runs his own firm Rockrose Development Corp., didn’t make out so badly either. The former lawyer, whose collection of development sites included several in Long Island City, erected his own luxury rentals near the One Court Square area, constructing nearly 2,500 units across three towers in the past six years. With another building due to open in 2019, and an older waterfront property that Henry received when the brothers split up, his Rockrose will be a major landlord in Long Island City with nearly 3,000 rental apartments.
Another big winner in Amazon’s decision is real estate firm Tishman Speyer’s billionaire chairman Jerry Speyer. Speyer started the real estate giant, which has developed over 167 million square feet of space from Chicago to Berlin, in 1978 with his father-in-law Robert Tishman. Son Rob Speyer is now CEO and oversees the company’s operations. While famous for redeveloping iconic skyscrapers like Manhattan’s Chrysler building and Rockefeller Center, Tishman Speyer has also become a major player in the transformation of Long Island City. The firm claims to be the area’s most prolific residential and office developer and says it will have completed construction on 3.7 million square feet in the neighborhood by end of next year.
A decade ago, the New York firm broke ground on Two Gotham Center, a 22-story office tower just a 20-minutes stroll from Anable Basin. Tishman Speyer sold the completed building to Canadian firm H&R REIT in 2011 but continued on, partnering with H&R and Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund to develop two office and retail towers named the JACX, and three rental apartment towers named Jackson Park.
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