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LeFrak’s legacy: Pioneering developer’s fingerprints seen throughout borough

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Samuel LeFrak, chairman of the Rego Park-based Lefrak Organization that built Lefrak City in Corona and some 200,000 other mostly middle-income apartments throughout the metropolitan area, died last week at the age of 85 after battling a long illness.

The family-run Lefrak Organization’s best-known developments include Lefrak City, a complex of 20 18-story apartments that house about 30,000 people, the 1,800-unit Gateway Plaza apartments in Battery Park City and LeFrak’s Newport development next to the Hudson River in Jersey City.

“He was a great, great developer for the city of New York,” said former Borough President Claire Shulman. “He built middle-income housing for this borough for which there was a desperate need.”

Until his health began to fail about a year ago after he suffered a stroke, LeFrak spent most of his time on his business, keeping close tabs on all the ongoing projects. He commuted regularly from his homes in Woodmere, L.I. and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan to his company’s headquarters at 99-77 Queens Blvd. in Rego Park.

“He was constantly with us all day long,” said Edward Cortese, the senior vice president of the Lefrak Organization.

Hundreds attended LeFrak’s funeral which was held at Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan Friday, two days after his death.

Cortese said LeFrak’s death would not significantly affect the development of projects by the LeFrak Organization, which is now headed by LeFrak’s son, Richard, the company’s president.

Two of LeFrak’s grandsons, Harrison and Jamie, are company executives.

Apart from developing Lefrak City and the other large-scale housing complexes, LeFrak’s company also built scores of signature, six-story brick apartments, primarily in Queens and Brooklyn, which were located near the three S’s: shopping, subways and schools.

In Rego Park, where LeFrak lived for some time in the 1940s, the Lefrak Organization built a slew of apartments that were named after states, including the Maryland, the Tennessee, the California, the Rhode Island and the Washington. All of these are located around 65th Avenue and Queens Boulevard, within a block and a half of each other.

When the names of states began to run out, LeFrak began naming buildings after cities, trees, flowers, presidents and universities.

“We’ve lost count, between all the trees and the flowers and the universities,” Cortese said.

Several of LeFrak’s six-story buildings were often grouped together, forming complexes with several hundred apartments, including University Gardens in Flushing and New England Quadrangle in Forest Hills.    

“He was, in my opinion, the developer extraordin­aire,” said Al Blake, the president of the Lefrak City Tenants’ Association. “He was for the little guy. He was always for the underdog.

“They told him he couldn’t build Lefrak City because it’s on a swamp on Elmhurst Creek, and he proved them all wrong. ... Sam was the man. I don’t think anyone can question his signature on New York and New Jersey.”

U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Bayside) recalled a time in the 1980s when he asked LeFrak’s office for help in finding a reasonable apartment for a man he had hired who turned out to be homeless. LeFrak got involved personally and helped the man find a home.

“In this case, as in many others, Sam wasn’t looking to benefit,” Ackerman said. “That’s just the type of decent and giving man he was.”

Born in Manhattan on Feb. 12, 1918, LeFrak spent his childhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where his father, Harry LeFrak, bought a small farm. During his teen years, LeFrak lived in Flatbush, where he attended Erasmus Hall High School.

LeFrak became involved in the construction of his first building in 1938, during a summer break while he was enrolled in the University of Maryland.

“Harry said, ‘Look Sam, during your summer oversee the construction of this building in Brooklyn,’” Cortese said. “He ended up saving the company considerable money. He was hooked on building, and he left a career that he thought he was going to go into — dentistry.”

LeFrak later studied finance at Columbia University and Harvard Business School.

He took over Lefrak Organization from his father in 1948. In the early 1960s, he closed a $6 million deal with trustees of the William Waldorf Astor estate for 40 acres of land in central Queens, which would later become Lefrak City.

“LeFrak was extremely innovative with his whole housing concept and his concept of community,” said Councilwoman Helen Sears (D-Jackson Heights). “Lefrak City not only provided housing needs, but there was also a lot of intent for beauty, combining outdoors with indoors and the concept of recreation. ... He was rather bold to build such a large-scale complex with the intention that it be fully occupied.”

Single rooms at Lefrak City, the largest privately owned housing complex in the city, rented for $40 in the 1960s. Today, apartments run from about $750 for a studio to about $1,350 for a three-bedroom. Facilities at the housing complex include a swimming pool, basketball court, tennis courts, a jogging trail and barbecue pits with canopies over them.

“You can’t find any place in the city where you can have the size rooms we have and the amenities for the price,” Blake said.

Toward the end of his life, LeFrak concentrated much of his energy on the 600-acre Newport project in Jersey City.

“Standing in Battery Park years ago and looking across the Hudson at all this undeveloped land, he would say, ‘We will build a city on the west bank of the Hudson,’” recalled Dan Frohwirth, the director of real estate and marketing for the Jersey City Economic Development Corp. “And he accomplished it.”

While the Newport apartments, which rent for about $1,500 for a one-bedroom, are not as affordable as Lefrak City apartments, they are still relatively low when measured against other comparable apartments in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn, Cortese said.

Frohwirth, who met LeFrak when he was 17 years old at a country club where LeFrak’s parents were members, said the developer was outgoing, funny and determined to leave a legacy.

“He loved to give talks about his plans,” Frohwirth said. “He knew exactly what was going on, every lease that was going on. He was here for every groundbrea­king.”

Frohwirth and Blake said they would miss the “war stories” that LeFrak used to tell about what he went through to build Lefrak City and the Newport complex.

“He reminded me of Santa Claus,” Blake said. “He was kind of chubby, and he would laugh and he was a fun guy. He was a people-person. You never got the sense that he wasn’t approachable. From what I knew about him, he was always fair. He will be missed.”

LeFrak is survived by his wife, Ethel; son, Richard; three daughters, Denise LeFrak Calicchio, Francine LeFrak Friedberg and Jacqueline LeFrak Kosinski; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Reach reporter Tien-Shun Lee by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com, or call 718-229-0300, ext. 155.

Posted 7:03 pm, October 10, 2011
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