The Builder Who’s Making Westchester Tall
You may not know his name, but odds are you’ve seen his buildings rise into the stratosphere in our county. Meet the man who is changing the face of Westchester’s landscape, one building at a time.
Louis Cappelli built the Summit in Valhalla, New Roc City in New Rochelle, City Center in White Plains, and two tiny buildings named Trump. He’s transformed Westchester’s ugliest downtowns, made powerful friends (plus a few foes), and, chances are, you’ve never heard of him.
He is not a large man. That’s the first thing one notices about Louis Cappelli because, in a profession where bigger is almost always better, size matters. Although Cappelli and his good friend, Donald Trump, just finished topping off Westchester’s tallest building, Trump Plaza in New Rochelle, the man who built the 40-story stretch of ego and ambition, is himself of average stature.
The thing is, appearances sometimes can prove dangerously deceptive. Cappelli is unremarkable in the way a lion appears docile, sitting alone in a corner, licking its paws, purring softly, when—WHOOSH! You’re meat. That’s Cappelli. Physically unimposing, dapper, friendly, affable, interested—WHOOSH! Meat.
It doesn’t take long to see the transformation. When he speaks, the silver-haired, 5’9”, 54-year-old grows by the foot. He oozes confidence, exhibiting the ease wealthy men acquire with the perks of big-league success. His feet are shod in Prada loafers and his clothes probably cost the equivalent of a month’s rent in one of his upscale high-rises. He has, as one acquaintance puts it, “all the big-boy toys” and “big-boy” trophies: the sexy wife (Kylie, a former actress introduced to him by Donald Trump); the pilot license (his plane is a Gulfstream jet); the three addresses (one in Manhattan, another in White Plains, and still another in Sag Harbor); and, oh yes, a development portfolio worth more than $1 billion. His properties include:
New Rochelle’s New Roc City
City Center at White Plains
(both approximately two million square feet in size)—and he has more in various stages of development in New Rochelle, Ossining, Yorktown, Yonkers, and Stamford, Connecticut.
When he begins a sentence with, “I had a helicopter waiting for me…” it’s uttered with an “I had a great burger at Denny’s” nonchalance. Whether intended or accidental, the message is potent, powerful, and as clear as the White Plains skyline (much of which he built) on a cloudless night: I’m Louis Cappelli. You’re not.
Such mannerisms might be off-putting—perhaps even a handicap—in another business. But, as the man most responsible for changing the look of Westchester, the irrepressible Cappelli lives and dies by his swagger. “Louis is a tough, shrewd guy,” says Tim Idoni, Westchester’s county clerk and New Rochelle’s former mayor. “He’s got this riverboat gambler way about him, and it can come off as very strong and very confident. Sometimes it might read as arrogant. But, in business, it serves him well.”
If he’s arrogant, well, Cappelli doesn’t really need your approval. Besides, he’s earned a few bragging rights. When, in 1984, he first made a splash in the world of real-estate development by spending $500,000 on 102 acres of middle-of-nowhere land in Valhalla, he was dismissed by peers as an overmatched fool destined to own Westchester County’s most expensive cow pasture. “Everyone told me the reason I got the property was because nobody else wanted it,” he says. “But I had big ideas.” His principal big idea, to build an office complex on the site, was met with hoots of derision. “Everyone told me the complex wouldn’t work. And the more I heard that, the more determined I became.”
As Cappelli kicked off construction on what would become the Summit Westchester, a 1.3-million-square-foot corporate complex that cost $130 million and later won the American Institute of Architects Honor Award for excellence, he loudly suggested that Interstate 287 was a traffic nightmare doomed to drive commuters insane. His new address, on the other hand, was off the beaten path and perfect for an easy back-road drive to and from work. To prove such, at rush hour, he’d stand beside the road with a camera, snapping photographs of car behind car behind car. “It didn’t matter if an accident was causing the traffic,” he says. “I was determined to show potential tenants that by being five minutes off the highway, I would be saving their employees mounds of aggravation.” Were the photographs tacky? Deceptive? Maybe; maybe not. “I’m a businessman,” Cappelli says. “And this is my business.”
Now, 22 years later, the Summit is fully leased and owned by Reckson Associates Realty Corp., a real-estate investment trust that, in 1999, purchased the property along with Mount Pleasant Corporate Center in Valhalla and Courthouse Square in White Plains, for $183 million. The Summit has become one of Westchester’s most prestigious office developments, and even Martin Ginsburg, a fellow developer who is also a sometimes rival, has his offices there. “When Louis built the Summit, there were a lot of doubters,” Ginsburg says. “It was a slow office market. But he not only went ahead and built it, he built it better than any other office property.”
Forget “location, location, location.” According to Trump, where other developers see a worthless, inconvenient field or a hopeless, burnt-out mess, Cappelli sees gold. That’s why he’s in White Plains—and why he’s working with Yonkers Mayor Philip Amicone on an ambitious downtown redevelopment. Cappelli seems to believe that sparkling development can, in Disney-speak, imagineer just about anything into the happiest place on earth. Perhaps this is best exemplified by his pride and joy—New Roc City, approximately two million square feet of wishful thinking expressed in brick and mortar.
Throughout much of the 1990s, talk of a New Rochelle revival came and went like a south-of-287 snow shower. In 1996, a pair of developers, Ken Narva and Robert Greene, agreed to build a downtown shopping/entertainment center on the site of the old New Rochelle Mall. When Cappelli was brought in as a partner, Idoni recalls, “he pretty much took over the project.”
Not that many were complaining. Though his brashness and seeming indifference to contrarian opinions rubbed many the wrong way (“If you’re on the other side of the fence, he can come off as arrogant,” Ginsburg says), Cappelli again made something out of nothing. He convinced two major tenants, Sports Plus and Regal Cinemas, to spend more money to enhance their space—and paid out of his pocket, “a decent amount of money,” he notes, for cobblestones and fake manholes. “Three or four times I ripped down walls that just didn’t look right to me,” he says of the $190 million project. “I wanted the area turned around and reinvigorated, and if it cost me more money to do so, so be it.”
Or if it cost him a few pairs of good shoes. An associate, who requested anonymity, says Cappelli is so obsessively interested in the details of his projects, that on construction sites, he’s been known to “wade into the mud in his Guccis” to keep an eye on the proceedings.
If it strikes you as odd that someone would request anonymity when discussing Cappelli’s shoe-destroying habits, well, you don’t know how intimidating Cappelli can be. Talk to people in Cappelli’s circle—if they’re even willing to talk (and, typically, they aren’t)—and you’ll learn that, mostly, Cappelli inspires awe. Not necessarily good awe or bad awe. Just awe. People who know him will tell you about his GQ taste in clothes, his fondness for golf, his genuine enthusiasm for building. But they don’t seem to know much about him beyond the superficial details—or if they do, they’re very careful not to reveal much. “I’ve probably said too much already,” laments one tight-lipped source after describing nothing more shocking than Cappelli’s distaste for publicity. (His good friend, Al Pirro, would not return calls for this article, though he may have been distracted by other matters.) When Ginsburg is asked, “What’s he like to work with?” the answer is prefaced by the kind of long, awkward pause usually associated with testimony before a senate judiciary hearing. Cappelli manages his image carefully (one of his acquaintances describes him as “a control freak”). It’s part of the Cappelli package: he wants complete charge of the details because, to his thinking, the details can spell success or ruin.
What stands out in the minds of many involved with the New Roc deal was Cappelli’s odd obsession with the Space Shot, a 180-foot thrill ride that launches strapped-in participants into the New Rochelle stratosphere. Cappelli first saw the ride in Las Vegas and told anyone who would listen that the Space Shot would serve as an Empire State Building-esque beacon for New Rochelle. “We all laughed at him,” Idoni, the mayor at the time, says. “You’re gonna put a hole in the ceiling for that thing?” he recalls asking. “Are you serious?” So confident was Cappelli that he promised the city council he’d tear down the Space Shot if it wasn’t a success after three years. What he failed to mention was that, ahem, the ride was nearly impossible to take apart.
“As an amusement device, the Space Shot ran its course after a year or so,” Idoni says. “But as a beacon, well, it serves the purpose. Most important,” he adds, “is that New Roc helped spark New Rochelle’s ongoing revival.”
If the Summit Westchester placed Cappelli onto the stage, New Roc lifted him to Placido Domingo-like status. With its wanna-be New York City streetscape, its hotel, its supermarket, its myriad entertainment choices, the complex was a fresh approach in an otherwise stale world of strip mall-ish ideas. “Louis has changed the face of New Rochelle,” says Noam Bramson, the city’s current mayor. “He’s a constructive, energetic partner in what we’re doing.”
County Executive Andy Spano sees his contribution as still greater. “We’re talking about the transformation of a county. Our cities needed to be refurbished and Cappelli’s done that—first with New Rochelle and White Plains, and now Yonkers. I tend to think of it as ‘Westchester BC’—Before Cappelli—and Westchester now.”
Louis Cappelli grew up in an upper-middle-class, second-generation Italian-American family on Kinsbridge Avenue in the Bronx. From around the Cappellis’ block, there were two boys, Steven and Billy, Irish kids who made it their job to beat on little Lou Cappelli. The year was 1957, and Kingsbridge Avenue didn’t offer a whole lot for a six-year-old. That was Cappelli’s age when he started taking the poundings. Nothing too serious, mind you. Kicks in the backside, elbows to the head—that sort of thing.
One day, after Steven and Billy were particularly thuggish, Lou ran into his family’s apartment, tears streaming down his cheeks. “Daddy,” he cried, “two boys are picking on me.” Without so much as a flinch, Luca Cappelli—a discipline-oriented TV repairman—guided the oldest of his six children back outside the building. “Which guys are they?” he asked Lou, who pointed out the two culprits. Luca approached the boys, stopped and confirmed that they were, indeed, tormenting his child. Then he turned around, retreated to the apartment, and locked the door.
“He left me out there with the two bullies,” Cappelli, shaking his head, says, as he sits behind a desk in his office at the Summitt. “What my dad was trying to teach me was how to survive. I wasn’t the biggest kid, the strongest kid, the most athletic kid. I figured out how to get by in a rough neighborhood by talking fast or avoiding bad situations or just doing what had to be done.”
The lesson stuck. Cappelli made it through his boyhood in the Bronx and, later, the Crestwood section of Yonkers by utilizing fast lips, a steely poker face, and, equally important, an unwavering curiosity. When, in 1955, Luca abandoned the appliance-repair profession to start his own electrical-contracting business, Louis was all eyes and ears. He watched the way his dad dealt with customers, the trust he inspired, and the reliability he assured.
Beginning at age 16, Louis spent his summers off from Iona Prep (where he excelled at math but could do without English and history) working for his father, driving a truck filled with electrical supplies. The job still elicits a smile. “I loved it,” he says. “Eating my meatball wedges at eleven thirty, feeling like I was really doing something constructive.”
After graduating from the University of Notre Dame in 1973 with a degree in engineering, Cappelli came home to work for his father’s then-blossoming firm, Saturn Construction. In serving under Luca, Louis gained an even deeper appreciation for his dad. “He worked his ass off,” Louis says. “He was unwilling to turn in less than his best.” Over much of the ensuing two decades, the younger Cappelli served as the company’s vice president and then president, overseeing $500 million of private and public construction projects. “It was wonderful being a part of my family business. We all want to receive approval from our fathers. So for me, it remains very meaningful.”
Still, when Cappelli looked at the world of real-estate development, he couldn’t help but feel a pang of envy. Not only was there significantly more money to be made, but real-estate development offered a control and creativity that construction lacked. So, in 1983, at age 32, Cappelli used Saturn Construction assets to purchase the land in Valhalla. “I thought about the fun and potential,” he says. “Instead of having to beg architects, I could have them working for me.”
Cappelli may be brash and risk-taking in his business dealings but, in his personal life, he seems almost timid—favoring the familiar over the new. His favorite three or four restaurants are located near his midtown Manhattan apartment (his place in the White Plains Trump Tower is mainly a crash pad that’s convenient to his many Westchester projects), and they’re the places he and Kylie, his second wife (Cappelli’s first marriage produced two children), eat nearly all their dinners. Christmases are spent in the Bahamas—no ifs, ands, or buts. In Las Vegas, he has attended singer-impressionist Danny Gans’s shows some 200 times. “It’s what makes him who he is,” says Kylie, a retired actress best known from the short-lived TV series, Models, Inc. “In all areas of his personal life, Louis insists on comfort and familiarity. It’s how he works.”
Cappelli’s bolder impulses are particularly evident in downtown White Plains, where he has—almost single-handedly—transformed what was the Detroit of Westchester into a budding metropolitan epicenter.
His first ambitious project was City Center, a development featuring a movie theater, a Barnes & Noble, and a Target, as well as 311 luxury rental apartments and Trump Tower, a 212-unit condominium (average apartment cost just under $1 million). The Lofts at City Center, a smaller 27-unit building, has sold out. He is in the process of constructing Renaissance Square, an 890,000-square-foot, mixed-use complex with a Ritz-Carlton hotel (yes, in Westchester!)
To build the Trump Tower, a name-brand lynchpin for the City Center project, he worked closely with The Donald himself, a close friend with whom Cappelli first bonded while playing golf, a passion for both men. (See “Trump and Cappelli: A Match Made in Heaven.”)
“Adding Donald’s name and stature to this project was useful,” Cappelli says. “He brought increased value.” But friends of Cappelli note that his partnership with The Donald supplies more than a marketable brand. “He’s basically just licensing the Trump name,” says Larry Stewart, president of Union State Bank in Orangeburg, New York, and a longtime business associate and friend. “Louis isn’t very interested in image. That’s why he’s associated himself with Trump. He’s not shy of publicity, but he’s much happier building than promoting. If he’s side by side with Trump, he’ll defer to him. He doesn’t need the microphone in his face.”
What does Trump get out of this partnership? “Lou is a great developer and he knows what he’s doing,” Trump says. “He’s thorough, reliable, and responsible. That adds up to a great partner.”
“Louis is very hands-on,” says Ginsburg, who is collaborating with Cappelli on the Hudson River development, One Harbor Square, in Ossining. “He’ll follow the project through in detail and, if he doesn’t like something, he’ll have it taken down.” Does such behavior drive his employees to drink? Maybe. “But you don’t draw people to your property with mediocrity,” Cappelli says. “You draw them with excellence.”
“Touring one of his projects with him is a trip,” Stewart says. “He’s so happy—he’s like a kid! He likes looking at his properties and knowing he built them. He knows these buildings will survive him and that’s why he builds beautiful things.”
Before Louis Cappelli could build beautiful things—soaring towers of glass and marble, each one taller than the last—he had to do some demolition work. While the Summit in Valhalla was an unqualified success and New Roc City a smash hit, the true Cappelli-ization of Westchester began with the demolition of the former Macy’s site in downtown White Plains.
“The whole downtown was dangerous at night,” County Executive Spano recalls. “When the workday was over, everyone went home. White Plains made a mistake in the sixties and seventies with urban renewal and made it a day city instead of a livable city.” And at the heart of its deserted downtown stood Macy’s, the retail center of the city and one of its last bastions of middle-class stability. When the store decamped to the Galleria in 1996, it left behind a boarded-up hodgepodge of low-rise buildings. The site became an eyesore as well as a symbolic black eye for a struggling city.
White Plains’s misery fostered a golden opportunity for Cappelli. While other developers might fight uphill, decade-long battles to put a measly subdivision in sought-after locations like Bedford or Briarcliff, Cappelli suspected that White Plains might welcome ambitious projects with arms wide open. And Cappelli’s project, City Center, a development combining residences, shops, restaurants, and retail space—practically a city unto itself—couldn’t possibly be more ambitious. To seal the deal, Cappelli did something so bold, it’s almost a coupe de theatre: he offered to pull down the old Macy’s at his own expense—provided that the City of White Plains would promise to make his permits to build City Center a priority. He was so confident of the deal’s success that he actually ordered the steel for City Center before his permits had even been issued.
“He has—there’s a colloquial expression for it,” quips Spano. “But let’s just say he takes more risks than other developers.” Luckily for Cappelli, his gamble paid off, earning him the title of “visionary” from just about everyone who utters his name.
“He’s changed White Plains into a twenty-four-hour city,” Spano says. “And he’s made us all look good.”
Mayor Joseph Delfino couldn’t agree more. “We needed someone to jump start this community, and Louis Cappelli has done it. Who would have ever imagined a Ritz-Carlton coming to White Plains? Who would have ever pictured our city growing the way it has? Well, Louis Cappelli did and I’m grateful for it.”
“Lou has a very unique formula,” Trump adds. “Buy a site nobody else is thinking about, make it something special, and watch everyone else start thinking about it.”
Yet despite the hosannas and laurel wreaths, Cappelli has garnered his fair share of detractors. His reputation for decency took a hit in 1999, when he sued opponents of his Dobbs Ferry townhome development, The Landing, for libel. (Opponents protested outside the construction site, carrying signs that said things like “Toxic Townhome.”) The issue was settled out of court but was generally greeted as a tacky move by Cappelli intended to intimidate rivals.
And in Ossining, Cappelli isn’t universally hailed as a savior with a shovel. “He’s on the other side of a deal that’s trying to rape our village, and he doesn’t like the criticism,” says Don DeBarardinis, an insurance consultant and Ossining political activist. “His actions—building expensive housing that nobody can afford—are not good for the community.”
Concerned citizens, meanwhile, question Cappelli’s practice of lavishing large amounts of cash upon pro-development candidates over the years. The New York chapter of Common Cause, a public-interest group that lobbies for accountability in government and political reform, reports that, from June 1999 to July 2006, Cappelli’s donations to specific campaigns and political parties (he gives more to Republican candidates, including his good friend’s wife, Jeanine Pirro)—totaled $184,900—and that’s just the money that came directly from the man himself. (Other contributions, Common Cause notes, could very well have come from Cappelli-owned or controlled corporate subsidiaries, but given the complexities of corporate ownership, these are much harder to track and to quantify.)
“A significant portion of Mr. Cappelli’s contributions are in the form of ‘soft money,’” says Rachel Leon, executive director of the New York chapter of Common Cause. “Soft money is given to political parties rather than individual candidates and, therefore, is not subject to legal limits for individual contributors. By exploiting these loopholes, an individual can unfairly influence the political process. And while I can’t say that this is the case with Mr. Cappelli, we have seen examples of ‘pay to play’ in New York—especially with development projects.” (When called on such points, Cappelli reminds people that political donations are legal, and that he has given millions to charity through the Louis Cappelli Foundation.)
Furthermore, Cappelli has been known to infuriate city council boards with his propensity for making last-minute adjustments—which oftentimes have been quite costly—to plans that had been approved long ago. “Things don’t always go exactly according to plan,” he notes.
“Louis will stop on a dime and reverse himself if he feels there’s a better direction,” Ginsburg says. “Not too many people are as agile as he is at finding a better solution.”
And Ginsburg, who by his own admission, “banged heads” with Cappelli in White Plains in a well-publicized battle regarding his property, The Pinnacle, and Cappelli’s City Center, has witnessed Cappelli’s agility first-hand. The two developers went toe-to-toe with claims, counter-claims, and a byzantine series of twists and turns involving the White Plains City Council. Eventually, they emerged with a deal. “Any hard feelings are forgotten now,” Ginsburg says. In fact, the two developers are currently collaborating on One Harbor Square in Ossining.
Mostly, it’s the nature of the business, not the man himself, that inspires doubt. Akin to wealthy used car salesmen, the stereotypical developer does his best to keep personal expenses low and profits high; to get a job done as quickly as possible, with as little manpower as possible, then exit, stage left, before the hubcaps start to rust. In short, it ain’t a profession of Mother Theresas. “Whenever you deal with a developer, you have to approach very, very cautiously,” says Miguel Hernandez, the Village of Ossining mayor. “Developers are businessmen, and businessmen are looking for profits.”
Whether you think of him as Westchester’s patron saint delivering our struggling cities from post-industrial stagnation, a ruthless profiteer who plays the angles, or some unique mixture of both, it’s clear that Louis Cappelli is a driven kind of guy, the kind of guy who prefers to express himself in steel and concrete rather than words and posturing.
“I love building,” he says. “If I can take the cities in Westchester that have struggled and bring back life and vivaciousness, I’ll be the happiest guy around. There’s no grand plan, just an idea.” And what’s that? Cappelli smiles. “Betterment,” he says. “Simple betterment.”
Trump and Cappelli: A Match Made in Heaven
One has the marketable name, the other has the building projects. Together, they’ve got the Midas touch.
At first, it seems like an unlikely friendship. Donald Trump, who is arguably as much a celebrity as a developer, garners more media attention than a middle-aged guy with a comb-over seems to merit. He’s an author, a radio personality, and a reality TV phenomenon.
In contrast, Louis Cappelli seems almost allergic to publicity. You won’t see him mugging for photos in the society pages or partying down with Paris Hilton. In fact, you’ll hardly ever read a magazine interview with him—even when he has big projects to push. Friends and professional associates will tell you that the man most responsible for changing the face of Westchester is by all accounts the Greta Garbo of the real estate world.
Odd couple or not, Trump and Capelli have been friends for the past 10 years. They met through mutual friends and bonded over golf, a shared passion for both men, who are fiercely competitive about their game. (“He beats me,” Cappelli told the New York Times, “but it won’t always be that way.” To which Trump gallantly replied, “Lou has big aspirations—but he also has a great game. He will get there.”) The friendship deepened. Donald knew Louis’s current wife, Kylie, before he knew Louis, and introduced the two of them at a boxing match at Trump Casino in Atlantic City.
Eventually, the Cappelli-Trump friendship evolved to include a professional partnership. In 2004, after a game of golf at Trump’s National Golf Course in Briarcliff, the two moguls decided to collaborate on the residential tower rising in Cappelli’s new development, City Center in White Plains. “They’re the kind of guys who sketch things out on the back of a napkin over lunch,” Cappelli’s spokesperson, Geoff Thompson, says. Their agreement called for Trump to oversee the tower’s design and to help with the marketing. But the exact terms of the deal are somewhat vague. Neither party will reveal how profits are split or the amount of their financial commitment.
Although it might be named Trump Tower, friends of Cappelli insist Trump did little except lend his name to the project, and even Trump declared, “this remains Lou’s baby, his job.” The Donald did, however, ensure the basic “Trumpiness” of the tower, choosing everything from windows to kitchen countertops and cabinetry options to the building amenities and lobby design.
But Trump’s biggest contribution to the project, all agree, was his famous name and his even more legendary salesmanship. “My name has become a brand that is synonymous with the finest product available,” he explains before sticking in that inevitable marketing pitch. “People know that I will not put my name on anything that isn’t the best. I once had complaints from a neighboring building because my employees were constantly polishing and cleaning and it annoyed them. I can tell you the tenants of my building were not complaining.”
Say what you will about Trump; attaching his name to the tower did make a critical difference—especially in the ’90s, when the building was in the planning stages and White Plains was still “iffy.” Even by 2002, when the pair broke ground, Trump Tower would be the first and only luxury high-rise in all of Westchester. Success was hardly a given. Yet, just a few months into the building project, Trump’s name had fueled enough interest to warrant a $100,000-per-unit price hike. There were three subsequent increases. Today, if you want to move into a penthouse apartment at Trump Tower, be prepared to fork over $1,495,000 (the asking price on one such unit at press time). As a collaborative effort, Trump Tower was a triumph and, you might say, the beginning of a beautiful professional friendship.
Today, Trump and Cappelli are busily plunging into other Westchester development projects. Trump Plaza, in New Rochelle, recently topped out at 39 stories, making it the county’s tallest building for a brief moment (it was almost immediately eclipsed by Cappelli’s even taller, 44-story Renaissance Square/Ritz-Carlton project in White Plains). Units there are selling briskly. And in Yorktown, Cappelli’s project, Barger Brook Manor, has been renamed Trump Park Residences, both to reflect The Donald’s involvement in the project, and in reference to the location, just across the way from two undeveloped parcels of land that Trump donated to the state as parkland. Aimed at “active adults” age 55 and up, the 141 residential units are rising on the parcel’s 50 acres. When the project was still called Barger Brook, units were priced from the mid-$500Ks to $1.3 million. Now that Trump’s name and some redesigns are on the board, those numbers are probably northward bound.