Westchester's Architect

For 50 years, Martin Ginsburg has been breaking ground across the county. In that time, he’s built a real estate empire, weathered recessions, and shaped cities.


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Photography by Stefan Radtke

It takes only a few minutes of conversation with Martin Ginsburg to learn he doesn't match the real-estate-tycoon stereotype. 

Outwardly, the 83-year-old Ginsburg,  founder and principal of Valhalla-based Ginsburg Development Companies (GDC), is the quintessential mogul. He’s slim, nattily dressed and oversees a property empire that stretches from Yonkers to Peekskill (and beyond, with projects in Rockland and Connecticut). Armed with a 54-year pedigree in the industry, Ginsburg’s latest projects carry price tags with nine digits, and tens of thousands of Westchester residents call a GDC property home.

But on a recent Thursday morning in Yonkers, Ginsburg would rather talk about local history than real estate.

“When they built the Erie Canal…” he begins, leaning forward with vim and launching into an aside about 19th-century New York and then-governor DeWitt Clinton. Over the next 90 minutes, there’s hardly any talk of square footage or floor plans. He belies that brash and self-assured mogul stereotype — entirely unlike another well-known New York real estate developer who recently got a government job. (“I’m an anti-Trump,” Ginsburg avers.)

I am continuously a student of this thing. I am always learning.

—Martin Ginsburg


On this sunny morning, Ginsburg is seated in a common area on the ground floor of River Tides at Greystone (pictured above), one of his newest projects in Yonkers. It’s a $100 million development on Warburton Avenue, with 330 apartments. Outside, construction workers heft beams and maneuver construction equipment. Inside, Ginsburg is reluctant to talk about the day-to-day activities of running his company. Instead, he digresses. He’s most animated — leaning forward, gesticulating grandly — when discussing the Hudson River.

“It’s one of the wonders of the world,” he says.

This isn’t to say Ginsburg doesn’t spend most of his time thinking about real estate. He’s been designing and building up and down the county for decades. His days allow little time for distraction: Ginsburg begins work at around 7 a.m. each morning, putting in a couple hours at his Dobbs Ferry home before traveling to his office in Valhalla. Then it’s more work, until 7:30 p.m., often wrapping up for the evening back at home.

It’s this trait, ambition, where Ginsburg does match the mogul stereotype. Unrelenting energy is what rescued GDC from near-destruction in 2008, when the recession forced Ginsburg to shed a staggering 90 percent of his staff. This ambition isn’t limited to real estate, either; it influences his interests, like the Hudson. Ginsburg is not content to simply admire the waterway; he wants the state to transform it into an international destination.

“We have more than 55 million tourists who go to New York City each year,” he says, animated once again. “The potential for reversing the flow of tourism up the river…” Ginsburg imagines throngs of tourists driving, hiking, and walking through Westchester and up to the Finger Lakes.

“It’s something I’ve been advocating for a long time.”

Ginsburg continued attending the school despite the lengthy commute. “I’m not a quitter,” he says.

After graduating, Ginsburg enrolled at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, NY, to study architecture. The decision wasn’t motivated by a deep passion. He selected architecture simply because two uncles happened to be architects. “I didn’t have the foggiest idea what I was getting into,” Ginsburg recalls. Had his uncles been doctors, Ginsburg might now be a chief of surgery. As his studies progressed, things began to click, he says. Even now — half a century removed and at the helm of his own development company — Ginsburg likens himself to a pupil of architecture. “I am continuously a student of this thing. I am always learning,” he says.

It’s a philosophy that’s served him well. Throughout his career, Ginsburg has never been just an architect. “What makes [GDC] unique is we handle all aspects of a project,” he says, identifying himself at various points in our conversations as an architect, a site planner, a developer, and a builder.

 

(Left) Martin with his father and two brothers, Martin in the center; (right) brothers Sam Ginsburg (standing) and Martin Ginsburg circa 1990.

 

After college, Ginsburg found himself comfortably ensconced as an architect in New York City, designing hotels. There were no fantasies of launching his own company. “I was pretty happy,” he remembers. “I thought I was in a pretty good spot.”

But his brother Jerome, eager for extra income, recruited Ginsburg for a modest real estate project. In 1963, the two purchased a lot in Greenburgh, constructed a house and sold it the following year. “We made a few dollars on it,” Ginsburg says.

The part-time gig blossomed. “We bought two lots after that,” Ginsburg recalls. “Then we ended up buying three to five lots. Then we bought 25 lots.” The third brother, Sam, soon joined the enterprise, and the trio branched out to West Harrison, Bedford, Ardsley, and North Castle. By the mid-’60s, it was a full-time endeavor.

Initially, Martin, Jerome, and Sam Ginsburg were partners. “We worked pretty well together,” Ginsburg notes. But over the decades, the brothers parted ways, divided by individual projects and differing visions. Jerome struck out on his own in the ’80s; Sam left in the ’90s, believing GDC was expanding too quickly. “Sam might have been right,” Ginsburg allows, alluding to GDC’s financial woes during the 2008 recession.

Now, more than 50 years after the firm’s founding, hundreds of GDC buildiings dot the county. Ginsburg has built townhomes in Sleepy Hollow, condominiums in Pelham, and a stretch of units in Briarcliff Manor. GDC currently has a roster of 75 employees.

When asked about major challenges over the years, Ginsburg is candid: He talks about the 2008 recession openly and with a heaviness in his voice.

“That was a difficult time for us,” he grimaces. The 2008 meltdown “wasn’t the only recession,” he notes. But it was the worst.

“We were very vulnerable,” he continues. The recession caught GDC during a growth spurt, exacerbating the pain. The company was going “gangbusters,” Ginsburg says, but “all of a sudden, property became worthless.”

The effects were debilitating. Ginsburg had to cut GDC’s staff from 300 to 30. Then there was the debt. “We had a tremendous amount,” he says. “And we’re still working through that to some degree.”

In the years since the recession, Ginsburg has been rebuilding, albeit cautiously. As his employee roster swells once again, Ginsburg resists the temptation to find a newer, bigger headquarters. “Our office may look a little crowded, but that’s okay,” he says. “A little humility is not a bad thing.”

The River is perhaps the most underused asset in the state of New York.”

—Martin Ginsburg


Today, GDC seems to have reached a new fever pitch, with a spate of major projects underway. There’s River Tides, which held a grand opening in May of 2017. At the sprawling complex in northwest Yonkers, rents range from just under $2,000 for a studio to $6,000 for a corner penthouse.

In fall 2016, Ginsburg announced the grand opening of The Lofts on Saw Mill River, a $34.9 million, 66-apartment development that sprang up on a former industrial lot in Hastings. Most rents are between $2,900 and $5,000, although a handful of affordable-housing units can rent for less than $1,000.

In the summer of 2016, Ginsburg held a ribbon-cutting for Harbor Square, a $65 million project on Ossining’s waterfront. The 188 apartments feature high-end touches, like powder rooms and quartz counters. Rents are pricey, with a 683 sq ft one-bedroom fetching close to $2,400.

Ginsburg says many of his current projects attract empty nesters and retirees. “Our theme is: ‘You’re coming home to vacation,’” Ginsburg explains. That means offering not just a roof and four walls but also yoga studios, spas, 24-hour concierges, and event programming.

Ginsburg’s success may be most fueled, paradoxically, by this defining trait: an attraction to challenges. “I seem to have an affinity for difficult situations,” he says.

When the Ginsburg brothers were in their early years, they didn’t select projects based on interest; they selected them based on affordability.

“We started out by building on the sites that no other builders wanted,” Ginsburg recalls. “If there was a really difficult, rocky site, they’d say, ‘Ginsburg loves those sites.’ “We didn’t necessarily love them,” Ginsburg continues, “but we learned how to develop in very difficult, intricate situations.”

Today, you might expect Ginsburg to turn his attention exclusively to higher-end communities, like Greenwich or Larchmont. But he’s still focused on Yonkers and Peekskill. Indeed, River Tides is just a few short steps from a 57-unit condominium project Ginsburg built in the 1960s.

“These are communities that are trying to find their way,” Ginsburg says. “For the most part, the major developers aren’t interested.”

A rendering of Fort Hill, a sprawling GDC project in Peekskill slated for completion in mid-2018.

 

Ginsburg’s penchant for tough projects has also earned him critics. In a blistering 2007 piece penned by former Journal News (and current Westchester Magazine) columnist Phil Reisman, Ginsburg was accused of seeking to gentrify Peekskill at the expense of its lower middle class. “[He] has carpeted the little city with expensive housing developments,” Reisman wrote. Ginsburg resists these charges. GDC’s work in the city “has helped Peekskill and not displaced local working people,” he says. “We are always concerned about helping the local community.”

And when it comes to green space, Ginsburg has views that might upset more orthodox preservationists. “You want to preserve the beauty of the Hudson River,” he says. “But when you have an old, abandoned industrial site that was the economic generator of that area, you don’t make it into a placid…” he trails off. “It should become an economic generator again.”

Yet Ginsburg has won allies, too. “He’s very bullish on White Plains,” says Tom Roach, that city’s mayor. “He’s wanted to be part of the White Plains community for a long time. We were very pleased when he came in.” Roach is referring to The Metro, a 12-story apartment building GDC purchased and rebranded in early 2017.

Yonkers mayor Mike Spano concedes that governments “always butt heads with developers,” but notes Ginsburg is “one of the guys you butt heads with the least.”

Spano describes Ginsburg as a canny businessman (“He makes sure that everyone knows him”)  but also trustworthy and willing to compromise. Spano sees Ginsburg’s projects as a key part of Yonkers’ ongoing revitalization. “He is somewhat of a visionary,” the mayor says.

Off-hours, Ginsburg spends much of his time in Dobbs Ferry with Irene, his wife of 51 years. The couple met at the Concord, a now-defunct hotel in the Catskills. Today, they have three grown children — Mark, Andrew, and Debra — and seven grandchildren. Ginsburg’s children and their families live locally, although only Mark, an attorney, is involved with GDC.

Ginsburg’s avocations are few. He had a boat but gave it up years ago. He’s dabbled in golf but ultimately finds it too time-consuming. Martin and Irene Ginsburg are self-described homebodies, preferring to cook healthy fare at home instead of booking fancy dinners. And the energetic octogenarian keeps a strict fitness regimen. “I work out regularly,” he says. Several times a week he’ll put in 300 sit-ups.

Talk of his personal life is brief and often leads back to work topics. “I spend a lot of time on my business,” he says. One interest he does indulge, however, is his “great passion for the Hudson River.” It’s a passion Ginsburg wants to share with the world; he envisions the Hudson Valley as a destination that can rival France’s Loire Valley. “[The river] is perhaps the most underused major asset in the state of New York,” he says.

Ginsburg has big ideas: a trail from Yonkers to Albany; expanding Storm King Art Center to form “the largest outdoor museum in the world”; positioning Sing Sing as a must-see historical landmark.

 

Ginsburg is doing his part. At Harbor Square — the waterfront apartment complex in Ossining (pictured above) — Ginsburg commissioned a towering, modern-style sculpture from a Portuguese artist. An identical sculpture stands in Alijó, Portugal, Ossining’s sister city. One could imagine a passel of Portuguese tourists making a local stop during a New York holiday.

Ginsburg “focuses on the Hudson River as a driver for economic development,” says Victoria Gearity when asked about his vision. Gearity is the mayor of the Village of Ossining, which has worked with Ginsburg on various projects. “The sculptures…are excellent examples of how art enhances the quality of life for Ossining residents while drawing visitors to local businesses and cultural institutions,” Gearity adds.

Then there’s Fort Hill, one of GDC’s latest projects in Peekskill. Slated for completion in mid-2018, the development will feature 178 units and more than 60 of acres of trails and will convert a historic convent into an inn, spa, and restaurant.

It’s a full plate, to be sure, yet Ginsburg expresses no desire to rest on his laurels or to slow the pace. “I always look ahead,” he says. “I always feel my next project will be my best. I’m never totally satisfied.” Ginsburg notes that work is simply in his DNA: “My father worked all his life, starting at age six delivering newspapers in Sioux City, Iowa.”

He does, however, allude to where GDC may be in another few decades. “I have seven grandkids now,” he grins. “I think some of them might be interested. We’ll see where they go.”


Kevin Zawacki is a reporter and writer living in Dobbs Ferry. He is a frequent contributor to 914INC.

 

 

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