David Wolkoff: Father & Son Act

David Wolkoff is planning to turn the old Pilgrim State Hospital into the mixed-use Heartland development. (Photo by Bob Giglione) (1)
David Wolkoff is planning to turn the old Pilgrim State Hospital into the mixed-use Heartland development. (Photo by Bob Giglione)

A Harvard University graduate with a Columbia University MBA, David Wolkoff brings financial skills, management acuity and more than 25 years of construction activity to his role as a principal in the Wolkoff Group, Long Island’s largest development firm as measured by current construction activity. Last year, after waiting 15 years, the firm received approvals from both the Suffolk County Planning Commission and the Town of Islip to break ground on their $4 billion, 432-acre Heartland Town Square mixed-use redevelopment project on the grounds of what had been Pilgrim State Hospital. Ultimately the project will construct more than 9,000 apartments and more than 3 million square feet of retail and office space, making it the largest mixed-used project in LI history.

Our parents are usually our first influencers. Is that true for you? My father Gerry was — and is — a tremendous influence on me. I work with him every day. He is ferocious at getting his dreams accomplished. He doesn’t take no for an answer. He’s worked all his life and he’s still at it.

How did he get his start? My father was 15 when he convinced Abe Stark to get him a driver’s license.

Abe Stark, the Brooklyn borough president? That Abe Stark, yes. Dad had started a floor-waxing company and worked at night. Stark said, “You’re a great kid, but you can’t drive at night.” Dad did anyway. He got a ton of business then started a trade association so the other floor waxers wouldn’t step on each others’ turf.

How’d he get started in construction? He saw his brother building houses and said, “I can do this better.” He liked building houses, but he didn’t want to sell them. He felt if he built a building and rented it out he’d have regular income. He’s a tough act to follow.

How do you differentiate yourself from him? I can’t be him. He deals from the gut. I’m more academic. I cross my Ts and dot my Is. Gerry went without meals. He’s tough as nails. I can’t replicate that. It would be obnoxious if I tried. But there are things you learn by listening and watching and doing.

As developers, you and your father are active across the metropolitan area. What issues set Long Island apart? Density is the key issue and it’s related to ownership vs. rental ratios. In Nassau and Suffolk about 17 percent of the housing stock is rental. That’s too small. It holds us back. We also have to offer more amenities like retail and commercial space near residential units. In other words, we have to offer the kind of live-work-play mixed-use environment in vogue across the country.

Are we talking smart growth? Exactly. What we have on Long Island is a dearth of smart- growth communities.

Why is that? Short answer: Back when the Levitt Brothers were building in Nassau County, they created a suburban area and at the same time created suburban sprawl. What worked in the ’50s isn’t working now. It’s especially not working for millennials.

Millennials are leaving Long Island in droves. Unfortunately, yes. They want to be able to use their bikes. They want to use public transit. These are the educated people of the next generation and we can’t afford to lose them. What we’re building in Islip reflects the results of our studying what people in other communities have done to meet the next generation’s expectations. We went to smart-growth communities like Reston, Virginia and focused on what they did right and what they did wrong. We’re absolutely intent on doing it right. We will do it right, if we are allowed to.

By “allowed to,” you mean … If we get permission to build what the market needs. We’ve been saying Long Island needs this for years.

Warren Strugatch is a partner with Inflection Point Associates in Stony Brook, a marketing and management consulting firm. Visit him online at InflectionPointAssoc.com