Alex and Zina Sapir prepare to lead their father’s dynamic real estate holdings into the next era.
By Sara Churchville
Photography by Scott Rudd
Even in a city teeming with the storied and successful, Tamir Sapir stands out.
He is the consummate contemporary Horatio Alger: A Georgian émigré, born Teimuraz Sepiashvili, who found his way to New York to begin a new life as a taxi driver and later opened a high-end electronics store. He parlayed his client contacts into a lucrative business selling Russian oil and ultimately invested in real estate.
His real estate deals have been savvy enough to place him at No. 410 on Forbes’ 2006 list of the world’s richest people and at No. 160 of the 400 richest Americans. He also received the Humanitarian of the Year award from the Russian Division of the UJA Federation of New York for his support of recently arrived immigrants.
So how do you go about upstaging a father like this? If you’re the heirs apparent — newly appointed president of the Sapir Organization, Alex Sapir, and his sister, new vice president Zina — you don’t. Instead, you learn everything you can from the company’s chairman, and you run with it. “He’s my best friend, father and adviser,” Alex said of Sapir. “I’m very fortunate to have him because he lets me be myself and run things my way, but he knows I’ll always ask for his advice and I’ll always give it.” For her part, Zina also soaks up as much as she can from her brother-cum-boss. “Alex is very inspiring and charismatic,” she said.
Alex has helped out informally at the company since he was 16, coming on permanently in 2001. Before his promotion to the presidency in March, Alex devoted time to SDS Investments LLC, a private real estate equity fund that he ran in partnership with Lawrence Davis and Robert Ivanhoe. One of their most recent acquisitions was 15 William St., a residential condominium in the Financial District.
Zina, who majored in international business at Hofstra University and plans to finish out her Fordham University MBA when she can find the time, speaks French as well as the Russian and Georgian she learned at home.
Both children see their roles as enhancing and expanding on what their father has built. Alex has been somewhat more hands-on about providing for tenant needs than is perhaps typical among New York developers, and both children are committed to providing amenities for tenants, offering an open-door policy and seeing to it that they remain happy.
Among the Sapir Organization’s holdings, which include 7 million square feet of Manhattan commercial space, are the 21-story 50 Murray St. and the 13-story 53 Park Place, which together make up 750,000 square feet of luxury residential property; 260/261 Madison Ave., with 900,000 square feet of office space; and the office headquarters at 384 Fifth Ave.
One of Tamir Sapir’s biggest coups was securing the former home of Benjamin and Sarah Duke at Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street, now known as the Duke Semans Mansion. When Sapir bought it for $40 million, it was the most expensive town house ever sold in Manhattan. Built in 1901, the French Neoclassical limestone and red brick home boasts bay windows, mansard roofs and even its own fenced moat. As of 1985, it has been subdivided into apartments.
The U.S. headquarters of Credit Suisse holds court in the 29-story Art Deco tower Eleven Madison Avenue. Pere Sapir bought the property in 2003 for $675 million, and today it’s 100-percent occupied.
More importantly for son Alex, the building is next to Madison Square Park, where the young president is active as a member of the board of trustees for the Park Conservancy. Like his father and siblings, Alex is very active in community service, counting the New York Association for New Americas; the American Opera Theater Company; the Russian Gift of Life, Inc.; Starlight Children’s Foundation and the Russian Children’s Welfare Society and Scholarship Fund among the many recipients of his time and resources.
“We want to be involved in causes that will make New York a better, more livable place,” Zina said. She considers the Sapirs’ involvement in such projects as the Park Conservancy “giving back aesthetically,” and this aesthetic giving back extends to personally selecting architects and designers for the facades of new and repositioned projects. “My father is a great philanthropist, and I love that side of the business. Alex and I plan on continuing and following it.”
Although it cost him some legal wrangling, Tamir Sapir’s investment in the 1.6 million-square-foot office building Two Broadway turned out to be worth the struggle. He leases it to the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority, making it one of New York’s largest single-lease deals ever.
The 21-story, 1.1-million square-foot office building located one block north of the former site of the twin towers, 100 Church St. once counted Merrill Lynch and Bank of New York among its tenants. The building has had its difficulties in recent years attracting tenants, but Alex is currently overseeing some capital improvements that will include a new lobby, an upgrade of the electrical and mechanical systems including elevators and the addition of concierge service. When it’s ready, 100 Church will be Exhibit A in Alex’s avowed mission to “continue to acquire, reposition and maximize assets in prime locations. I believe that sound management and an ongoing capital expenditure plan will produce an even better environment for both the landlord and tenant.”
or a number of years, the property was half-empty of tenants as the Sapirs mulled over where to take it next. Residential? Hotel? Ultimately, they decided to reposition it as prime commercial space for the downtown financial and legal crowd. “The interesting thing about real estate is that there’s a lot that can’t be planned for,” Alex said. “It got pretty bad downtown, but the only way to bounce back is to redevelop. Look how downtown has flourished. Tower 7 is almost filled now, the rest of the World Trade Center sites are a few more years away from completion. Downtown is vibrant, so it’s a good location for business right now.” He says their adjacent luxury residential property, 50 Murray, is already at 100-percent occupancy.
Alex was instrumental in signing on Cushman & Wakefield, already third-party managers at Eleven Madison, as the leasing and property managers for the refurbished 100 Church. He also commissioned them to manage 260 and 261 Madison Ave. and 384 Fifth Ave.
The project that has inspired the family lately is the planned Trump SoHo Hotel Condominiums New York, developed with the Trump Organization and Bayrock Group. Located on Spring Street, it will be SoHo’s tallest building and only luxury hotel-condominium once completed. Handel Architects, who also designed the Four Seasons Hotel and Tower in Miami as well as 40 Bond St. and the Ritz-Carlton Downtown in New York, created the blueprint for the structure itself, which includes 360-degree views, a glass-curtained wall, a pool deck with cabanas and a rooftop garden. Onsite amenities also include a spa, fitness center, library lounge, screening room, restaurant and bar. The Rockwell Group is on board to design the living spaces, where they will be working in polished copper woven mesh for the ceilings and hammered copper doors, among other unexpected textures.
Just as inspiring to the Sapirs is the William Beaver House that they are co-developing with Andre Balazs. The project will include 320 lodges and residences at the corner of William and Beaver Streets. Alex believes that development should focus on lifestyle as much as it does design. “Real estate is more than just an address, especially in a city like New York where there is so much competition,” he said. “There is an identity that needs to come with the address. The design and the amenities together should translate into a home that the buyer will revel in. The most fun for a developer is to find a project that brings those elements together.”
“I love the creative process of our development projects,” Zina enthused, and Alex echoed the sentiment. Moreover, perhaps as a result of his work on Trump SoHo, Alex is passionate about hotels at the moment. “I’d love to do a 25-room just as much as 400-room,” he said. “Something timeless and fun that people when they leave can’t wait to come back to.” His ideal building would be a 15-story residential, made of limestone, with a “late 1920s-1930s feel.”
In the meantime, there is plenty to think about with the projects that are already on the books. “I hope to focus on a more global approach to the business,” Alex said, “in major markets like Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Miami as well as internationally in South America and Europe. The Sapir Organization needs to be synonymous with excellence.”
For her part, Zina, who once sold real estate for Prudential Douglas Elliman, is glad to be in the fold of the family business. “It’s wonderful knowing that we’re building the company for our future,” she said. Both Alex and Zina look forward to seeing their own children run the company one day and passing the torch as their father has done.
“At the end of the day,” Alex said, “I’m as happy as I’ve ever been in my life.” Undoubtedly, those are words that gladden his father’s heart.