The Grocer’s Daughter: Winick Realty’s Lori Shabtai on Manhattan’s Evolving Retail Landscape

What a difference five years makes. When Winick Realty Group Executive Vice President Lori Shabtai marketed a 13,000-square-foot retail space at 459 Broadway in 2008, she hinged part of the sell on the cachet of the intersection of Broadway and Grand Street.

“I called it the heart of Soho,” Ms. Shabtai, 52, said during an interview in her well-appointed (and well-heated) office. “I remember a broker calling me and saying, ‘That’s more like the colon of Soho.’”

That any doubts persisted so recently about the viability of that block attests to the dizzyingly fast rate of change in New York real estate. The interaction also attests to Ms. Shabtai’s prescience and her quick mastery of the steep learning curve in commercial real estate, a field she entered just eight years ago.

Lori Shabtai (Credit: Sophie Mathewson)

Lori Shabtai (Credit: Sophie Mathewson)

Although Ms. Shabtai didn’t land at Winick until 2005, her retail roots run deep. Her father, Mel Weitz, presided over the MelMarkets (a k a Foodtown) supermarket chain on Long Island. “The supermarket industry works on 1 percent profit margins,” Ms. Shabtai said. “So from a very young age, I learned the importance of making money in every square foot.”

Her father’s work ethic put a slight damper on certain childhood rites of passage. “When most kids went to Florida on vacation, they went to Disney World or the beach,” Ms. Shabtai said. “We looked at Publix stores.”

Still, Ms. Shabtai joined the retail ranks on her own as early as she could. As a 14-year-old, she worked after school at Lonny’s, the equivalent of Scoop or Calypso on 1970s Long Island. From there, Ms. Shabtai matriculated at New York University, where she majored in government and minored in philosophy.

After graduating, Ms. Shabtai worked at Riding High, a cutting-edge boutique on the Upper East Side. “It was really the first store to sell designers like Azzedine Alaia, Thierry Mugler and Karl Lagerfeld,” Ms. Shabtai said. “At that time, Bergdorf catered to your grandmother and Barney’s was downtown on 17th Street selling suits to chubby men.”

Ms. Shabtai’s retail background extends to jewelry, where she worked in wholesale, retail and as a diamond dealer. She also moved up from receptionist to vice president of Big Apple Connection in her first week at the small jeans label. Ms. Shabtai launched Di Modolo, a fine jewelry company, on September 18, 2001, “possibly the worst time in the world’s history to launch anything, let alone a luxury brand on Madison Avenue.”

Through it all, real estate never crossed her mind. In 2005, the uptown furrier and designer Dennis Basso told her she might consider joining the industry. “I didn’t take it very seriously,” Ms. Shabtai said. “Then I took the licensing course at Marymount and my teacher said to me that he thought I had ‘it.’ And that’s what really got my brain set on following through with this.”

After receiving her license, Ms. Shabtai was offered a position at a luxury brand she preferred not to name. “I’d known Jeff Winick, and I came in to the office to talk to him about the offer. He said, ‘Come work with me.’”

Since starting at Winick, Ms. Shabtai’s noteworthy transactions have included bringing the outdoor apparel maker R.E.I. to a 39,000-square-foot space in Soho’s Puck Building in 2010 and populating the 350,000-square-foot Upper West Side retail development Columbus Square with tenants including Verizon Wireless, Starbucks, Sephora, Whole Foods and T.J. Maxx.

The Puck Building at 295 Lafayette Street posed particular challenges. Owned by Kushner Companies, the parent company of The Commercial Observer, the property, which straddles the Houston Street gateway to Soho, had famously housed the subversive humor magazine Spy before becoming a downtown event space. There had not been a retail tenant in over a century.

“We were dealing with so many barriers and history,” Ms. Shabtai said. “And it was the tenant’s first New York store. But we had willing and committed parties on both sides.”

“It was like parenting,” said Ms. Shabtai, a mother of three. “You have to listen to different needs and make things happen.”

Given her professional history in retail and a life spent in and around New York, Ms. Shabtai is pleased to report that the state of retail real estate in Manhattan—and, increasingly, the outer boroughs—is strong. Upscale tenants, having weathered the downturn, continue to flock to the city.

“Most of the luxury brands that we know of are here,” Ms. Shabtai said. “The future outlook depends on acquisitions and also on geographic shifts that may occur when leases come due. Right now you’re really looking at 60th Street through 72nd Street as the prime luxury area. But will that change?”

The answer is likely yes. Last summer, Ms. Shabtai brokered a deal that brought the Israeli designer Yigal Azrouël from West 14th Street in the Meatpacking District to 1,800 square feet at 1011 Madison Avenue. It was the latest in a series of retail transfers that suggested a blurring line between staid uptown and funky downtown boutiques.

“At this point, everyone that’s downtown is also uptown,” Ms. Shabtai said. “And everyone that’s uptown would eventually like to be downtown. They’re still two different markets. But the crossover appeal speaks to what a powerhouse all of Manhattan has become.”

East Harlem is less tested commercial real estate terrain. But last week, Ms. Shabtai, along with her Winick team member Monica Kass and Jeremy Schwartz, announced an assignment marketing 4,000 square feet of rehabilitated retail space at 1636-1642 Lexington Avenue (at 104th Street). The landlords United Management and Certes Partners are touching up the buildings now, and five stores will move in once work is complete.

“This is a neighborhood with really deep roots,” Ms. Shabtai said. “There’s a lot of pride and community here. And as much as East Harlem is stable and deeply rooted, it has got long arms to grow. We’d like to be a part of that.”

News of the makeover and retail tenant outreach led some East Harlem locals to lament that the local business Justo Botanica—a Santeria outlet—had been forced out in the name of development. As a broker who has witnessed her fair share of change in neighborhoods from Soho to Williamsburg to the Upper West Side, Ms. Shabtai strives to find a pragmatic balance between generic development and preserving the city in amber.

“Change is a part of who we are,” she said. “But you have to be respectful and get to know the people in an area. As a broker and a human being, I try to find that lovely spot between giving both the community and landlord what they want and need.”

Ms. Shabtai is not involved in the conversion of Long Island City’s 5Pointz from an internationally known graffiti mecca to a residential and retail magnet, another project that has given some people pause. But that transformation affirms her argument that “artists have always created the next hip community. If you want to know where to invest, follow the artists.” Ms. Shabtai’s son, David, 22, is an aerosol artist who was tagging the family name “all over the subway” before 5Pointz provided an alternative, sanctioned open-air workspace.

Raising her three children “pretty much as a single parent for the better part of 18 years” is the “most important” accomplishment of Ms. Shabtai’s life. (She had her children with the Raymond Weil watch mogul Benny Shabtai.) She also has a record in community service, having volunteered at an after-school program in the South Bronx and been an AIDS activist with the organization Mothers’ Voices in the early ‘90s.

“I was threatened and harassed on public school property for teaching AIDS awareness programs, which now are part of public school curriculum,” Ms. Shabtai said.

Ms. Shabtai likened her eclectic past to a “tapestry,” and given her varied experience, it’s unsurprising that commercial real estate may not be her final destination. “I’m not sure it’s the last career I’m going to have,” she said. “I have a list of things I’d like to do.”

However, there are no plans for early retirement. And until that day comes, Ms. Shabtai is dead set on finding a location for Landmark Theaters that will complement the cinema chain’s art house on the Lower East Side. “We’ve been looking for a space for five or six years,” Ms. Shabtai said. “I might take my last breath while doing a Landmark theater deal, but I’m committed to it.”

Getting back to her to-do list, when asked what her post-real estate life might look like Ms. Shabtai was ebullient as always.

“I definitely would love to be in the restaurant business,” Ms. Shabtai said. “And I’d like to go back and teach. I find that powerful. Teaching young people is the most powerful learning experience you can possibly have. And of course I want to be a professional basketball player. Is that too much to ask?”

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