He may harbor lingering fantasies of being a pilot, but Joseph Ferrara is completely at ease—and his energy infectious—giving a tour of real estate development in Staten Island.
Mr. Ferrara, a principal at BFC Partners, invited this reporter to get a taste of his home borough, including a wrap at a quiet Spanish tapas eatery near his company’s project, Empire Outlets. His outfit for the occasion? A salmon-colored pinstriped seersucker jacket from Brooks Brothers and purple skinny Zara jeans. (He declined to say whether Brooks Brothers would be coming to the waterfront outdoor mall.)
The 350,000-square-foot Empire Outlets, slated to soft open in late 2016, is part of BFC’s $352 million, 1-million-square-foot development at the site, comprising a 140,000-square-foot, 198-key hotel (which will have a 1,600-square-foot presidential suite on the top floor), 12 restaurant concepts and a parking garage. Downtown Brooklyn-based BFC acquired the site from the New York City Economic Development through a 99-year lease at a price of around $2 million a year, Mr. Ferrara said.
BFC shares an on-site office in the Staten Island ferry terminal with the New York Wheel, which is building the biggest Ferris wheel in the world adjacent to Empire Outlets. BFC and the New York Wheel launched a tourism campaign for the area called “Destination St. George.”
Following a tour of the 8-acre Empire Outlets site, Mr. Ferrara, 47, hopped into his black Mercedes-Benz S550 to drink in the other attractions and developments of Staten Island like the Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden, the renowned St. George Theater, Triangle Equities’ Lighthouse Point mixed-use site near the ferry terminal base and Ironstate Development’s soon-to-open URL Staten Island rental apartment complex in Stapleton.
But perhaps the highlight of the day was dining at Beso Restaurant. There he shared stories about losing 75 pounds through Weight Watchers (and keeping it off with a personal trainer); his kids working for him (his oldest son, Peter, 24, is handling leasing at the 150,000-square-foot commercial building 1000 Dean Street in Brooklyn, his 21-year-old son Daniel is a laborer at City Point; and his 18-year-old daughter Erika just completed an unpaid internship); the fun he and his wife of 25 years are having with their 2½-year-old grandson and his relationships with BFC’s other two partners, Donald Capoccia and Brandon Baron.
While BFC has other projects in the works, like the first of three towers that will make up City Point in Downtown Brooklyn, and the 1.9-million-square-foot mixed-use project Essex Crossing on the Lower East Side, as one parades around Staten Island one can see Empire Outlets is where Mr. Ferrara’s heart lies.
What has been the most complicated part of the Empire Outlets deal?
I would have to say that the most complicated aspect was gaining community approval for our concept. Empire Outlets is being built on a parking lot that historically has been utilized by 800 commuters on a daily basis. Getting commuters to change their patterns by parking at off-site temporary parking lots while we build Empire was quite a lift. [So was] convincing the city and the community that we would attempt to make the transition throughout the construction process as seamless as possible.
Empire Outlets will be New York City’s first and only retail outlet center, which sits on a very prime piece of waterfront terrain [where] retailers aren’t used to locating their outlet concepts before. In the past, most of these centers are built far outside city limits. [But] the math is simple: currently 70,000 people per day—25 million times per year—an individual will either walk through or by the front doors of our retailers [as they enter and exit the terminal]. That is a staggering statistic. That is before I spend one penny on any marketing campaign to bring more visitors. Now fold into the mix our “Destination St. George” marketing efforts with New York Wheel [and others] and that number grows by another 10 million visitors yearly. Some say, “That can’t be possible.” I say, “Those who are savvy enough to take advantage of what we are offering will undeniably reap the benefits as we give birth to Empire Outlets and the whole waterfront.”
What concessions have you had to make at Empire Outlets?
We’re currently building over the [Metropolitan Transportation Authority] tracks. What we refer to as the MTA overbuild will ultimately result in a 70,000-square-foot covered and protected space for the MTA to service all the existing trains on Staten Island. A portion of Empire will sit on top of this area. Commuter parking to accommodate 800 parking [spots] in perpetuity and an affordable parking rate, access to MTA structures that we are doing an overbuild for. [BFC] and New York Wheel will fund a community giveback of $100,000 a year. Also, maintaining security for access in and out. And 10 years worth of wrinkles that I’ve aged. Is that a give-back?
Your project includes a hotel. Who is your target audience?
First and foremost I want to be able to deliver a compelling experience designed for both the business and leisure traveler. Our hotel will have a cosmopolitan vibe infused with lots of local charm, wit and simple touches of luxury. The location of our hotel is unparalleled in our market, affording someone the convenience of being located not only at the entrance to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, that enables a visitor to jump on a boat and be in Manhattan in 20 minutes, but it is also located right on top of the Staten Island Rapid Transit that runs the full length of the island and gives someone that comes and visits a friend or relative on Staten Island the ease of movement throughout Staten Island, the harbor and Manhattan.
What will the starting rating be?
It’s being designed as a five-star hotel. We are talking to a four- to a four-and-half-star hotel flagship. Room rates will be $200 a night.
How far have you personally traveled to promote Empire Outlets?
I went to Shanghai and Beijing and made a presentation to a whole bunch of tour guides to gauge interest on whether or not it’s something they would explore. They loved it. That was about a year and a half or two years ago. NYC & Company [the city’s official marketing and tourism organization] has taken Empire Outlets and the New York Wheel on the road with them with the One World Observatory [at 1 World Trade Center] and the new Museum of American Art.
What will the spillover effect be on the rest of the North Shore?
It has made a significant impact in the borough, changing the perception of what North Shore was before and that’s encouraging. I get asked about once a week, “Do you know any development sites I can invest in on the North Shore?” That ship has sailed, my friend.
How did BFC come into being?
My dad and [partner] Brandon Baron’s dad partnered with Don [Capoccia] and established the firm. My dad is 73. Those two old guys [the dads] come to work every day. We have 3.5 million square feet in the pipeline, including new and pipeline. And we have built 6,000 units since the company was founded in 1986.
How did the company get into developing in Staten Island?
Ten years ago, we came across an underutilized municipal parking lot [at a] project now known as “The Rail,” on Bay Street and Prospect Street, and by underutilized I mean a defunct parking lot that actually cost the city tens of thousands of dollars per year in maintenance and no revenue coming back to them. We approached the city with the idea of developing an affordable housing senior complex at this location and we were told that if we could get the community to agree we could move the process forward. Easier said than done! At the time, the community was very much afraid of the concept of affordable housing, [with] much to blame on lack of information about the process. There was also a huge community issue with the lack of parking. We received lots of community resistance with regard to our proposed project. This was a neighborhood that was waiting for the “Bay Street Renaissance” to commence yet they were opposed to our project. We had multiple community meetings and brought the community into the fold with our vision. We addressed their concerns about parking by including a significant parking program that could be expanded if the need arose. We explained that affordable housing is something that should not be feared but embraced. Developments such as ours give the likes of firemen, nurses and police officers an opportunity to live in a quality residential unit without extending their bank accounts beyond what they could actually afford for housing. That being said, of all things that they couldn’t agree to was placing seniors on Bay Street, so we moved the senior building to another development site about a half mile away and decided to reprogram The Rail for families. The Rail, in my opinion, is the single project that spurred interest and local development that jumpstarted the revitalization of Stapleton and also led to the developments on the waterfront in St. George. It wasn’t easy but very much worth the effort. It gives me a great sense of accomplishment to reinvest my time, efforts and company into a borough I call home.
What’ll you miss about the Staten Island you grew up in as it gets transformed?
I think one thing I will miss is this is the last frontier for New York City. I like to identify neighborhoods that have opportunities to become more than what they are. [But] I can honestly say that as the transformation continues on Staten Island I look forward to the change. Giving our children and parents the options of staying in our borough and not flocking to retirement communities in New Jersey and hip neighborhoods like Williamsburg, but keeping them here by developing an urban-centric community with amenities within walking distance is definitely a future Staten Island that I can’t wait to see become reality.
How did you and the New York Wheel get so closely aligned?
We responded to both Expressions of Interest [or EOI]. We had programmed Empire Outlets on the Wheel site. I came back from London and the EDC wanted us to meet another team. I said to my partner, “I bet they wanted a wheel.” Richard [Marin, the president and chief executive officer of New York Wheel LLC,] submitted the wheel. We tried to get Rich to move because we had our outlets there where the Wheel was. I hit if off with Rich from day one on a personal and a professional level. What really happened is, EDC married us together.
If you had been asked what career you wanted to get into rather than following in your dad’s footsteps, what would you have selected?
From childhood and still I have always been intrigued by process of flight. When I was younger, I thought I would have pursued a career in aviation as a commercial airline pilot. As far as what career I’m best suited for, I’m very much a people person and I’m also most content when I have the ability to work on something transformational that ultimately affects the quality of life of the person I’m dealing with, either directly or indirectly. That can be parlayed into what I do on a day-to-day basis, whether it be from assembling a lifestyle center such as Empire Outlets or creating an ecosystem/environment within a housing development. It is very important to me and my team that we create an environment that someone will want to explore and spend time [in]. How I set parameters on how I achieve this is simple: If I as an individual would not want to either live, work, or spend any time in this environment without the desire to return then I change it and make sure that the experience is always aspirational to the customer. But hey, you never know, as much as I am very happy with what I do maybe one day I could be flying you to your desired vacation of choice.
Do you think the Wheel will be a novelty thing?
From a local level, everyone that lives in New York City is going to want to experience it once, right? They’re projecting it will be the No. 2 or 3 tourist destination.