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Brighton by the Sea: second time around.

Stephen Muss, owner of the Alexander Muss Co., is one of the more conservative real estate developers in the business. His New York holdings are limited to the 558-unit Seacoast Towers Cooperative in Brooklyn. His Florida investments, however, have been more numerous, but none the less selective and carefully crafted like the 1,206-room Fountainbleau Hotel in Florida and several other condominium developments in Miami and Key Biscayne. His last project in New York City was a 31-story, 28-unit apartment building at 733 Park Avenue in 1975.

His restraint, onlookers believe, has kept him from suffering the same unfortunate fate of some of his fellow developers.

So why is the Muss Co. willing to take a chance on a $280 million development next to his existing Seacoast Towers in economically marginal Brighton Beach during tough times in the real estate industry? And why would they undertake such an ambitious project in this sagging real estate climate?

"If we thought that this was the end of the real estate business, the whole country would be in terrible shape," said Hy Cohen, vice president of the Alexander Muss Co. and a "political powerhouse" in Brookly. Cohen is spearheading the effort to gain zoning variances and the demapping of streets of the 15-acre property where now stands the 80-year-old Brighton Beach Baths.

In place of the once popular, yet outdated, baths, the Muss Company hopes to erect "Brighton By the Sea," the largest, private development - to be built entirely without government subsidies - in more than 25 years in Brooklyn. New York City's largest borough of 4.5 million residents. The second largest private Brooklyn development is the $60 million hotel complex in Downtown Brooklyn, being built by Joshua Muss, a cousin of Stephen Muss. (Stephen and Joshua Muss are not in business together.)

The plan is being considered by the New York City Planning Commission and a ruling is expected on or sometime after June 10. The City Council could get be involved after the Commission vote.

The Brighton Beach development, designed by Costas Kondylis & landscapes by Paul Friedberg & Partners, is a much scaled down version of a project that failed to gain sufficient votes from the City Planning Commission in 1988. The plan currently includes five co-op and rental apartment buildings, one center building of 29 stories, two stepped-down 28-story and two stepped-down 24 story buildings. There will be a total of 1,600 apartments, including three-story townhouse-type buildings along the side of the main development. Those low-rise buildings will include 40,000 square feet of professional space.

Because the city demands that a view of the ocean be maintained from the main Brighton Beach Avenue, 39,000 square feet of commercial space has been eliminated from the plan. That includes the scaling down of a massive health club to grade level, which was to be the centerpiece of the plan.

While Cohen would not reveal who the other investors were for the project other than Muss himself, Cohen said this is a "golden opportunity" to build because few large-scale developments are being constructed in the present real estate climate.

"We can build at the right price because contractors don't have enough work," Cohen said. "While I can't say at this time who the investors will be because the plan has not yet been approved, I am pretty sure the financing will be available."

Muss recently said, in a new York Times interview, that he hopes to find another investment partner.

The Alexander Muss Company has a $6.8 million mortgage remaining on Seacost Towers and according to Cohen, little other outstanding debt.

Second Time Around

Cohen reflected on the last time the project went before the New York City Planning Commission in 1989. The Planning Commission, which had two vacant spots at the time, voted 3-2 in favor of the project, but, the project needed a four positive votes.

Before the plan reached the Planning Commission, Muss Co. encountered strong opposition from some area residents, residents of neighboring affluent Manhattan Beach and waterfront conservationists. The opposition formed a group called the Committee to Preserve Brighton Beach. Some of those residents who fought the former plan are also trying to thwart the one currently being presented.

Cohen, however, is considered Muss' secret weapon in its campaign for community support, and, he says, the project has plenty.

He has been active in both community politics and community groups for more than 30 years. Cohen served as president of the District 2 School Board; is a member of Community Board 13 (he abstained from the vote on his project which passed by a Land Use Committee Vote of 11-3); was former president of the Oceanfront Development Corporation, a forerunner of the Brighton Beach Business Improvement District); and has been active with numerous other community and religious organizations.

Cohen has not been afraid to pull up his sleeves and battle community groups. In the first go-around for Brighton by the Sea, he once packed a community board hearing full of construction workers that would benefit from the project. The workers loudly interjected yeahs and boohs where they saw fit. Moves like that made his opposition even more strident.

With a new project on the drawing board, however, Cohen is now using a gentler approach with community concerns under the advisement of Howard J. Rubenstein Associates Inc. public relations.

"The reason we have brought this project back is because the community does support it and has been for it in the past," Cohen said, pointing to the 1989 public hearing speakers count of 125 for and 113 against. While there were slightly more against the project at the last community board public hearing, a subsequent hearing at Brooklyn borough hall had 36 speak for the project and 21 against.

Even in the face of accusations of political paybacks and conflict of interest campaign contributions, Cohen said Borough President Howard Golden has stood firm on his support of the project as a way to bring in tax revenue, jobs and more development to Brighton Beach and Brooklyn as well.

Golden issued an eight-page report last week saying he favored the necessary zoning changes because of the revenue that would be generated and jobs that would be created in Brooklyn buildings were 40 stories previously and now the highest one is only 29 stories. The parking lot was reduced to hold 1,700 cars from 1,850 cars; 39,000 square feet of commercial space was eliminated to allow for a view of the ocean from the main Brighton Beach Avenue; the health club was scaled down to allow a view to the Boardwalk; additional public space was added and landscaping for both the development and surrounding avenues has been added. And of the acres, only percent of the property will be occupied by buildings, down from the 32 percent first envisioned. There will be 1.8 million square feet of residential space, down from 2 million from the original plans.

Cohen said it was necessary to maintain at least 1,600 apartments in the plan to make the project economically viable. (The first plan called for more than 2,000 units). He envisions the apartments (studios, multi-room and duplex apartments) will run from $200-250 per square foot.
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Title Annotation:Alexander Muss Co. to develop units in Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn, New York, New York
Author:Maisel, Todd
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Date:Jun 3, 1992
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