Building a plan
Mattone Grows From Gas To Malls
Michael and Joseph Mattone work in the company’s College Point headquarters, which is located inside the 20th Avenue Waldbaum’s Shopping Center (inset).
By James J. Parziale
Most self-starting, small businesses that flourish into powerhouses have a tipping point. It is a moment in time that when recalled all those involved believed they were going to make it – like getting the call up to the major leagues from the farm system and never going – or looking – back.
For Joseph Mattone, now Chairman of the Mattone Group, that mile marker came in the early 1970s when he was introduced to an ambitious lawyer named Bruce Ratner, who later in the decade would become chief of the Consumer Protection Division in the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs under Mayor Ed Koch.
They collaborated on a project called the Metrotech Center that took up a 16-acre landmass in Brooklyn. The development became a mega-deal that put the Mattone business on the map. Now, there is over 4 million square feet in office space that is occupied by such heavy hitters like Chase Manhattan Bank and Keyspan, not to mention that the Center houses New York City’s Fire Department and the 911/Emergency Response Center.
Before then, Mattone Development was in its infancy stages, first learning to crawl, then to walk. The Brooklyn Metrotech helped the College Point-based company break into a full gallop.
The Pathmark shopping center in Laurelton has a suburban-size grocer in an urban setting.
“If you thought I had a grand plan, I really didn’t,” said 76-year-old Joseph Mattone, chairman of Mattone Development. “If a deal came in and it was financable, and there was a good bottom line, a profit, then I would try and put it together.”
And so things started slowly for Mattone Development, especially in the early onset. Many of its initial developments were gas stations strewn about the boroughs. Now, Mattone owns close to 50 total properties, more than half of which are in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and Long Island.
Some days Mattone is out all day glad-handing and politicking for the rights of real estate developers. The day before the Queens Tribune met with him, Mattone was out at events “and before you know it the whole day is gone.”
Other days he does the heavy lifting from his office, which overlooks 20th Avenue in College Point. He’s surrounded with plaques to commemorate his achievements the way a war hero is surrounded by medals. But even more than those accolades, Mattone can disappear into the innumerable photos of his offspring. The Greenpoint native, now a resident of Douglaston, has seven children, all of whom are at least partially involved in his home-grown business.
If that’s not enough, Mattone has 27 grandchildren. Their praises – photos at softball games, commencement ceremonies and family gatherings, to name a few – are what the self-proclaimed family man likes to surround himself with. They, after all, are the legacy he leaves behind.
A Lasting Legacy
Just like his grandchildren, Mattone’s buildings, structures, and developments will be time capsules of his work. In Queens, he has several Mattone stamps that are landmarks in the community.
Three such structures – the Jamaica Center complex, the Springfield Gardens Pathmark, and Cresthaven residential housing – have left indelible changes on our borough. From manifesting jobs to cultivating living space, Mattone Development, though you may not know it, is an integral part of Queens.
The overpowering structure is located at the corner of Jamaica Avenue and Parsons Boulevard and is comprised of a two-level underground parking garage, two stories of retailers occupying 130,000 square-feet. The third level consists of a 90,000-square foot state-of-the-art movie theater with stadium style seating, 15 screens and the capacity for 3,800 patrons.
Jamaica Center, which is located adjacent to the subway and Long Island Rail Road, opened in 2002 and its major tenants are National Amusements, Bally’s Total Fitness, The Gap, Gap Kids, Old Navy, Walgreens and other national brand tenants.
“They get busloads of people there on the weekends,” Joseph Mattone said. “We provided something for people there that never existed.”
“We know people as far as Toronto and North Carolina that come there to shop,” said Chief Financial officer Michael Mattone, who added that there “was a parking lot beforehand.”
“When we did Jamaica… the only real national tenants on Jamaica Avenue were fast food,” Michael Mattone, 41, continued. “Since we built it, there have been national retailers that have woken up to the purchasing power of these communities. The success there has made some national retailers take a real hard look [at moving their businesses there]. It’s a real bustling area.”
Joseph Mattone takes satisfaction knowing that his efforts, though they help his affluence, also help the working-class citizens and patrons in Jamaica. “If you walk down Jamaica Avenue today you will see that it’s as busy as Herald Square,” he said. “That’s one component of what we do. We take satisfaction knowing that we are also helping people that otherwise economically would not have jobs.”
A similar project – though on a smaller scale – was the Springfield Gardens Pathmark that brought a suburban-style shopping center to Queens. Mattone Development swooped in after another company couldn’t seal the deal. They incurred obstacles from the local businesses, but then after cutting through the red tape, the project broke ground in 1998. The store opened for business in 2000.
“It’s probably one of the highest grossing stores in their chain because it’s a suburban-style supermarket in an urban area,” said Michael Mattone. “That’s been a great success that project.’
Jamaica Center is one of Mattone’s crown jewels.
It was a prime example of the ebb-and-flow of the real estate world. “These things were not overnight deals,” Joseph Mattone said. “Some of them took us as long as five years to put them together.”
Another such project which is still ongoing is the Cresthaven housing development in Whitestone. This 16-acre development along the East River houses 112-single family homes and opened close to four years ago. They are still finishing the remaining five houses, according to Joseph Mattone.
Eight years ago Mattone Development officially split into two segments: legal and development. It was too taxing for it to be under one enterprise, so the split made things easier. Mattone Development handles a bevy of responsibilities for its clients. It ensures that properties are fully leased, ensures rent payments from tenants in residential property, and that the facilities are maintained.
“We get shown a lot of deals on a day-to-day basis and my job is to take the vague portion of the deal and boil it down to numbers,” Michael Mattone explained, adding that he analyzes the costs for land, labor, rent and zoning. “We typically hire third parties like consultants and builders.”
When the company first started, Joseph Mattone handled acquisitions, negotiations and the legalities on his own. As he said, it was a different time. In 1955, when he first started practicing law and real estate, he worked with major contractors who were developing along the Newtown Creek, called the Old Navy Yard in Queens at the time.
“We represented the interests of big companies who built tremendous buildings, warehouses, and more,” Joseph Mattone said.
In the 1960s, Mattone caught the first of several breaks when he was in business for himself. He began working with Jimmy Mannix, his “Irish partner,” as he said, who was an ex-director of an oil company.
“We had a handshake relationship,” Mattone said. “He was like a TV character. He had the gift of gab. Through him we acquired a lot of key [street] corners in the boroughs and put up gas stations.”
At the time, there was a lack of financial and personal security.
“You didn’t have the secure feeling you knew you had when you were going to get a retainer,” Mattone said. “Now money was at risk. We tried not to expose ourselves to liability, and we could do that because of Jim. He had connections to the oil companies and he knew the industry.”
“He knew what rents they would pay. He would put the sites together and I would do the finance part of the deal with the banks.”
Through Mannix, Mattone met Jerry Kessler, a lawyer at Bruce Ratner’s firm. They began formulating plans with a slowly-deteriorating Brooklyn site that was owned by St. John’s University that rented it to Brooklyn College.
“[SJU] was worried it was going to deteriorate because no one was living in it,” Mattone said.
So the university sold it to Mattone and his partners for $2.2 million and CitiBank was a partner in the deal. Together they converted it into 104 co-op apartments now dubbed Tower in the Heights. Mattone recalled struggles trying to sell a unit for $65,000 “because that’s when Mr. Carter was president and prime interest was 21 percent. Imagine trying to market that today,” he continued with a chuckle.
From there, Ratner, who now owns the New Jersey Nets with aspirations of moving them to Brooklyn, Mattone and others were in the big leagues.
“That was the real stepping stone for us,” he said. “You got to meet the real higher-level people of construction lenders at the banks.”
Presently, Mattone Development has five open projects, but own close to 50. The company is working with the city on developing a parking lot adjacent to the Queens Center Mall. It would add to the already gaudy number of total square feet – 1.7 million nationwide, with 1 million in Queens.
Mattone has seen Queens morph over the years, with its population, which was a little over 1 million in 1990, double by the year 2000. Even Mattone’s company, which started with just him, now employs 25 full-time workers.
“Right now it’s a lot different,” Joseph Mattone said of Queens. “The population profile is a lot different. We have a whole conglomerate at Cresthaven. Thirty years ago when I moved my practice and residence to Queens it was not as diversified. It’s justified to say that 50 percent of the people here today weren’t here 25 years ago.”
“This is where the jobs are, where affordable housing is,” Michael Mattone said. “The taxes are still reasonable compared to the rest of the area. That’s why you have a huge population growth.”