Jerry Wolkoff, a prominent New York real estate developer behind major regional projects, including the proposed Heartland Town Square in Brentwood, has died, his family said.
Wolkoff, who grew up poor in Brooklyn and became one of the largest private developers and landowners in Suffolk County, died Friday of a neurological illness, his family said.
He was 83.
The Quogue resident was known as a giant in the development industry — if at times a controversial one — who did not compromise and changed ideas of what should be built on Long Island, associates said.
"He would think in big pictures and 'how do I make it better? I don’t want to build what's ordinary,' " said his son, David Wolkoff.
Gerald "Jerry" Wolkoff was born in November 1936, the middle son of parents Bertha and Irving Wolkoff of Brownsville, Brooklyn. His father died when Wolkoff was young, and he began working by about age 10, his family said. By 16, Wolkoff had built a large floor-waxing company he later sold for more than $1 million, according to a family statement.
Inspired by a brother's home-building business, Wolkoff started his first real estate venture in the 1960s, building two Brooklyn houses. He later built hundreds of homes in New York City, including in Staten Island's Heartland Village, the statement said.
In the 1970s and '80s, he began developing industrial parks on Long Island: the Heartland Executive Park in Hauppauge and the Heartland Business Center in Edgewood. He also built the nation's first 24-hour golf course in Deer Park and was instrumental in building the Long Island Rail Road station there to help transport his workers to the Edgewood site.
But Wolkoff died before his most important project could break ground after nearly 20 years of planning: Heartland Town Square, which would be the largest planned community on Long Island since Levittown, with 9,000 apartments, 3 million square feet of office space and a million square feet of retail.
Wolkoff purchased the 450-acre site, formerly part of the Pilgrim State Psychiatric Hospital, for more than $20 million in 2002. He told Newsday in 2003 that he expected to spend $4 billion and take about 20 years to build it. He wanted to create "a little Manhattan," as he called it, and shake Long Island out of its suburban sprawl.
After years of debate over the project's effect on schools, jobs, traffic and the environment, the Islip Town Board approved it in 2017. But Heartland stalled after the Brentwood School District sued in 2017 and the Suffolk County Legislature declined to vote on connecting the project to the Southwest Sewer District in 2018. The school district's lawsuit is pending.
David Wolkoff vowed to complete the project, calling it a major part of his father's legacy.
Wolkoff, who at times tussled with labor leaders and environmentalists, was a major political donor. He contributed nearly $1.3 million since 2001 to Suffolk Republican, Democratic and Conservative parties and candidates, campaign finance records show.
But the controversies around Wolkoff was the "hallmark of an imaginative person" and an "unfortunate" part of life in development, said Mitch Pally, of the Long Island Builders Institute. Wolkoff didn't want to keep doing what's always been done, Pally said.
"He said, 'There are ways we can make Long Island better from a quality of life standpoint, and I'm going to put my money where my mouth is and try to get that done,' " Pally said.
Along with his son David, Wolkoff is survived by his wife of 59 years, Michele, another son, Adam, a daughter-in-law Stephanie, and grandchildren, Zachary, 18, Tyler, 16, and Alexi, 13.
Funeral arrangements are pending.