Leonard Litwin of Melville — a real estate baron and billionaire who built Manhattan skyscrapers, funded philanthropic causes and medical research on Long Island, and backed New York politicians, including the governor, to the tune of millions of dollars — died Sunday at his home.
Litwin, 102, was a leader of the Real Estate Board of New York, a real estate trade association that promotes pro-industry legislation and activities.
On Monday, the group released a statement calling Litwin “a real estate industry giant and an extraordinary philanthropist who generously participated in many of our city’s civic and charitable organizations.”
After his wife, Ruth, was stricken with Alzheimer’s disease, he set up the Litwin-Zucker Center for Alzheimer’s disease and Memory Disorders at Northwell Health in Manhasset. She died in 2014.
He was known as a soft-spoken power broker who in 2006 was listed as one of the 400 richest Americans, according to Forbes magazine. That status was the culmination of a career that began in 1933 when his father, Harry Litwin, started the family’s nursery business, Woodbourne Cultural Nurseries, in Melville.
The father-son team started building and renting luxury apartments in Manhattan in the 1950s.
Litwin served as REBNY’s lifetime honorary chairman and was a recipient of its Harry B. Helmsley Distinguished New Yorker Award, the group’s highest honor, and the Bernard H. Mendik Lifetime Leadership in Real Estate Award.
The group noted that Litwin helped spur the regrowth of lower Manhattan after the 9/11 attacks. He spearheaded the construction of Liberty Plaza at a time when many developers were skittish about investing in the area in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that devastated the area’s real estate market.
Through his company, Glenwood Management, which has offices in New York City and Long Island, Litwin was involved in the construction, management and ownership of dozens of buildings, including those synonymous with New York’s patrician class — the Lucerne and the Pavillion among them — staples of tony neighborhoods including the Upper East Side, the West Side, midtown and downtown.
“He is New York real estate,” said Dan Margulies, executive director of the Associated Builders and Owners of Greater New York, which represents the interests of building owners, in a 2012 Newsday profile of Litwin.
But the power Litwin wielded at the intersection of politics and business has also come under scrutiny in recent years, most notably in the corruption trials of two of New York State’s most formidable politicians, former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan).
Glenwood had showered Republicans and Democrats with at least $13.4 million in contributions since 1999, according to a 2015 Newsday review.
In February 2015, New York Public Interest Research Group officials testified in a legislative budget hearing that “through various entities and campaign accounts, real estate developer Leonard Litwin has given Governor Cuomo $1 million for the 2014 election cycle” and used loopholes in the law to give more than $1 million in a calendar year.
Federal prosecutors alleged that Silver had induced “real estate developers with business before the state” to use a law firm that paid him kickbacks.
Then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said one of the developers “was the largest political contributor in the state since 2005,” which is routinely identified as Glenwood, connecting Glenwood’s contributions to favorable treatment in Albany in both Skelos’ and Silver’s trials.
But Litwin was also recalled as a kind philanthropist who helped spur medical research. He contributed to causes designed to fight cancer, Crohn’s disease and chronic fatigue syndrome in several New York institutions and hospitals, including Lenox Hill, Mount Sinai, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center and Northwell Health, REBNY officials said.
“He was very sharp,” said Peter Davies, director of the Litwin-Zucker Center. “I mean, when I first met him, he was over 90, but he was sharp as a tack.”
Davies said the center Litwin established was the first serious institution devoted to the eradication of Alzheimer’s on Long Island, and published hundreds of papers and engaged in experimental and traditional clinical trials to combat the condition.
Litwin, who also had homes in Great Neck and Manhattan, is survived by daughters Diane Miller, of Boca Raton, Florida, and Carole L. Pittelman, of Manhattan, who is an executive vice president for Glenwood.
A memorial service for Litwin will be held on Wednesday at 2 p.m. at Temple Emanu-El, 1 E. 65th St. in Manhattan.