The 181-unit, nine-floor, mixed-use building starting to go up in Peekskill on a plot of land bordered by Broad, Brown, St. James and Park streets reflects more than a desire on the part of the developer to make a profit from creating apartments, storefronts and parking spaces.
It’s really a reflection of the American dream come true and the impact an immigrant can have in his adopted country. It’s also part of a genuine rags-to-riches story, because the Greek immigrant behind the One Park Place project went from being a busboy and dishwasher when he arrived in the U.S. in 1972 to controlling a real estate and business empire now estimated to be worth in excess of $1.6 billion.
“I tried to find a way to make a living when I came over here after I finished my schooling,” Efstathios Valiotis told the Business Journal. His friends and business associates Americanized his name by calling him Steve, although his heavy Greek accent still clearly reflects his heritage. He was born in Vordonia, Greece, which is near Sparta. After graduating from high school in Sparta, he attended the Kalamata Theological School, graduating in 1967. He then went to the University of Athens, earning a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and theology. After serving in the Greek army, he came to the U.S.
“I started to wash dishes and be the assistant for the cook,” he said. It didn’t take him long to realize he wasn’t content to stay in restaurant kitchens. Entrepreneurial spirit set in and he bought a coffee and donut shop.
By 1976, he had opened Knossos Inc., a custom-made furniture business in Astoria, Queens. In addition to having a factory in Queens, the company set up two display stores in Manhattan.
In 1978, Valiotis started investing in real estate and hasn’t stopped. Some of the buildings required a great deal of repairs and renovation. Others were more high-end. The portfolio grew to the point where his Long Island City-based Alma Realty Corp. now handles residential and commercial properties containing approximately 15,000 apartments and 5 million square feet of nonresidential space.
“I bought a lot of buildings, and some have had a lot of problems, but I straightened out everything because I’m not a slum landlord. I believe in all of my buildings. I spend money on them, and I straightened out all of them,” he said. Alma Realty is a family affair, with Valiotis’ two daughters and son actively involved. Alma is heavily invested in New York City and New Jersey, especially Jersey City. The company also lists apartments for rent in Poughkeepsie.
In 2010, the New York State Senate passed a resolution to honor Valiotis for his community involvement which has included building and supporting the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church of Whitestone. Valiotis funded construction of its school, which was named after him and his wife, the Efstathios and Stamatiki Valiotis Greek American School.
He also was instrumental in converting the former Jewish Hospital in Crown Heights into 700 units of affordable housing and striking a deal with New York City in which the apartments would remain rent-stabilized for 30 years.
Valiotis got involved in the financial world in 1989, when he and several other principals formed Marathon National Bank, which was acquired by Piraeus National Bank of Greece in 2001. In 2007, he formed Alma Bank. According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Alma Bank has 13 offices in New York and New Jersey and, as of Dec. 31, 2018, had total assets of $1.142 billion and net income for the year of $4.13 million.
Greek Quest Services, which is a data and information source focused on Greece, including the Greek-American community, has named Valiotis to The National Herald’s list of the 50 Wealthiest Greek-Americans.
“I go to Greece a couple of times a year, but I think American. I like American. God blessed me. I made a lot of money. I help the people. I keep doing that. I believe God gives the money to the rich people to help the poor.”
The Peekskill project, like many large developments, has not happened overnight. “I bought the property in 1998. It was an office building and an empty lot. And, I had been over there a few times,” Valiotis said.
Plans call for the office building to stay open.
Current tenants include the Social Security Administration and the New York State Department of Education and state Department of Labor. Site preparation work on the vacant lot has begun.
The project has been making its way through the municipal approval process for a couple of years. In 2017, a Peekskill Department of Planning and Development staff report noted that the developer “has been developing and revising the site plan in concert with staff.”
Numerous changes were made to the original plans. Some involved the interior spaces. The number of parking spaces was reduced from more than 400 to 300. The building’s footprint was reduced slightly in order to provide better clearance between it and the office building.
“One Park Place will be one of the best-located apartment complexes in Peekskill, right in the heart of town. It will also be home to retail and restaurants that will serve the entire community,” Valiotis said.
Plans call for 13,000 square feet of retail space fronting on Park, across from an existing shopping area with several businesses. The building will have a gym, recreation room and 105 parking slots for bicycles in addition to three levels of underground parking for cars. There also will be a public park with a gazebo, benches and playground.
Valiotis owns a couple of buildings in Larkin Plaza in Yonkers. He told the Business Journal that he hopes to soon be building in New Rochelle. “I cannot give a specific date for groundbreaking. It will be a big residential building, in the North Avenue area, 300 to 400 units, 25,000 square feet of retail and a few hundred parking spaces.”
Does Valiotis have a message for would-be immigrants? “Come to this country. Adopt the American system. Be straight, faithful and work hard. It doesn’t matter where you come from. It’s how you perform. When I came here, I didn’t speak English. I had no skills. Now, I love being successful and I hope people will follow in my footsteps.”
Peter Katz’s coverage of the local business sector includes stories of immigrants making contributions to their communities. If you have a suggestion regarding someone making an impact on the local economy and who could be featured in the Business Journal’s Only in America section, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.