AKI Development focuses on bringing luxury to Queens.
By Alan Dorich
For many years, the borough of Queens, N.Y., has largely been ignored as a potential setting for luxury residential developments. But Aki Todic has worked to change that. “Astoria, Queens, [is] the best neighborhood on the East River,” he declares.
“High quality, amenitized buildings have been built for the last 10 years in Williamsburg and Long Island City,” Aki says. “We are bringing the same mentality to Astoria – developing projects with best-in-class condo level finishes, fixtures and amenities.”
Aki is the president of AKI Development, a real estate investment, development and construction firm that has also made the neighborhood its home. The company specializes in luxury residential developments including multifamily and mixed-used properties.
“We do everything from large-scale general contracting to ground-up new construction,” Managing Partner Brett Harris says, noting that the company also operates under the umbrella of the AKI Group. “We collectively manage over a dozen companies under the AKI Group umbrella.”
Alongside development and general contracting, AKI is expanding its services into construction management for large-scale projects. “We also have a co-investment platform, that allows joint-venture partners to invest alongside us and to take advantage of our suite of services,” Aki says.
These include AKI Cabinets, which “operates out of a 10,000-square-foot custom millwork facility that expertly crafts everything from kitchen cabinets, moldings and doors, to custom closets,” he says. “Through AKI Stones, we also have large-scale distribution and fabrication of countertops and tiles, made with everything from limestone to granite.”
Aki and Harris are both longtime veterans of the construction and development industries. Aki is the definition of an American success story, having immigrated to the United States as a young child to escape war-torn Yugoslavia.
He became interested in construction early on as he watched his brother work as a building repairman. Aki used that experience as a springboard for his career, eventually working on behalf of NYC’s most distinguished real-estate companies. As his business continued to grow, he diversified his services and in a short period of time he successfully created a vertically integrated real estate conglomerate that employs hundreds of highly skilled workers.
Initially, he focused on plumbing and mechanical work and then moved into cabinets and millwork. “These trades play significant roles in development and construction,” he recalls, noting that multiple proficiencies across the trade spectrum provided him with the tools to transition into larger projects.
Brett Harris honed his expertise rising through the ranks of some of Manhattan’s most successful real estate development firms. Building off his extensive experience at institutional NYC firms such as the LeFrak Organization and Stone Street Properties, Harris leverages his knowledge in operations and execution, strategic direction, project management, and predevelopment planning and marketing to provide AKI Development with the operational know-how to play ball with industry leaders.
Harris recalls meeting Aki in Manhattan, when he worked for a New York City-based real estate investment and development firm. At the time, Aki helped the company with a myriad of construction difficulties it was experiencing with projects.
Afterwards, the two men became close friends, and formed AKI Development together. “Aki and I had separate career goals of becoming developers,” he says. “We took different paths to get there, but we came together in an enlightened moment.”
The partnership has worked seamlessly, Harris asserts. “We’re best friends,” he says, noting that the combination of their talents keeps AKI Development well-managed. “We provide very complementary skills to each other and handle very separate and distinct aspects of the business.
“He’s more of a construction guy and can push his workers to get the job done as quickly as possible,” Harris says. “I’m more of a quarterback, handling the day-to-day operations and overseeing the entire value chain from start to finish.”
Harris also praises Aki for his ethics, which has enabled the company to earn a strong reputation in its industry. “Aki is known as being trustworthy and being a man of his word,” he says. “If we run into a problem at a particular site, we’ll throw 10 extra guys on the job to make sure we hit our deadlines.”
This allows AKI Development to provide levels of both comfort and peace of mind in its client’s construction work, Harris says. “Aki is a problem solver – he will tackle unforeseen issues in the field better than most engineers. He will push until the job is completed,” he says.
On Its Own
AKI Development has excelled through its vertically integrated approach to projects, Aki says. He notes that this philosophy was developed through his previous experience on other jobs.
“I failed when I tried to use subcontractors for a reasonable price,” Aki recalls. “But if you bring trades in-house, the price is controlled and change orders are minimized. We are able to provide superior procurement and scheduling as a result.”
Harris agrees. “We provide our customers with a very efficient operation that has resources, including manpower, trucks, warehouses and tools – small-to-medium sized contractors typically lack this infrastructure, especially in New York City,” he says. “It’s imperative to have your own equipment, tools and workforce to get things done at a moment’s notice for a client.”
AKI Group’s other companies provide those much-needed resources. For instance, with the help of AKI Cabinets and AKI Stones, AKI Development has access to custom, premade products that allow it to move faster than its competitors. “I can finish a kitchen in 24 hours,” Aki says.
The company also utilizes the forces of Big Apple Contracting Corp., which is owned by Aki’s brother, President Frank Todic.
When AKI Development uses subcontractors, it hires those it has built strong relationships with, Harris says. “Aki has spent his entire life befriending everybody,” he says, noting that people like working with the company.
“He pays on time, he’s very fair, he’s a great communicator and he stays on top of everything,” Harris continues. “We have vendors for life that have worked on every project.”
Doing it Better
AKI and its affiliates have been focused on construction and development projects in Astoria for the last decade, Harris says. Aki, who has spent his entire adult life in the neighborhood, became focused on this goal after his experiences on client projects.
“Aki would be thinking, ‘I can do it better,’” Harris says. “It was an early goal of his to own a portfolio of buildings so he could manage the entire process from start to finish.”
As part of this goal, AKI Development invested in a part of Astoria along the East River waterfront that had earned a reputation as “derelict,” Harris says. “It’s touching Long Island City, which is the fastest-growing neighborhood in New York City.
“The area, which boasts unobstructed views of the Manhattan skyline, is on its way to becoming a vibrant, mixed-use community that rivals the very best neighborhoods in the five boroughs,” he adds.
Many, he notes, come to Astoria from Manhattan for the local Greek restaurants, and from Eastern Queens to Astoria for the nightlife and clubs. But the area AKI Development has been focusing on “is filled with old warehouses and light industrial facilities, providing a blank canvas for us to be creative,” Harris says.
“It’s quickly being gentrified,” he says, noting that AKI Development has six projects in the area that range from eight to 44 units. “We are building what I would consider to be the very best product in New York – constructing high-end luxury rental buildings that are superior to offerings in Manhattan or Brooklyn.” The buildings’ units will have unique features such as radiant heated floors, European wall-hung toilets, overhead rain showers, 90-inch solid core doors and custom Italian kitchens.
“We conceptualized the project as a market leader in terms of finishes, fixtures and design elements and believe it will bring an element of refined modernism to a stretch of the Astoria waterfront that is currently undergoing a renaissance,” he says.
Their amenities packages also surpass “anything that’s been built in western Queens,” Harris says. “We’re building boutique, curated buildings that have a lot of love put into them.”
Outside the Box
AKI Development’s current projects include 11-07 Welling Court, a $8 million luxury rental building that will stand seven stories when it is finished in September 2016. With 28 residential units, private parking, fitness studio and roof deck, “It’s going to be different from any building ever built in Astoria,” Aki declares.
The street, Harris notes, has become famous for the Welling Court Mural Project, a local art festival that has gained tremendous exposure in the last few years. “Over 100 of the most famous graffiti artists in the world descend on the area every year to spray-paint old warehouses,” he describes.
“We’re literally sitting in the middle of a rotating art gallery,” Harris continues. “It’s a lesser known version of 5Pointz in Long Island City or Wynwood in Miami.”
AKI Development is working with a Brooklyn-based local arts group, Ad Hoc Art, to bring that same type of beautiful, raw art to 11-07 Welling Court. The group will paint a massive mural on the side of the building and will incorporate a vertical art mural in the elevator shaft. “The elevators were designed to incorporate special 8-foot by 4-foot glass panes to allow residents to view the 90-foot-tall mural as they travel up and down the building. Each elevator landing will be hand-painted by a different artist on every floor,” Harris says.
Other artists are also donating canvases that will be incorporated throughout the common spaces of 11-07 Welling Court, creating a locally sourced rotating art gallery for building residents. “We are really trying to think outside the box,” Aki declares. “We took a fresh perspective and said, ‘If we lived in this building, what would we want?’”
The building also will feature a custom-designed snowmelt system on the penthouse terraces “so the tenants never have to shovel snow during the winter,” Harris says. “The system was fabricated in-house and is absolutely state-of-the-art.”
Other green technology was incorporated into the building including super-efficient radiant heat flooring throughout the entire building, including common areas, apartments, terraces and outdoor sidewalks. The apartments also have individually sub-metered utilities, European-made floor-to-ceiling glass windows with special glazing, LED lighting, low VOC paint and ample bicycle storage.
Other examples of 11-07 Welling Court’s efficiency include German-made Viessmann boilers in each apartment, a cutting-edge technology that uses the lowest amount of energy possible. “We strongly believe there are tangible benefits to the bells and whistles we provide our residents, as well as the future cost savings in the end for the owner and tenant,” Harris says.
Additionally, while other developers use brick façades, AKI Development is installing a custom precast limestone façade at 11-07 Welling Court. “Each piece requires six workers to install – the panels weigh over 600 pounds each.”
Another Astoria project for AKI Development is 23-67 31st Street, a mixed-use building that will feature a commercial space with 24-foot ceilings and 9 residential units above. The building, he notes, is well situated near the Astoria Boulevard subway station, giving its tenants excellent access to transportation alternatives. “It’s probably the best location in all of Astoria – surrounded by great restaurants and shopping and only 10 minutes to Midtown Manhattan,” Harris says.
With this development, the company is going the same route as it did with 11-07 Welling Court. “We’re building a portfolio of super high-end loft-like rentals that appeal to renters that want the very best of everything,” Aki states.
It is with projects like 23-67 31st Street that AKI Development wants to build its reputation further as a brand, Harris says. “We have a pipeline with seven new projects planned, from an eight-unit, high-end luxury rental conversion located in Brooklyn’s exclusive Cobble Hill Historic District to a ground-up new construction 44-unit luxury rental building located near the Astoria waterfront. We will continue to push the limits of design and construction with each project.”
Coping With Challenges
AKI Development is seeing changes in its industry. “The economic uncertainty has made it difficult to buy land,” Harris says. “The 421-A tax abatement recently expired, making it difficult to source deals.”
So far the company has coped well with these hurdles, Harris says. “We’re able to sniff out good deals because of our relationships in this neighborhood,” he says, noting that the company impresses lenders when they visit AKI Development’s project sites.
“Their jaws hit the ground,” Harris says. “They can’t believe the quality, craftsmanship, knowledge and expertise of our employees.”
AKI Development also has met the challenge of staying safe through a comprehensive company mandated employee construction safety program, Harris says.
Currently, “We have a safety consultant that walks the sites on a regular basis,” Harris explains, noting that the company also utilizes both licensed superintendents and construction supervisors on each site.
“We have a rigorous safety training program in place to provide as many safeguards as possible,” he says. “The workers always have to be wearing eye glasses, safety vests, harnesses and work boots.”
The Sky’s The Limit
AKI Development maintains a fast paced, entrepreneurial environment, Harris says. In addition to 11-07 Welling Court and 23-67 31st Street, “We’re currently in 20 different client jobsites in Manhattan and Brooklyn – everything from a Brooklyn Heights townhouse for a Goldman Sachs executive to a large-scale gut-renovation of a 130-unit building in Gramercy.”
The company plans to continue focusing on Astoria. “We’ll keep providing new and exciting living opportunities for people in this market,” he says. “We’ll try to push the best product forward with every development that we execute.”
Aki agrees. “We love what we do,” he says, noting that he has done a lot for a 29-year-old in the construction industry. “As long as we keep putting our best foot forward the sky’s the limit.”
Aki’s older brother, Frank Todic, serves as the owner and president of Big Apple General Contracting Corp., which is based in nearby Long Island City. When it started operations, it focused on working with his younger brother’s company.
“Big Apple was established to fulfill the growing demand of AKI clients requesting assistance with exterior projects. We started to perform streamlined exterior and construction support for Aki’s projects,” he recalls. “Aki needed help with logistics and exterior work that would stretch his resources.”
Today, he says, Big Apple’s specialties include sidewalks, windows, roofs, and fire escapes and has a range of services from townhouses to high-rise buildings. “We are a flexible exteriors shop that can handle anything from small jobs to large and complex projects,” he says.
But Big Apple does not discriminate when it comes to the service level it provides. “We find that no project is too small or too big, and treat each with equal respect and professionalism,” he says.
Big Apple’s operations include a dedicated, in-house engineering team that ensures experienced supervision and workmanship for its clients. “The team makes sure every project is developed on time and on budget,” he says.
A Streamlined Approach
Frank Todic praises the integrated platform that his brother has developed. “It allows our companies to jointly service clients with ease to ensure a streamlined approach to each construction project,” he says, noting that Big Apple has completed dozens of projects for AKI Development to date.
He also enjoys working with his brother and Brett Harris. “By working with them, we’ve been able to envision and conceptualize the most complex projects,” Todic says.
“It allows our firm to coordinate and finish projects with reliability and consistency,” he says. “We have a great working relationship with Aki and Brett. Their abilities to delegate and manage are beyond impressive. We look forward to collaborating on more projects with them over the coming years.”
Big Apple is currently at work on 12 different job sites across the New York area. These include a 500,000-square-foot project on Staten Island, where it’s completing a full façade restoration and replacing nearly 500 windows.
Todic sees a strong future for the company as it continues to work with AKI Development. “Client referrals are the backbone of our company and we strive to satisfy our clients 100 percent of the time,” he says.