After graduating from Roslyn High School, Gregg Saunders skipped college and went to work driving a delivery truck for his grandparents’ milk company, but he was drawn to the real estate business as a young man and began working for various firms in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
“He wanted to be on his own,” his wife, Alsou Saunders, said Friday. “He wanted to be independent. . . . He
didn’t want to be a broker, he wanted to own things,” she said.
It was the late 1970s and early 1980s. New York City had been written off by many as a dying city. It was losing its industry and its middle class, but where others saw chaos and despair, Mr. Saunders saw opportunity. “People stared at him like he was crazy,” Ms. Saunders said.
He began working with Philips International, a real estate firm specializing in commercial development, establishing a niche for himself in acquiring and developing sites for supermarkets and high-end chain stores like Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s.
It was just such a store that Mr. Saunders, who died in a car crash in East Hampton on Aug. 9, dreamed of bringing to his property on Montauk Highway in Wainscott, where he envisioned a new business hub. This summer, a Whole Foods pop-up occupied the space from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Mr. Saunders, who was 56, was born on Aug. 4, 1956, in Old Westbury to Jude Saunders and the former Gloria Schick. His family moved to Roslyn Heights when he was a baby. He lost his mother to breast cancer when he was 5, and the loss had a profound effect on him, his wife said.
Mr. Saunders began coming to the South Fork in the late 1980s, said Sy Ross of Springs, a childhood acquaintance of Mr. Saunders who became close friends with him when they met again in East Hampton 12 years ago. “He had a boat that he kept in the Shinnecock Canal, where he spent weekends,” Mr. Ross said. Recently, he had become an avid fisherman.
“He loved fishing,” his wife said.
“He was an excellent athlete. He could do anything. Racketball, tennis, he was excellent when he did it. He was almost unbeatable. He swam at Gurney’s a mile almost every day,” Mr. Ross said.
Mr. Saunders bought his first house in Sagaponack in the 1990s.
In 2002, he met Alsou Riabova, known as Alla, in East Hampton. “We fell in love. I moved in the next day,” she said. They were married on Aug. 20, 2004. It was Mr. Saunders’s second marriage.
The couple enjoyed biking and boating, and Mr. Saunders liked to check out the local real estate. “We liked to drive around and look at the houses,” his wife said.
Not long after they were married, he lost his younger sister, Andrea Katz, to breast cancer. From that point on, he named all his boats after his lost sister.
Mr. Saunders had a big heart, his wife said. “If you were down, he’d hand you his credit card. It didn’t matter if you were somebody’s maid. He was always looking out for people. He used to say, ‘Alla, you have to share.’ ”
In 2010, Mr. Saunders put in a bid on the former Plitt Ford dealership in Wainscott.
At first, Ms. Saunders recalled, her husband was riding on his own instinct and competitive nature. “What are you going to put there?” she would ask.
When he got the property, he began talking to customers in nearby stores. “He would ask people every day, what do you want?” she said.
He hoped to bring a high-end grocery store like Whole Foods to the site as a permanent tenant and earlier this year he won East Hampton Town Planning Board approval for a 17,500-square-foot building there. Surprising naysayers, he managed to work out a deal bringing a pared-down Whole Foods to the property for the summer, but before that, he let the Animal Rescue Fund thrift store use the property gratis.
The Wainscott retail development was the first phase in an ambitious plan he had for the area. When he died, he was on his way to discuss his newest plan with Bob Schaeffer, an East Hampton Town Planning Board member.
“I am very happy that I got to know him,” his wife said. “I had a wonderful 10 years.”
In addition to his wife, Mr. Saunders is survived by his father and a sister, Kyle Fox of Sarasota, Fla.
Services for Mr. Saunders were held at Waters of Babylon Chapel. He was buried at Ararat Cemetery in Farmingdale.
The family has suggested contributions to either the Animal Rescue Fund, P.O. Box 901, Wainscott 11975, or the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, 60 East 56th Street, 8th Floor, New York 10022.