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Envy Building

In today’s hot-hot-hot real-estate market, the buzz circling the birth of a deluxe apartment can be deafening. For two master builders, the politicking over fresh square-footage has turned into a chapter out of Sun-Tzu, anyone?

(Details, Jan/Feb 2001. Photos: Jason Schmidt)

AS CALVIN KLEIN WAS FLIPPING through his morning papers about a year ago, his eyes suddenly braked on a surprising bit of news: A friend—the architect Richard Meier—was planning a pair of sleek residential glass towers in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Meier is perhaps best known for his $1 billion Getty Center in Los Angeles. He has erected more museums than any man living. But modernism’s mac daddy is responsible for only a scattering of aus­tere, elegant homes across the globe, so naturally Klein was intrigued by the possibilities.

He picked up the phone in his room at the inter­minably chic Mercer Hotel in SoHo and made the easiest call of his life. In the three years he’s been holed up at the Mercer, Klein has considered a slew of downtown penthouses. But none had the sweeping vistas that so spoiled the emperor of new clothes when he lived twenty floors above it all on Central Park West not so long ago.

When he saw the building models and render­ings at Meier’s sprawling Tenth Avenue offices the next day, Klein’s pulse jackhammered. “They were wonderful to look at,” he says. “Just the idea that there were these two glass columns thrilled me. New York is about views, and the fact that you could have floor-to-ceiling glass in your home is a whole new way of looking at living—and terribly exciting.”

Meier’s grand plan was this: Two towers of sparkling white aluminum and glass would frame nineteenth-century Perry Street and face the Hudson River. They would contain all the luxury Klein requires: full-time doormen and concierges, a five-star chef’s cafe with room service, a private gym, keyed elevators, and 360 degrees of glass in each full-floor apartment. Klein had just one question: How was the view from the top?

Meier’s brow wrinkled under his snowy-white Frank Lloyd Wright shag. He didn’t quite know.

“What do you mean, you don’t know?” Klein asked.

“Well, there are two parking lots there right now. So no one really knows,” Meier responded matter-of-factly.

Not knowing quite what you’re getting into isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker in a housing market electrified by more kilowatts than Times Square. The dot-com bazillionaires and Wall Street stock jocks who helped push the average sale price of luxury downtown lofts up 15 percent in the first half of 2000 were ready to mortgage their souls after seeing little more than floor plans and laundry lists of flashy amenities-in-progress. Think built-in heated towel racks, wine cellars, titanium roof decks.

When today’s building is conceived on the drawing board, not only the architect but also a clutch of marketing midwives have a hand in engi­neering its genome. Each wants an offspring who’ll grow into the smartest, sexiest, most expensive building on the block. This year’s top-seeded con­tenders are the 71-story Trump World Tower, cham­pioned by its namesake as the tallest residence in the world, and the Meier project, trumpeted by its salespeople as a work of art.

As with any art being gaveled, the auctioneer has attempted to divine what the market will bear. Meier’s full-floor condominiums are among the most expensive in the city. They do not yet have floor plans—or, for that matter, floors. They will be ready for move-ins in April 2002. The raw space inside the towers’ 28 condominiums will cost as much as $2,000 per square foot, with apartments ranging in price from $1.9 million to $6.2 million. That may seem like affordable housing in a town where last February, Blackstone Group CEO Steve Schwarzman bought John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s former triplex at 740 Park Avenue for $37 million. But it’s a bit steep for a big unfinished aerie with exposed plumbing. Critics are sneering that each building is little more than an empty Meier gift box—pretty but unfulfilling. “And they’re asking Fifth Avenue prices,” one broker tsk-tsks.

Which is why, despite the charring heat of Meier’s reputation, his team knew it would help having a Calvin Klein on the building’s marquee. An early catch like Klein—and it wasn’t long before a prying press chronicled the event—can get a project clicking. But even though the towers themselves were still essentially a toy on a table in Richard Meier’s office, Calvin Klein demanded to see the view.

And see the view he did.

One breezy afternoon a little more than two weeks after Klein dropped in to Meier’s office, the two men caught a helicopter off Wall Street. Rounding the tip of Manhattan and darting low over the rooftops of converted tenements and fac­tories, the helicopter finally slowed to a hover at the exact height of Klein’s putative penthouse. To the south, stood the World Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty. To the north, the midtown spires of the Chrysler and Empire State buildings gleamed like knife blades. To the east, Greenwich Village was a picnic blanket of buzzing restaurants, boutiques, and seedy-chic bars. And to the west—well, to the west, the view was the fairest of them all: The Hudson River, stretched out like a copper serpent beneath an endless blue sky.

“Richard and I were awestruck,” Klein says, strug­gling to describe the Oz he sighted through the rented chopper’s windows. “I was, like, screaming.”

Klein quickly pledged to buy the top two floors when they hit the market later in the year. He and the developers agreed to keep his name a secret. Nobody wanted a stampede so early in the project, especially since the backers could not yet legally offer the units for sale. Klein’s name would surface in the papers a mere five months later. And that’s when the closed-door jockeying for the highest floors—Klein’s included—would begin in earnest.

* * *

Richard Meier is loping down the wide reception hall of his 15,000-square-foot office. He is six feet tall and wearing black pants, a white shirt, and a dotted blue tie, an outfit that makes him look more like a career number-cruncher than a master builder. On one side of the hall is a row of assistants burrowed into their alabaster cubicles. On the other is a parade of six Plexiglas cases fastened atop steel pedestals: modish olives on toothpicks, each stuffed with an architectural model. Everything here—the walls, the workstations, the window blinds—is white. It’s what the afterlife might resemble if its creator wielded a mean T-square.

“Have you had a chance to look?” the 66-year-old architect asks as we pass something vaguely recalling a bleached, split coconut under glass. His expression, framed by owlish glasses, is more doting caretaker than landmark auteur. His portfolio includes such temples of culture as the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta; The Hague’s City Hall and Central Library; and Phoenix’s Federal Building and U.S. Court House. “It’s the Church of the Year 2000,” he says, placing a hand on my shoulder as we gaze upon the cleaved coconut. “This is a good one.”

Commissioned by the Vatican for a patch of land on the outskirts of Rome, the fanned shell is just one of the dozen projects that Meier and his team of 32 architects are working up at any given time. Meier’s métier is light and space. His glass-and-steel Cubist houses are broadly transparent; their white walls catch the sun as it glints off Palm Beach pools, filters through Pennsylvania’s green mountains, or burns in the Dallas sky. His strikingly minimalist kitchens, bedrooms, and living rooms are bathed in the golds and greens and blues of nature. The object is to manipulate the “geometry in light,” as Meier puts it, to create a work of protean beauty.

“Architecture is the lost art in New York,” he tells me as I grab a seat—a vintage Otto Wagner chair. The office is a spacious brand extension: white lam­inated cabinets, simple white Venetian blinds, a Moby Dick of a desk.

Meier has paused to gaze out his rain-streaked windows, facing east toward the low and dingy bar­racks that are the far West Side’s rooftops.

“I mean, look out there,” he continues, gesturing past a five-story-high movie poster for Charlie’s Angels. “Sure, you can see the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building—and thank God they’re out there. But consider architecture in New York, where culture exists in every other way and is appreciated: People think about architecture. They read about architecture. But here, it’s nonexistent. I think what’s giving this building a buzz is its architec­ture. It’s architecture of a quality that hasn’t been seen here in a long time.”

Some 30 years ago, it was Meier who revamped the Bell Telephone Laboratories in the West Village as Westbeth, a federally subsidized loft building for more than 100 artists. Though he’s renovated dozens of homes, Meier has built only seventeen free-standing houses, none of them in New York City. Still, he is an eminently well-regarded touch stone for contemporary architecture. The man builds museums, for God’s sake: The Getty trustees handed him a blank check (the subliminal mes­sage: Shouldn’t you?). He’s also a Lexus-ad model, photographed in profile against a massive granite boulder that all but obliterates a view of the Art Deco-style San Remo, a vastly expensive Upper West Side co-op building where Steve Martin lives. The symbolism is rich.

Starkly modern, the Perry Street towers pay no homage to the aging brick structures that surround them, or to the picturesque brownstones of the neighborhood farther inland.

“No,” Meier says. “Why should they?”

River view, visionary architect, limited inventory—these are among New Yorkers’ favorite things. The bonus: a wide-open sky and truly extraordinary sunsets.

“People do love that area,” says Michele Kleier, president of the brokerage firm Gumley Haft Kleier. “There’s space down there that you can’t get uptown. There’s no place to build uptown—not buildings like that, anyway.” Says Christopher T. Wilson, senior vice president of Stribling Mar­keting, “It’s a very sexy combination, to have loft space with that kind of view.”

The lot on Perry Street’s north comer is narrow, so the tower there will be slimmer than the one across the way. Its footprint will be just under 2,000 square feet; the South Building’s footprint is twice that. In an unusual twist, Meier plans to design interiors for anyone who requests it—at an addi­tional cost ranging from $300 to $1,000 per square foot. Each fifteen-story building has fourteen resi­dential floors (the South Building’s ground floor will house a restaurant; the North’s, a gym), and Meier expects to design a third of the interiors.

The obstacles his team faces have less to do with how the buildings look than with where they’re planted. Despite its quaint name, adjacent West Street has seven lanes of traffic: It’s actually the final stretch of the West Side Highway, with all the noise that unfortunate circumstance implies. So there will be triple-paned glass with an air pocket and a layer of sound-absorbing laminate.


“No matter how high up you are, I think it will be trouble,” says one veteran downtown broker. Floors two through six present the biggest problem: All five in the South Building are still unsold. In the North Building, floors two, four, and five are still available. The views on those floors in either building hardly cancel out the noise; the only truly great vista is the one facing the river. (“We always say that you get the same sunsets as the people on the twelfth floor,” comments James Lansill, managing director of the Sunshine Group, which is handling the marketing.)

Then there’s the pesky glass-house effect: With floor-to-ceiling windows, tenants may find them­selves starring in a West Side version of The Real World.

The developers have a strategy. They are holding back some apartments from the market as a way of “manipulating” demand (as one insider put it). This is a common practice. One apartment buyer I spoke with says she was told a few months ago that only floors four and six were available in the North Building. Having worked in real estate, she knew they were hiding the inventory. “I held out until I got floor seven, which was just right,” she says.

Meier is also keeping an eye trained on sales. Not only will he live in the South Building—a fact that further stokes the project’s appeal—he also owns a 5 percent stake in the $50 million buildings. That means that in addition to his estimated $2 million design fee, he stands to earn $2.5 million if the project sells out.

“As an architect, you’re always doing something for someone else,” Meier observes. “I figured it was time I had the enjoyment as well.”

Meier’s partners on the project included devel­opers Richard Born and Ira Drukier, who whipped up the stylish Mercer Hotel with its hotelier-about-town Andre Balazs. They brought in chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who runs the hotel’s restau­rant, the Mercer Kitchen; he will open the South Building’s 50-seat restaurant, which he describes, oxymoronically, as an “upscale country coffee shop.” Vongerichten, too, plans to live in the building. His stake is 15 percent (he put up more capital than Meier). Though his involvement adds four-star-food cachet—as a potential mating terri­tory for model-slash-actresses and their actor-slash-suitors—it is Meier, in his tortoiseshell specs, who is the project’s billboard attraction.

The Sunshine Group is among the top brokers of ultra-luxury housing in New York. Its founder, Louise Sunshine, is imposingly Thatcherish with her blow-dried blonde mane and her suits with their eyeball-size gold buttons. Sunshine is fond of saying, “Richard Meier is the ultimate amenity. He adds $1,000 a square foot to the purchase price.” It is her job to relay that message to “the right people,” as she calls them.

To that end, she has set up shop in Meier’s very own office. A sunny conference room serves as a combination sales office and museum. On one wall is an elegant poster heralding the project “an extraordinary residential experience.” Nearby hangs a photomontage of such hipster haunts as the restaurant Pastis and the Heller Gallery. Meier’s bone-white building model is positioned facing a window so that it catches light from the sun set­ting over the Hudson. Visiting this room, says Sun­shine, “is a privileged experience.”

When it comes to where a New Yorker decides he or she has to live, building buzz is not unlike a high-pitched whistle that breezes past the ears of one species but jerks the necks of another into whiplash.

Donald Trump’s latest project is a bronze-tinted domino that stands 71 stories high if you ask the city, 90 if you talk to fuzzy-math Donald, who maintains that it’s technically the size of a stan­dard 90-floor building—it’s just that he’s chosen to make some of the ceilings higher.

At this exalted altitude, the buzz is audible to all, fanned by the sheer chutzpah of the developer’s insistence on putting up the tower in spite of neigh­bors’ howls that its monstrous shadow would be a blight on the United Nations across the street.

Trump is standing with his hands jammed into his overcoat pockets, admiring the way the crystal chan­deliers in his cathedral-nave lobby refract the morning sun just so against the African mahogany walls.

“Look at that,” he marvels. “Gorgeous, no?”

He has invited me to join him and an entourage of eight trench-coat-and-hard-hat-clad contractors and Trump executives as he tours the first finished apartments in the condominium. The upper floors are as yet little more than cement boxes with huge puddles, and the lobby is largely unfinished, with plastic sheets covering the doors and the dust of construction in the air.

“I think you market No. 1 with location, No. 2 with architecture,” Trump intones above the hammering as he marches through the room, the clipboards rushing to catch up. “Look at this marble here,” he snaps, suddenly pulling up at the front desk and theatrically running his hand over a dull finish.

“You see the difference between this and what she gave us by the elevators?” he barks at the site manager. “She gave us a mud finish here. It’s shit. I want that crystalline finish. You tell her take it off and redo, and not charge me ten cents. You got it?”

Heads nod. If success had a soundtrack, this would be it.

“Donald has loads of magnificent services,” says one brokerage chief who lives near Trump Inter­national Hotel & Tower on Central Park West and whose company has sold numerous apartments in his buildings. “But the rest is all Trump marketing. The hyperbole knows no bounds: It’s like watching a horrible episode of Dynasty. His Sheetrock is no better than anybody else’s Sheetrock.”

You can watch the building’s sales video from a seat on a wine-dark velvet couch in the sales-office screening room. A black-and-red helicopter swims slo-mo past the United Nations, to the Miami Vice-like strains of synthesizers and tom-toms. The chopper lands at the East River. A limo pulls up. A bodyguard in Terminator shades opens the back door. Trump steps out.

For the next ten minutes, Trump chest-thumps about the high life as the camera pans around the ornate ceiling murals and raised marble tubs of his own rococo penthouse apartment. At one point, his chopper hovers in front of the U.N. as his gold slab of a building suddenly bursts, phallus-like, out of the concrete.

“People here are buying into Donald’s lifestyle,” says Elaine Diratz, Trump’s sales director. Fine-boned, intelligent, her diction crisp and refined, she could pass for a Junior Leaguer from Scarsdale. She wears brown pants with loafers, a loose white silk shirt, and a gold belt with a lion’s head. “It’s a party, top of New York, the best of the best,” she con­tinues. “It’s Donald’s personality. Rich. Very rich. Famous. Playboy.”

Trump’s style appeals more to visitors—European monarchs, Arab princes, Asian venture capitalists— than to the home team. Those who want in include an Italian ambassador, a senator from the Philip­pines, and the American-educated Turkish telecom mogul Cem Uzan, who was so intrigued by the fracas about the tower’s size that one day he strolled over from his palatial spread around the comer. Breezing through Diratz’s front door, he simply asked to buy the top two floors, which at the time were valued at a combined figure of $38 million.

Trump didn’t want to sell just then, perhaps because he was hoping for a bigger name (which would enable him to jack up the prices on the remaining stock). But Uzan “pushed Donald to do it,” says one insider, who notes that the market value on those floors is now as high as $60 million. “It was a lot of money at the time. But then, you never know where the market is going. This was the highest price ever paid at that time for any apart­ment in New York City. It still is.”

It was the sale heard round the world, and it pro­voked a Pavlovian response in deep-pocketed moguls who worship at the altar of the extrava­gant. Among them: Tung Chee-hwa, chief execu­tive of Hong Kong, who cobbled a $12 million duplex out of floors 77 and 78, and Jim Cannavino, former senior vice president of strategy at IBM and current CyberSafe CEO, who grabbed two apart­ments on the 73rd floor for about $14 million. Marty Richards, the high-living Broadway pro­ducer, also signed on the dotted line, shelling out $6 million for a brace of apartments on 76.

Bill Gates wandered through the sales office, too. One broker reports that the Microsoft mogul was interested in merging two apartments on the 87th floor for $20 million. Gates’s spokesman refused to comment. Trump has coyly refused to deny the rumors. Meanwhile, a source very close to Gates insists there was no sale: “He’s heard this now for quite a while,” says the source, adding, “It’s not true.”

If there’s one thing Trump understands as well as the art of the deal, it’s the art of the hype. He’s been known to exaggerate the interest of celebri­ties in his properties. In 1994, he claimed that National Enquirer perennials Prince Charles, Steven Spielberg, and Elizabeth Taylor had joined his exclusive Mar-a-Lago country club, a $50,000-membership playground-by-the-sea in Palm Beach. After star flacks and even Buckingham Palace claimed the memberships were unsolicited, Trump backpedaled: “I have always tried to be clear that these were honorary memberships.”

“Who knows if Gates is moving in there?” says one broker. “You can reserve something with no money down and never move in.”

Trump’s latest tower cost $400 million to build and stands to rake in $513 million in sales, but bro­kers complain that Trump skimps on his finishes— “the crappiest I’ve ever seen put into a building,” says one. “And I’ve sold a ton of apartments there. The cabinets are laminate. The marble is rein­forced”—backed with fiberglass and epoxy. “Even the contractors are laughing.”

Experts who sell the types of marble Trump uses in his buildings explain that they’re among the least expensive on the market, so soft they require the reinforcement. “They’re pretty, and they’re good for some things,” says Leon Zanger, president of Walker & Zanger in Mount Vernon, New York. “But they’re not good for high-traffic areas. In the long run, they’ll crack.”

In fairness to Trump, developers of high-end buildings sometimes hold back on the finishes, since customers are often such compulsive decora­tors that whatever is installed is likely to be ripped out anyway. But in any case, Trump insists that the rose-tinted Breccia Oniciatta marble in his bath­rooms and the dark brown Emperador in his powder rooms and the General Electric Monogram ovens and microwaves in his kitchens are “great stuff. Top of the line. “He’s visibly nettled when he hears that one broker complained that the views below the top 50 floors “are going to blow.”

We’re standing on the 86th floor of his building, in a raw space of exposed concrete and copper pipes, welding torches flaring in our peripheral vision. To the south is the most magnificent view of Manhattan I’ve ever seen outside an airplane. “I’ll tell you straight out,” Trump says. “In many cases, the views from the 40th floor are as good as the views from the 90th. I happen to like the view of the United Nations. There’s nothing wrong with looking at the United Nations.”

As if to illustrate the point, Trump leads our entourage to the sixth floor, where he’s scheduled to inspect two apartments. (Of course, it’s really the third floor; there are 90 elevator buttons, but 19 are fakes.) True enough, one has a picture-postcard view of the U.N. The other overlooks one of Trump’s drive­ways and the roof of neighboring building. Both are two-bedrooms, and both cost more than $1 million.

In the bathroom of one apartment, Trump is kicking the lip of some Breccia Oniciatta tiles that have been crookedly laid. “Tell our friend,” he says, turning to the site manager, “that I don’t like his setters. Do you understand?” The hard hat nods, and Trump leads our group to a hallway powder room (and some already chipped—and therefore, unsat­isfactory—marble), telling me along the way, “The details are the whole look. People buy in my build­ings because when they get in my buildings, it’s perfect. That’s what it’s all about.”

When word finally leaked out in mid-summer that Calvin Klein was buying into the Meier project, it triggered a meteor shower of celebrities in Meier’s makeshift sales office.

Among the would-be buyers who passed through were Donald Sutherland, Courtney Love, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mike Diamond from the Beastie Boys, one of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Claudia Schiffer’s decorator (her broker offered to buy a floor, sight unseen, over the phone, only to have Schiffer bail after the presentation). A pair of news anchors also swung by.

“Celebrities make their money quickly,” says one top broker who’s shuffled a number of them around town. “They have no taste. They only know what somebody tells them. That’s why if one goes, they all jump on the bandwagon.” For non-stars, says the broker, heavyweight tenants like Klein “validate their tastes and let them know it’s the correct thing to do.”

Other developers have tried to use Klein to jump-start entire projects. “Two developers showed me buildings in TriBeCa and the meat market,” he recalls. “They said, ‘If you commit to taking the top floor, we’ll develop it.'” In one case, Klein didn’t like the space. In the other, the devel­oper failed to gain approval to convert the building from rentals to condominiums.

At the Perry Street site, an insider says, Klein agreed to buy the top two floors of the South Building for $8 million. But by the time the state attorney general approved the offering plan last September, market conditions had pushed the space’s value to $12 million. The partners sportingly gave Klein the floors at the original price. However, when he decided he’d like a third to create a dra­matic triplex, they asked him to pay the full $6 mil­lion market value. Total cost: $14 million. Klein also wants Meier to design the inside of his apartment, potentially adding another $9 million to his budget.

Five of the seven partners in the deal also intended to move in themselves, and so a game of musical floors ensued. Meier took the twelfth floor, just below Klein. Phil Suarez, who is Vongerichten’s partner in several of his restaurants (and an old friend of Meier’s), snatched the eleventh floor. Von-gerichten would get out on the tenth floor. Two other partners ended up with three high floors in the North Building. Each will buy at a below-market rate of roughly $1,000 per square foot. That means their apartments will cost, on average, $1 million less than they might cost an outsider on the open market, giving them a built-in six-figure profit potential.

It had all been rather bloodless. That is, until the weekend of September 15. Meier flew to Aspen, Col­orado, to attend investment guru Teddy Forst-mann’s annual think-tank conference and mix it up with the likes of Michael Eisner, Barry Diller, Steve Case, Oprah Winfrey, and John McCain. There he ran into Bill Joy, the multimillionaire co-founder of Sun Microsystems. Joy said he was looking for a pied a terre in the city, and Meier’s South Building sounded just right for a duplex penthouse. But those were Klein’s floors. Not wanting to settle for the smaller North Building, Joy tried to cut a deal.

“The fact is, Bill Joy offered $ 19 million,” says one Perry Street insider. “There was no obligation to sell to Calvin because there was no contract. But the price had been agreed on. And people like Calvin, who had been with the project early on, gave every­body the confidence to go ahead and build.”

The question, then, was how not to lose Joy, an eager buyer whose boldface name who would add value to the building. The answer lay in Von­gerichten’s tenth floor, which the chef was plan­ning to turn into a home for his wife and new daughter, and in the ninth, which was still avail­able. If Joy could buy both—the total asking price was $11 million—he’d be satisfied.

Vongerichten, knowing what was best for him­self and for the project, turned around and sold the tenth floor to Joy for a $1 million profit, moving down to the seventh floor. “It was an incredible deal, and everybody hates me now,” he says. “But it was in the best interest of everybody. I’ll tell you something—I want to do more real-estate deals!”

In the first week of December, rumors spread like kudzu through the real-estate commu­nity that Calvin Klein had backed out of Perry Street. One of the project’s partners even told me it was true. But when I called Klein, he said it was “all lies.” He told me that he and Meier are busy working on the layout of his triplex, which will include a two-story-high wall of glass, a screening room, and possibly an outdoor Jacuzzi on one of the balconies. “I’m still trying to figure out how I want to live,” says Klein, who admits that he once tore out the walls of an Upper West Side apartment and instructed his designer to erect “stage walls” so he could see whether he liked the newly planned layout.

So long as one celebrity believes, then the buyers will, too. That same week, Klein got a call from one of his future neighbors, a homemaker by trade, who had just bought the North Building duplex penthouse for a tad more than $6 million. “Yes, Martha Stewart called me,” he sa