The 1999 Building Room: Will Manhattan Change Into Tacky Condo Town?

In Wall Street , Oliver Stone’s smarmy take on 1980’s-era greed, there’s a scene in which his hapless protagonist, a stockbroker named Bud Fox, buys one hell of an ugly apartment. Thanks to the investments of his big-time client, Gordon Gekko, he’s come into a lot of money. And he blows it on an enormous penthouse that his leggy art-dealer girfriend decorates with trendy paintings, textile checkerboard motifs and faux cracks for the walls.

Wall Street was released in 1987, but its depiction of Mr. Fox’s foray into the Manhattan real estate jungle is hardly dated. Twelve years later, it seems, a luxurious apartment is once again the ultimate object of desire for the moneyed class.

Naturally, developers are happily scrambling to satisfy such lusts. Last year, the New York City Department of Buildings issued a permits for 147 new construction projects, the most it has granted since 1989, the twilight of the Gordon Gekko era. Roughly 80 percent of them were for apartment houses or condominiums. Between the new residential towers going up and the conversion of aging office buildings into upscale dwellings in neighborhoods like TriBeCa and the financial district, at least 12,000 new apartments will be added to the market by 2001, a good portion of them luxury units.

Among the developers in this stampede are such stalwarts as Stephen Ross, Leonard Litwin, the brothers Zeckendorf, Harry Macklowe, Daniel Brodsky and the Resnick clan. Their architects include such luminaries as Michael Graves, Philip Johnson and Robert A.M. Stern.

As Wall Street continues to ride high, banks with deep pockets are supplying them with the dollars for new construction en masse. The goal: quickly built, high-end condos and rental apartments. And judging from the going prices-in one Upper East Side development, from $1.55 million to $6 million for a unit near the 77th Street subway stop, they’re not cheap.

“There are two triangles on the Upper East Side,” said Tom Wolfe, author of From Bauhaus to Our House . “The so-called golden triangle from 57th-speaking in rough terms-to 96 and Fifth. Most of the so-called old buildings, old co-op buildings, and the desirable town houses, are in that triangle. And the other’s just known as the other triangle. And that seems to be where most of the development you’re talking about is.”

Of course, it remains to be seen if there is actually demand for all this new shelter, much of which is fabulously expensive. In the late 1980’s, the bottom fell out of the real estate market, prices plummeted and a lot of bullish developers ended up humbled in bankruptcy court. Not coincidentally, it was also the last time the city granted such a high number of buildling permits.

“There are so many projects coming on line at once that we are finally going to see how strong the top end of the Manhattan real estate market really is,” said Peter Hauspurg, president of Eastern Consolidated Properties Inc., a real estate investment bank that assembled the land for a number of these new projects. “That’s what the whole industry is wondering. There’s just so much product. That, combined with a solid correction on Wall Street, could bring us the downward pressure [on prices that] we saw in 1990 and 1991.”

Still, Mr. Wolfe’s observation gets to the heart of the matter: that while the stodgy, 1950’s-generation elite remain ensconced in the prewar co-ops and graceful town houses of the island’s uptown neighborhoods, a young class of nouveau riche urbanites is infiltrating what was previously the periphery of civilized Manhattan: the still-empty lots on First and Third avenues; the heretofore barren waterfront in the West 60’s.

The recent double turndown of Mike Nichols and Diane Sawyer-by all accounts a power couple that is actually beloved by New Yorkers-by the co-op board of 55 Central Park West speaks volumes to the inflexibility of the old style of prestigious living. Whereas in today’s condo market a cool million dollars will buy you a two-bedroom with incredible river views, for the denizens of 55 Central Park West-who requested an extra $1 million just to buy Mr. Nichols and Ms. Sawyer the rights to their own exterior terrace-not even money talks.

Meanwhile, the city is exploding with new settlers, both renters and buyers. “In terms of the market for all this new product, it’s really quite broad,” said Louise Sunshine, who is seen by many as the doyenne of luxury-apartment marketing. “It includes families with young children, who are now choosing to stay in New York rather than moving to the suburbs. Then you have all of these young professional types, I’m talking from about 24 to 35. And they’re making tons of money,” she chuckled, “whether it be in the financial sector or other professional sectors like law, plastic surgery and cosmetic surgery. It sounds funny, but it’s true. And then we have this huge group of what I think of as empty nesters, which would be people in my age bracket, in their 50’s and 60’s, whose children have grown up, looking for highly serviced residences in the right locations.”

In the nether regions of Manhattan island, vacant lots are ever scarcer. David Wine, president of residential development at the Related Companies, which is erecting a luxury condo building called the Chatham on East 65th Street and Third Avenue, admitted as much. “It’s the last site on Third until you get into the Upper 70’s,” he said of the Chatham’s lot. For the new apartments, which are due for completion in late 1999, Related has hired Robert A.M. Stern, the dean of Yale University’s School of Architecture. Apartments in the Chatham are expected to range from $600,000 for a one-bedroom to $6 million for a four-bedroom penthouse.

“The most notable change at the high end of the sales spectrum is a greater attention to luxury and detail than might have been true in the recent past,” said Mr. Stern, who counts Rockrose Development’s upcoming Battery Park City high-rise, TriBeCa Park, and a new Columbia University dormitory on West 113th Street among his current projects. “And there are a greater variety of design architects involved than there has been for a while. There will be more variety in the skyline, more individuality in the buildings.”

That a revered architecture guru like Mr. Stern is choosing now to make his residential debut in Manhattan signifies the importance of the new development drive. And there are other noted architects on the scene as well: Michael Graves has signed on to design the Impala building, and Philip Johnson designed 180 and 200 Riverside Boulevard, the first two buildings of Donald Trump’s West Side project, which will open imminently.

“The most notable change at the high end of the sales spectrum is a greater attention to luxury and detail than might have been true in the recent past,” said Mr. Stern, who counts Rockrose Development Corporation’s upcoming Battery Park City high-rise, TriBeCa Park, and a new Columbia University dormitory on West 113th Street among his current projects. “And there are a greater variety of design architects involved than there has been for a while. There will be more variety in the skyline, more individuality in the buildings.”

That a revered architectural guru like Mr. Stern is choosing now to make his residential debut in Manhattan signifies the importance of the new development drive.

By the middle of the year 2000, the Upper East Side alone will be host to at least 2,200 new apartments, spread out over half-block swaths of vacant land from the northeast corner of 94th Street and First Avenue-the site of a 208-unit rental building called the Chesapeake-to 515 Park Avenue, where Zeckendorfs are erecting a 43-story tower comprising full-floor, luxury condominium spaces for between $2 million and $12 million a pop.

“There has not been any new building since the mid-80’s-especially a family building,” said Harold Fetner, whose family development company, Sidney Fetner Associates, teamed up with the Gotham Organization on two current projects: the Chesapeake, which is loaded with two-bedrooms for young twentysomethings who room together, and 90 East End Avenue, a 21-story luxury building designed for young-and with prices in the low millions per unit, rich-families. “Nineteen ninety-seven and 1998 are a great time to be building,” he said.

He expects the Chesapeake to compete nicely with Normandie Court, the 1,477-unit high-rise at 95th Street and Third Avenue that, due to its confluences of young professional types, is often referred to as “dormitory court.” And 90 East End Avenue, a red-brick tower just blocks from Gracie Mansion, is expected to score with the yuppie parents whose eyes are on admissions to the neighborhood’s elite schools like Chapin and Dalton.

Meanwhile, Trevor Davis, a South African developer, is placing centerfold ads for his eight new properties in The New York Times Magazine . Mr. Davis, a partner in the Park Avenue-based development firm RFR/Davis, started in 1996 with a 30-story rental building at 300 East 64th Street which, thanks to its wiring capabilities, he dubbed as “technically the best address,” seems to have achieved a lock on a passel of previously unclaimed lots on the Upper East Side and Murray Hill.

In a recent interview, Mr. Davis justified his focus on the East Side. “It’s more of a business philosophy,” he said, dragging on a cigarette. “In this industry, it’s good to be a player-a producer of product. We made a decision to specialize and become a dominate player in a particular marketplace-which are very defined in New York. The specialty services in the area, from a quality point of view, are some of the best in the word. And that really defines your end-leaser. We are very comfortable with the Upper East Side market, [which] in real estate downturns has weathered the storm much better than other neighborhoods.”

Mr. Davis’ buildings are rental, condominium, and even hotel facilities. All are high-rises, and a handful-such as a 425 Fifth Avenue, which is being designed by Robert Stern and the Impala on 76th Street and First Avenue, on which Michael Graves consulted-have relied on architectural luminaries for their execution. Co-ops, said Mr. Davis, are a thing of the past. “Co-ops are discriminatory,” he said, “[they're] very inflexible.”

Closer to the tony regions near Central Park are another handful of current projects: Harry Macklowe’s $1.5 to $6 million luxury condominium building at the northeast corner of 76th Street and Lexington Avenue, British-based Chelsfield of London L.L.C.’s redevelopment of the Westbury Hotel, which will become a 48-unit condo building, at the northwest corner of Madison Avenue and 69th Street, and the Zeckendorf building on the southeast portion of Park Avenue and 60th Street.

Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic for The New Yorker , described the new Zeckendorf building is “a very self-conscious attempt to try and produce an old style building”-suggesting that the specters of the classic Park and Fifth avenue residences still loom large. “It’s not an accident that the most alluring word any real estate broker can still say when selling a New York apartment is the phrase ‘prewar.'”

With the exception of a few scattered buildings in the high 80’s and 90’s, the Upper West Side-home to some of the most gracious residences of the twentieth century’s early decades-has remained largely unmarked by new construction. The neighborhood’s most obvious additions are the two grand-scale projects planned for the waterfront in the 60’s: Riverside Boulevard at Trump Place, a four-building condominium plan east of the West Side Highway, and a Tishman-Speyer rental project at 101 West End Avenue. Taken in sum, the two developments will produce nearly 1,000 new apartments by the middle of 2000.

As usual, the Donald Trump plan has been a high-profile one, and not just because of the developer’s personality.

“It’s an outrageous building to be going up on the edge of the waterfront, because it’s so big,” said Elizabeth Hawes, a writer on architecture and urban culture who has studied New York’s old-time apartments. “But I’ve actually gotten used to it in profile.”

“I do not object to it,” agreed Mr. Stern. “There never was any kind of articulated commitment to the people that lived in the buildings behind [Mr. Trump's] that they were on the waterfront. That was an assumption they made. And I think the plan is a wonderful plan.”

Philip Johnson, who designed the exteriors both of the Riverside Boulevard development and at Trump International Hotel & Tower, was less than pleased with the outcome of the West side condominiums. “I don’t admit doing them,” he said of the buildings’ facades. Mr. Johnson believes that Mr. Trump, whom he described as a former friend, “sold out” to the interests of Asian investors, who were concerned about the bottom line. “He didn’t have any money, you know, so he sold out to the Chinese from Hong Kong, and they said, ‘This goes this high’ and ‘That goes that high,’ and there’s no chance for architecture.”

Still, Mr. Johnson seemed nonplussed by the current proliferation of similar high-rise apartment structures. “Nothing’s been lost,” he said of the city’s residential architecture. “It never was any good. Architecture-that wasn’t a field we worked in. The tall building, yes.