$27 Million Won’t Do! In 1999, Sellers Realize No Price Is Too High

All spring, billionaire Israel (Izzy) Asper, 67, was hopping planes between Manhattan and Winnipeg, Canada, where his television empire is based, inspecting pied-à-terre . In March, he offered $7 million for a three-bedroom, 3,663-square-foot apartment on the 44th floor of Trump International Hotel & Tower at 1 Central Park West. He liked the place so much that when the seller came back with a counteroffer of $8.75 million, he raised his price by $1 million. But when the seller pulled out of the deal a month later–either because he couldn’t avoid the taxes or because he thought he could get an even higher price for the apartment, depending on whom you ask–Mr. Asper took him to court. In documents filed in State Supreme Court in May, Mr. Asper described the apartment as “special, unique and irreplaceable,” and added that he would be “irreparably damaged” if the $8 million deal fell through.

At the end of the millennium, the New York City real estate market is a seller’s playground, where making $3.3 million by flipping a condo in 18 months is not enough profit; where rival brokerages are adding $10 million to asking prices to get exclusive clients; and where a triplex apartment in a B-list Fifth Avenue building is priced at a fat $25 million.

“I think it’s a half-joke. I think it’s ridiculous,” said one high-end Upper East Side broker, whose brokerage firm had vied for the right to sell the triplex, a mansion atop 953 Fifth Avenue, for a paltry $16 million.

The job went to Brown Harris Stevens, the company which is now marketing the two most expensively priced properties in Manhattan: a triplex penthouse at 990 Fifth Avenue near 81st Street, which the company is valuing at $27 million; and the $25 million triplex at 953 Fifth Avenue, a small building near 77th Street with six duplexes, one triplex and one very well-known new tenant, John Kluge, the chairman of Metromedia International Group Inc..

Still, these prices pale in comparison to the stupendous, $37 million deal for the top two floors of the Trump World Tower, the widely criticized development under way on First Avenue at 47th Street. Until that contract was signed in September, the most expensive apartment ever sold in Manhattan was that of Lady Mary Fairfax, an Australian newspaper heiress, who offloaded her triplex in the Pierre Hotel for $21.5 million to securities executive Martin Zweig early this year.

“There’s almost no limit–it’s just a ‘pick a number out of a hat’ type of thing,” said Michele Kleier, president of the real estate brokerage and management firm Gumley Haft Kleier Inc. “I think truthfully that in this market, if you have a terrace and you have a view of Fifth [Avenue], there is no number that you could put on your apartment that is impossible to obtain.”

Take the sale of the penthouse apartment at 838 Fifth Avenue to Charles Bronfman for $18 million. “That’s 5,343 square feet,” said Brown Harris Stevens co-chairman Arthur Zeckendorf. “That’s $3,368 a square foot.… $3,000 a square foot is becoming the norm for a high-end apartment. It happened at 838 [Fifth], it’s happening at 515 [Park], it’s happening at other high-end Fifth Avenue apartments.”

In this market, Mr. Asper made his would-be deal with a Hong Kong-based businessman named Elmer Yuen, who had bought Unit 44A at 1 Central Park West for $4.7 million in December 1997, shortly after the building opened. Real estate sources said the owner, who bought his apartment under a corporate entity known as Safari Development Company Ltd., an offshore venture based in the Bahamas, put the apartment back on the market almost immediately and used it only occasionally.

For the next year and a half, the apartment’s price rose and fell, eventually settling at $7 million last spring. Mr. Asper, executive chairman of Canwest Global Communications Corporation, the largest private broadcasting company in Canada with 54 million customers worldwide, toured the apartment in March. “This guy [fell] in love with Trump International,” said one broker.

The two men made a “gentleman’s agreement,” said another broker, for $7 million that month. A month later, Mr. Yuen jacked up his asking price to $8.75 million, forcing Mr. Asper to renegotiate the deal, this time to $8 million.

In a letter dated May 5, Richard Eng, the attorney representing Safari on the deal, outlined the details of the transaction to Mr. Asper’s real estate lawyer, Steven Goldman. “This is to confirm our understanding that we have agreed to sell our apartment to you for an all cash purchase price of $8 million,” reads the letter, which is signed by the buyer and the seller. “The closing under the contract will be scheduled tentatively for June 8, 1999.”

Eleven days later, Mr. Asper received a handwritten note from Mr. Yuen, which was faxed to his office in Winnipeg. “I regret to inform you that I am having problems delivering the above property that you are interested to purchase,” it says. “I need to work with some tax consultants to straighten things out.”

Another May 16 letter from Mr. Eng to Mr. Goldman claimed that Safari had put the brakes on Mr. Asper’s deal because the corporation–otherwise known as Elmer Yuen–had been “unable to complete a specific like-kind exchange,” or buy a similar piece of property to replace Unit 44A, thereby deferring income tax on the sale.

Less than a week later, on May 21, Mr. Asper filed suit against Safari at State Supreme Court in Manhattan, demanding that the seller follow through and “specifically perform” its agreement–to sell unit 44A for $8 million–and that Safari pay Mr. Asper damages and expenses.

On Sept. 15, a similar suit was filed in State Supreme Court by the brokerage firms affected by the deal: Brown Harris Stevens, which had been promised 5 percent of the apartment’s sales price when broker Elizabeth Sample, who was representing Safari, finalized a purchase deal; Stribling & Associates Ltd., whose broker Kirk Henckels had been shuttling Mr. Asper around town; and the Trump Corporation, which was acting as a co-broker with Stribling.

According to sources, just as the deal with Mr. Asper was being struck, Mr. Yuen was bidding on another International Hotel & Tower apartment, Unit 48A, with 4,400 square feet, better views and an asking price of $8 million. The apartment is being occupied by Johnson & Johnson heiress Elizabeth (Libbett) Johnson, who is renting 48A while her apartment on a higher floor is being renovated. But, brokers said, Mr. Yuen found himself outbid by a large margin–to a buyer who spent $10 million.

“He watched the price upstairs just go up and then got greedy,” said a source familiar with the broken deal. “There were two issues here: One, he was trying to get out of the capital gains; and two, he needed another place to go.”

According to several sources familiar with the lawsuit, the parties are close to a settlement. Meanwhile, Mr. Asper is flirting heavily with News Corporation chairman Rupert Murdoch’s midtown apartment, a penthouse co-op at 150 Central Park South between Sixth and Seventh avenues, which Mr. Murdoch shared with his first wife, Anna Murdoch. A source familiar with Mr. Asper’s plans said that Mr. Murdoch, who has been asking $5.5 million for the apartment since it went on the market in May, had accepted an offer of $5.2 million; a contract should be signed in the immediate future. Mr. Asper did not return several calls for comment.

As one broker put it, “Everything else looks like a bargain next to $25 million.”

Upper East Side

MILKEN PROTÉGÉ SEIZES ROCKEFELLER HOME FOR $16 MILLION. After a much-ballyhooed six weeks on the market, the former home of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller at 810 Fifth Avenue has been spoken for, according to real estate sources. On Friday, Nov. 12, Gary Winnick–who once held a spot at the X-shaped trading desk of Michael Milken at Drexel Burnham Lambert and now runs a formidable cable business in Los Angeles–signed a deal to purchase the duplex apartment for $16 million.

Mr. Winnick, the 51-year-old father of three, spends most of his time on the East Coast, where he is the co-chairman of Global Crossing Ltd., a telecommunications firm that provides long-distance telephone service to some 2 million customers worldwide. A former junk-bond trader, Mr. Winnick left Drexel in 1985 to start Pacific Asset Holdings, then a fledgling member of the fiber-optic cable industry. This year, Forbes magazine has estimated his worth at $3.2 billion.

His deal on the Rockefeller apartment was the result of some not-so-expert negotiations, sources said, since the $19.5 million has been classified by the real estate community as a definite fixer-upper. Mr. Winnick had been looking for a Manhattan property since summer–for “something great, like a big penthouse,” said a broker. The communications magnate owns a small apartment in the Sherry-Netherland Hotel, located on Fifth Avenue between 59th and 60th streets, which was recently featured in a glossy spread in Architectural Digest due to its celebrity designer, architect Charles Gwathmey.

Reached by his assistant while on board a plane, Mr. Winnick said that The Observer had uncovered “bad information.” However, due to a spotty connection, he was unable to comment further.

Upper West Side

130 West 67th Street

Two-bed, two-bath, 1,200-square-foot co-op.

Asking: $599,000. Selling: $575,000.

Charges: $1,722. 54 percent tax-deductible.

Time on the market: three weeks.

WNEW DEEJAY BUYS SIX ‘SEXY’ ROOMS. Nearly 20 years ago, as a single college student at New York University, a woman moved into a one-bedroom, eighth-floor rental apartment in this luxury building, built in 1978 and converted to co-op four years later. After graduation, she decided to buy her apartment; as an insider, she got it for around $30,000. The building, located between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, offers a roof deck, renovated lobby, laundry room and a full-time doorman. After she got a husband and a baby, she bought the place next door and combined the two to create one sumptuous apartment–the kind real estate types call “sexy.” It has five closets, a pantry and a 9-by-6-foot storage room with a sink. The place is equipped with a fax line, Hunter Douglas window treatments, custom lighting, a renovated kitchen, new doors and new bathrooms. Now she’s sold the hot apartment (at a handsome profit, thank you) in favor of a prewar, six-room apartment also on the Upper West Side. The buyer is WNEW deejay Leslie Gold, edgy host of the weekday “Radio Chick” show, who just four years ago still owned a window manufacturing company in New England. Broker: Corcoran Group (Jim Gricar).

GRAMERCY

40 Gramercy Park North

Five-story town house.

Asking: $3.75 million. Selling: $3.375 million.

Time on the market: 6.5 months.

GOD’S WILL: $3.375 MILLION. A Missouri-based Lutheran church used to own this Gramercy Park brownstone, built in 1845. Housed in two of its five stories was a reverend, while the other floors were used for seminars and other activities. Was it voices from above that instructed them to move uptown? Only divine intervention could cause anyone to abandon 6,500 square feet in a building 21 feet wide and 100 feet deep. The building boasts a stoop, an English basement with a private street entrance, and–so thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s stuff–a key to the park. Currently structured as two duplexes, a one-bedroom apartment and another full-floor apartment, the house has soaring ceilings (15 feet and 23 feet high), French windows, central air-conditioning, large skylights and, um, eight fireplaces. There’s a stairway reaching skyward (to the roof); a library with a wet bar, a laundry room and front and rear gardens. The house was originally on the market for $4.5 million, but sat unsold; a month after the price was lowered to $3.75 million, they were blessed with a buyer: a banker and his family who are selling their co-op loft, also in Gramercy, because they wanted a “real” house. They plan a gut renovation and will stay in their former home while the construction goes on. Hallelujah! Broker: Douglas Elliman (Julia Ross); DGS Realty (Diana Gordon).

SoHo

77 Mercer Street

Two-bed, 2.5-bed, 1,935-square-foot condo.

Asking: $1.25 million. Selling: $1.175 million.

Charges: $523. Taxes: $625.

Time on the market: eight weeks.

ONE OF THOSE DON’T-HOLD-YOUR-BREATH CONDOS. If you had a few million dollars, maybe you could live in this renovated late-19th-century cast-iron building, home to various art-world types. But there has been only one apartment sold there in 10 years, so don’t hold your breath. Ever since the building was converted to condos more than a decade ago, most of the original owners have stayed put. The former owners of this third-floor apartment–an international art dealer and his wife–yearned for even more space, if you can believe it, so they finally sold their loft and moved to the Upper West Side. Their apartment, entered directly from the keyed, wood-paneled elevator, has 13-foot-high ceilings, Corinthian columns, a gigantic kitchen, oversize windows, a wood-burning fireplace, central air-conditioning and a master bathroom big enough for you to swing-dance in. Or you could simply loll around luxuriously in the large tub, admire the separate shower stall, then admire yourself over the double vanity sink. The sellers transformed a corner of the living room into an “office” for one of their young daughters and directly overhead built a sleeping loft. There are black-and-white marble floors in the kitchen, maple wood in the living room and slate in the foyer. The bedrooms are carpeted. The buyers were renting a place just down the street; they came to see this place, mulled it over on their vacation, then returned to promptly snap it up. Broker: Douglas Elliman (Robert Morrison, Abigail Agranat).

Boerum Hill

153 Bergen Street

Three-story, two-family town house.

Asking: $825,000. Selling: $800,000.

Time on the market: eight months.

WORK DRAGS BROOKLYN MAN OUT OF HOME WHERE HE WAS CONCEIVED. In January, when this 19th-century town house showed up on the market–all 3,200 square feet of it–the price seemed a bit high for Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. Sure enough, though there was a bidding war within the first week, the buyers walked away. Fortunately, by summer a couple of TriBeCa escapees with two sons showed up and purchased the beautifully restored brownstone with four bedrooms, three-and-a-half bathrooms and a rental apartment for $25,000 below the asking price. There’s a new roof, heating system, plumbing and windows, refinished wide-plank pine floors, and five decorative fireplaces (which the buyers may reopen). In the words of broker Steven Gerber, “Unless you didn’t like what they [the sellers] had done to it, there was nothing to do to it.” This house had been in the seller’s family for 50 years; in fact, he and his wife had known each other since childhood and were even raised on the same block. The couple and their three children have moved to Virginia. Broker: Corcoran’s Brooklyn Landmark (Steven Gerber); Harbor View Realty (Kari Zalesak).

Clarification

In the Nov. 1 issue, Richard Steinberg, a broker with Ashforth Warburg, was not listed as a party in the sale of a condominium at 4 East 62nd Street, the Curzon House. Mr. Steinberg represented the seller in the deal.