Robinsons Make Pitch for 778 Park Co-op: $17.7 Million, No Brokers

More proof that even the rich scope for better apartments at parties.

In this case, ousted American Express chief executive James Robinson III and his wife Linda Robinson, the new vice chairman of Young & Rubicam Inc., cozied up to a social acquaintance of theirs, Clifton Robbins, with a quiet offer to buy his 17-room apartment at 778 Park Avenue in early May.

The Robinsons swooped in with their $17.7 million deal before the apartment could be put on the market, thus cutting out any brokers–and any other interested buyers–who might have been preying on owners in the top-tier building, where Brooke Astor, Vera Wang and Claudia Cohen live. Those same miffed brokers expect a contract to be signed immediately, for the Robinsons to sell their apartment at 550 Park Avenue and for Mr. Robbins, a partner of the Greenwich, Conn., private equity firm General Atlantic Partners, to move permanently to the home he already owns in Greenwich.

Mr. Robbins and the Robinsons would not comment, but on May 22 the accepted offer was logged into brokers’ computers.

The Robinsons are fans of the no-broker way of apartment shopping. They bought their current 10-room apartment–on the 17th floor of 550 Park Avenue–in a similar manner in December 1991, when it had a $2.9 million price tag. Before that, their approximately $6 million apartment at Museum Towers, 15 West 53rd Street, was purchased by American Express.

The tactic was new to Mr. Robbins, 42, who bought the 6,500-square-foot apartment with three fireplaces at 778 Park Avenue in 1996 for $5.5 million. In late 1999, he became the third partner to leave Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Company in its 23-year history, when he decided to jump to General Atlantic Partners to focus on technology investments. He was about to put the six-bedroom, nine-and-a-half-bath apartment on the market with Brown Harris Stevens’ Cathy Franklin, according to several brokers.

The Robinsons still have to pass the board’s muster. “They better have staggering numbers or else [they] won’t get in there,” said one broker about the 1931 building at the northwest corner of 73rd Street, which was designed by Rosario Candela for developer Charles Newmark. The last sale in the building was in May 1997, when socialite Gloria Gurney sold her duplex for $6 million in favor of the $4.2 million penthouse. In 1994, Ronald Perelman bought an apartment there for $8 million.

Another broker agreed: The board places a higher dependence on money in the bank than social status. “It’s a gorgeous building, but [has] a much easier board than other buildings.”

Maybe the Robinsons have more buying power since the missus’ public relations firm, Robinson Lerer & Montgomery, was swallowed by Young & Rubicam in early March. Robinson Lerer represents America Online, Bertlesmann, Oxygen Media, Pfizer and Texaco. Mr. Robinson, 64, is a managing partner at R.R.E. Ventures, a New York-based venture capital firm he helped found.

Though the Robinsons will likely go it alone in selling their apartment at 550 Park, they may want to walk across the hall and discuss matters with their neighbors, since the other top-floor apartment in the building went on the market on May 19 for $17 million, with Patricia Patterson of Sotheby’s International Realty.

UPPER EAST SIDE

COME ON ‘A CORCORAN’S HOUSE: REAL ESTATE BLONDE COUGHS UP $3.5 MILLION FOR CARNEGIE HILL CO-OP You’ve seen her, with her retro red power suit and blond buzz cut, tapping on a PowerBook to Rosemary Clooney’s “Come On ‘A My House” in those ubiquitous ads. Now, see her suffer the market she’s helped hype.

Barbara Corcoran, the 51-year-old chairwoman of the real estate firm bearing her name–which is, in turn, almost always printed right next to an image of her face–was approved by the co-op board of 1192 Park Avenue on May 19 in her purchase of a $3.5 million, three-bedroom co-op.

Even with a staff of 500 brokers, Ms. Corcoran is the portrait of a buyer: She said she’s paying “35 percent more” than she would have a year and a half ago, when she started looking for a new place for herself, her husband, Bill Higgins, and her 6 year old son, Tommy.

She blames it on that suit, that PowerBook and that ad with the catchy song. “Finding the time to look for apartments and making the mental space to move is another matter,” griped Ms. Corcoran, from her company’s Madison Avenue headquarters.

Then there’s the market, which had her tagging along with her own brokers, as well as the competition–including Jed Garfield of Leslie J. Garfield & Company and George van der Ploeg of Alice F. Mason Ltd. “Shelves are so bare that I, as a buyer, was in shock, along with all the other buyers in Manhattan, at how little there is to see.”

In the end, her connections came through. In January, an attorney and his wife decided to unofficially see how much they could get for the apartment at 1192 Park, also home to Corcoran broker Jody La Monte. Ms. La Monte immediately informed her boss, who quickly saw the apartment and made an offer before the apartment ever really went on the market. The offer was accepted the next day via cell phone, while Ms. Corcoran was riding around town in broker Sharon Baum’s Rolls-Royce. A contract was signed on Jan. 21.

The 2,700-square-foot apartment near 94th Streetis also near Tommy’s school, St. David’s, on 89th Street. It also has a 23-by-25-foot kitchen and a study. “I’ve never had a room of my own,” said Ms. Corcoran, one of 10 children who grew up in New Jersey sharing a bedroom with three siblings.

Before moving in June, Ms. Corcoran will renovate the bathrooms and knock down the walls between the living room and dining room. Her old apartment at 190 East 72nd Street should go for between $1.1 and $1.3 million. “I’ll put my apartment on the market as soon as I can get my husband to clean out the closets,” she said. What’s the hurry?

MANSION OF THE OPERA GUY: TOBIN RESIDENCE AT 711 PARK AVENUE SELLS FOR ALMOST $7 MILLION The estate of Robert L. Tobin, a member of the board of the Metropolitan Opera, whose flamboyant opera capes made him infamous on opening nights, sold his five-story townhouse at 711 Park Avenue for $7.2 million on May 15.

Mr. Tobin’s former home is one of only a handful of private addresses on Park Avenue. He used it as a pied à terre , until he died of cancer at age 66 on April 26. “He never lived there full time,” said broker Paula Del Nunzio of Brown Harris Stevens, who sold the house with Neil Gallagher of the same firm. “During opera season, he’d be there.”

He was also a board member of the Museum of Modern Art, and sources said that his home was filled with his eclectic private collection. “Each floor had stuff from another area of his interests,” said Ms. Del Nunzio.

Mr. Tobin resided in San Antonio, where he was chairman of the board of his family’s company, Tobin Surveys Inc., the largest map maker to the oil industry, until the company was bought by private investors on Feb. 28, 1998. Mr. Tobin had been working at the company since his father died in a plane crash when he was 19. He and his mother, Margaret Batts Tobin, purchased the house near 69th Street in 1963. Every floor has large bay windows overlooking Park Avenue, a winding central staircase, a master bedroom with floor-to-ceiling windows and a balcony overlooking the garden from the third floor.

The house went on the market for $14 million last March. The asking price was reduced to $11.5 million last July and again to $8.975 million in October. The buyer, an attorney who is married to an architect, was represented by Antony Sargent, a broker with Douglas Elliman, who would not comment on the deal

Mr. Tobin’s estate is also selling the adjacent 20-foot-wide townhouse at 709 Park Avenue–which he bought in 1972 for $410,000–for $4.9 million. It houses eight separate apartments, but brokers say two or three could be vacated immediately. According to sources, a contract has been drawn up with a purchaser, but it has not yet been signed.

1049 Fifth Avenue

Three-bed, three-bath, 2,150-square-foot condo.

Asking: $2.25 million. Selling: $2.15 million.

Charges: $2,050.50. Taxes: $1,628.

Time on the market: One week.

SOUTH AMERICAN ‘INDUSTRIALISTS’ BRING CUBISM TO RUSH LIMBAUGH’S CONDO BUILDING An independently wealthy South American couple in their early 50’s (their broker described them as “industrialists”) had been living in Palm Beach, until Florida started to bore them. They came to New York looking for the perfect cube: a square apartment for about $2 million, said their broker, Mercedes Schwartz of the Corcoran Group. The wife, a decorator, saw great things in this apartment, with bedrooms on opposite sides, a separate entertaining area and a square living room, in an 86th Street condo with a Fifth Avenue address purchased from the city. The couple put in an offer, but were outbid. They matched the new bid, but someone else went even higher. The South Americans were almost ready to give up. “I had to hold their hands and say you never know,” their broker said. A week after the bidding war, the other buyer backed out of the deal. The South Americans closed in April and will move in June. If things get too square, Rush Limbaugh, a neighbor, should fix that.

900 Fifth Avenue

Four-bed, five-bath, 4,000-square-foot co-op.

Asking: $6.8 million. Selling: $6 million.

Charges: $4,876; 30 percent tax deductible.

Time on the market: Seven months.

THE CASH MACHINE This very traditional apartment originally went on the market at the end of 1998, when the owner went into a nursing home. The people managing her affairs were not ready to sell the apartment just yet, so they planned to find a renter who might want eventually to buy it. Lorri Gorman, a broker at William B. May Real Estate, showed the apartment–with its large terrace overlooking Fifth Avenue off the living room, library and master bedroom–to a couple with two kids who wanted to do just that. But the co-op board wagged its finger at the idea and that was that. Not only does 900 Fifth Avenue have a no-renting policy, as one of the city’s “all-cash” buildings, it doesn’t take any financing from buyers. The apartment went off the market and so did the couple. In September, the apartment popped back up in Ms. Gorman’s computer listing of apartments for sale, with an asking price of $6.8 million. The same couple offered $6 million and the board nodded in approval. The suitcase of cash was produced and the deal closed in April.

UPPER WEST SIDE

190 Riverside Drive

Four-bed, four-bath, 3,553-square-foot condo.

Asking: $3.495 million. Selling: $3.495 million.

Charges: $2,169.44. Taxes: $1,036.97.

Time on the market: One day.

THE NEIGHBORS GOT MILLIONS! This 11-story building, circa 1908, was purchased in 1996 for $7 million by Property Markets Group, which converted the building from rental apartments to a condominium. Occupied apartments are being purchased by those tenants interested, and vacated apartments are being combined, wherever possible, into nine-room residences resembling those in the original design of the building’s architect, Ralph S. Townsend. Returning all of the apartments to their original configuration is “more of a dream than a plan,” said Elliott Joseph, asset manager for the building. As of now, five former renters have bought their one- or two-bedroom apartments, 34 rent-regulated tenants remain in the building and P.M.G. has managed to reconstruct and sell only three nine-room apartments. As with almost all new construction these days, P.M.G. found a buyer before they started to create this apartment out of three separate units. The sale closed on April 27. According to Iva Spitzer of Douglas Elliman, who is selling the larger units for P.M.G., the new owners are expecting–roughly–oak paneled rooms, plaster decorative ceilings, plus the remaining original sconces and original fixtures in the bathrooms.

322 West 87th Street

Four-story, 4,000-square-foot townhouse.

Asking: $1.85 million. Selling: $1.785 million.

Time on the market: Two months.

THE 4,000-SQUARE-FOOT ANSWER TO A 2,500-SQUARE-FOOT PROBLEM A married couple with three children under the age of 5 was looking for a seven-room apartment for about $1 million. But after two months, they threw in the towel and bought this brownstone instead. “Frankly, I was just walking home one day and I walked by a brownstone for sale,” said the new owner, a stocks analyst. He familiarized himself with the market and found two houses in his price range. This house was already configured so that he and his family and their live-in nanny can occupy the middle two floors and rent out the first and fourth floors. They’ve already found two tenants, each relocating to New York for business. On their two floors, they’re renovating the bathrooms and the kitchen and splitting one of the large bedrooms in two. They will move in July.

860 U.N. Plaza

Two-bed, two-bath, approximately 1,620-square-foot co-op.

Asking: $850,000. Selling: $800,000.

Charges: $1,703.44; 35 percent tax deductible.

Time on the market: 2 1/2 months.

CAUTION: DATED DECOR MAY BE HARMFUL TO YOUR WALLET This apartment, with views of the gardens at the United Nations and the East River–and soon Trump World Tower to the south–was just sold by the estate of Dr. Ernst Wynder who, in 1953, was one of the first people to link smoking to cancer. Four years later, the Surgeon General’s office issued its first warning that excessive smoking may cause lung cancer. And about 10 years after that, Dr. Wynder moved into this apartment right after the building went up. Dr. Wynder, who was also the founder and former president of the American Health Foundation, whose research is focused on the prevention of chronic diseases, died last July at the age of 77. His wife, Sandra, has moved to Greenwich Village, said Joanna Simon, a broker with Fox Residential Group who is representing Dr. Wynder’s estate. But the apartment was holding onto its past. “The decorating was very heavy and dramatic,” said one broker, trying to explain why many apartment shoppers were turned off by the place. “It wasn’t the furniture so much but the paneling they had installed. A number of people were interested, but they felt it would cost too much to redecorate.” Diane Dickenson, also of Fox Residential Group, who represented the buyers, agreed: “I’m sure it was great at the time, but it made the space seem much smaller and heavier then it really was.” The buyers were not deterred. They have stripped the paneling, redone the floors and painted the apartment in light shades.

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