Building Stories: Welcome Om! Miraval Condo Gives Recession the Spa Treatment

A couple of weekends ago, the 28th floor of 515 East 72nd Street turned into a shopping mall.

Corcoran Sunshine was trying something unorthodox. Miraval Living, the luxury spa-condo spawn of an Arizona-based resort company, is 40 percent full after being on the market for over two and a half years. So, the brokers brought in about a dozen boutique retailers with names like Haute Hippie and Flutter, to lure female condo hunters (a male-oriented event is in the works).

A flock of 30 smiling, well-groomed staffers—not including the labels’ reps—floated through offering drinks and taking coats. Upon entering, I was immediately paired with marketing director Jen Hall, who guided me through the bazaar.

“Instead of having a really flashy campaign, we’re bringing in something that’s very true and very reflective of what the building is,” said Ms. Hall, in a soothing spa-toned voice. We passed blown-up shots by Vanity Fair photographer Mark Seliger, depicting residents in scenes of peaceful repose, opposite a quotation from Proust: “The real voyage is not in seeking new landscapes but having new eyes.”

The three-day event had included a “friends and family” night, where current residents were invited to mingle and browse. The younger girls were particularly amused, according to another guide.

“They were so taken by the shiny headbands, and it was so wonderful,” said Sarah Winters, a bubbly rep with Dan Klores Communications. “It really is a community.”

We ran into Nancy Burger of Grace Group, which puts on the “pop-up” retail events. Ms. Hall was explaining how this dual-purpose experience gets prospective buyers more used to the idea of spending your money on an apartment. Ms. Berger interjected: “To spending your money period!”

 

THE 40-STORY MIRAVAL LIVING, built in 1985 as River Terrace, had always been slated for condos—economic conditions led owner Harry Macklowe to keep it as a rental. For two decades, it bumbled along as an average property with serviceable apartments at Upper East Side rents; owners association president Stewart Chassen estimates it had about one-third yearly turnover, with nearly all its 408 apartments occupied.

When C&K properties and Zamir Equities bought it for $365 million in 2005, all but nine of the tenants left—a lot fewer than the developers had expected. Those who stayed got a slight break on their purchase prices, and massive renovations on the rest of the building began.

One of those who stayed was Seymour Lieberman, a 92-year-old professor emeritus at Columbia who still maintains a lab at Roosevelt Hospital. He didn’t feel like moving when the building converted, but finds the construction noise “unbearable”—one family on his sparsely populated floor had moved out because of the noise that morning—and the amenities unimpressive.

“None of them appeal to me whatsoever. It’s gussying up the place,” he said over he phone from his one-bedroom apartment. “I enjoy my work, I’m living a good old age, except for this damn apartment.”

Ongoing construction, scheduled to finish up by the end of the summer, may be one reason sales have been sluggish. Then, of course, there’s the economy. But it’s still the only building of its kind in New York City, and the owners haven’t lowered prices significantly; they’re still around $1,455 per square foot, according to Streeteasy, which is only a hair above last year’s fourth-quarter average for the neighborhood.

Instead, management swapped out the brokering team—twice. In September 2007, they replaced the Marketing Directors with Prudential Douglas Elliman super-seller Dolly Lenz, and ousted her for Corcoran last November.

“Change is good. It spurs interest, it spurs demand,” explained project manager Jim Sheehan. On the difference between Corcoran and its predecessors: “I think that they’re reaching out to the entire brokerage community. And not just within their own firm.” (Ms. Lenz and the Marketing Directors could not be reached for comment.)

The new team hasn’t been massively more successful. Since taking over, 19 units have been sold, compared to about 75 each for Ms. Lenz and the Marketing Directors.

Elliman broker Max Dobens, who is on the team of Lenz rival Jackie Teplitzky, thinks the spa-condo concept is just off-base. “You don’t relax when you leave a screaming 2-year old on the 24th floor to go down to a spa on the fourth floor. The brain doesn’t work that way,” he said. “Part of becoming relaxed is leaving the energy of New York, and I don’t think that it’s a flick-of-a-light-switch event.”

 

HOW DO YOU MARKET OVER-THE-TOP luxury in modest times such as these? The new strategy, Corcoran says, isn’t about luxury at all: It’s about “healthful living,” an in-house vacation, every day of the week.

“The previous firms pretty much only marketed on the Miraval Spa. It was all about the spa, and it wasn’t that much about the real estate,” said senior managing director James Lansill. The building is attracting people moving back from the suburbs; brokers advertise the units as replacing the need for a second home. “This building happens to suit that highly revised way that people are pursuing things.”

Back at the weekend open house, Ms. Hall and I had descended from the show floor to tour the gleaming new facilities. There’s the largest private park in New York City. The fully equipped fitness center, with leather-seated machines. There’s the cafe, where you can get a smoothie on your way to work, catch a cab and pick up dinner on the way back.

“This is what makes me truly covet the building as well,” Ms. Hall smiled, taking us to a serene Olympic-size pool, and the expensively tiled women’s locker room, outfitted with Miraval bath products. Miraval advisers are available to tailor your health regimen. Art classes will be held for your kids.

So the point is that people never really have to leave?

“Yes,” she affirmed. “People are so busy now.”