“Everybody said I was crazy,” said Young Woo, 56, the developer in contract to buy AIG’s two Lower Manhattan skyscrapers. “But I said no, New York has a lot of originality, and we have to create.”
He had just presented an animated video about the SkyGarage. In the video, an elevator carries a car up to a personal garage adjacent to the driver’s condo. Mr. Woo’s architectural partners said that it would be impossible, according to Margarette Lee, his business partner at Youngwoo & Associates, the development firm housed on the fourth floor of 435 Hudson Street. But now the condo at 200 11th Avenue, which incorporates the SkyGarage, is nearing completion and will be the first of its kind in the U.S.
Douglas Elliman’s Leonard Steinberg, the broker helping market those condos, said Mr. Woo bought “the only site in Manhattan that could accommodate this building”: four continuous sites with existing curb cutouts.
But that’s nothing. Mr. Woo has just taken his largest leap of faith yet. Earlier this month, he entered into a contract to purchase AIG’s two downtown towers, 70 Pine Street and 72 Wall Street, for approximately $140 million—a mere $100 per square foot. If closed, it will nevertheless be downtown’s biggest real estate deal of 2009 and a true price benchmark in a year sorely craving one.
Youngwoo & Associates has significantly remodeled almost all the buildings it has ever handled, according to Mr. Woo and Greg Carney, the firm’s third principal. The AIG towers—early 20th-century testaments to Art Deco—promise to be no exception.
“We want to make some very interesting project out of it,” Mr. Woo said during an hour-long interview at his offices on June 12. “How do you make this project successful and make it part of some continuation of what we do?”
Excellent question. Mr. Woo did not want to go into any details, referring The Observer to Mr. Carney for more questions. Mr. Carney declined to comment on any specifics about their plans or funding (it remains unclear how much the Korean-based bank, Kumho Investment, which partnered on the contract, will chip in).
Real estate experts said that remodeling the towers—whether for retail, residential, hotel or redesigned commercial space—is risky.
“The economic opportunity to convert anything to luxury condos has passed,” said Jonathan Miller, CEO of Miller Samuel and author of popular housing market reports for Douglas Elliman. “New development in general is experiencing a very weak environment right now because of the recession, because of the credit contraction, and because developers haven’t been able to adapt to the new market.”
But colleagues said that if any developer can adapt to a new market, it’s Young Woo.
“[Buying the AIG towers] is brilliant. It’s not good or great—it’s simply brilliant,” Mr. Steinberg said. “He probably went to buy this building when everyone else was scared frozen. And he has the foresight, I think, to think ahead of the pack and do things differently and time his entry and purchase smartly.”
During the interview, Mr. Woo spoke carefully. English is his third language; he didn’t start learning it until he moved to the U.S. at age 19. (“I have to ask around when I email,” he said, laughing. “I just want to make sure I’m writing correctly.”)
He wore a white dress shirt with a pattern of blue circles resembling balloons; a black belt with his cell phone attached; and dark blue jeans. His gray-black hair was carefully gelled. Outside the conference room, a lamp from Central Park and a rusted oxygen machine from Argentina were standing on either side of the glass door, and an Argentinean cowbell was affixed to the door’s handle. A large, white box with the Fruit RollUp logo stood in another corner of the company’s office.
Folding his hands together on the conference room’s table, Mr. Woo began to tell his story.
THE YOUNGEST OF THREE children, Young S. Woo was born on April 23, 1953, during the denouement of the Korean War, in Seoul. As a boy, he dreamed of becoming a pilot. “I didn’t know what flying was. I just thought flying freely around was a cool idea. Just being up there, you can go anywhere kind of thing.”
His family moved to Paraguay when he was 12. “My father always wanted to come to America, but it was so difficult to come here,” Mr. Woo said. “So, my father said, ‘Let’s go to South America first. Maybe someday we can go to North America.’”
After spending seven months in Paraguay, they picked up and moved to the state of Santa Fe in Argentina, where Mr. Woo recalls helping gauchos, riding horses and milking cows. One of few Asians in the area, he had to learn to speak Spanish while attending an all-Spanish school. After spending a year in the countryside, his family moved down to Buenos Aires, where they lived for five years.
There, at 16, Mr. Woo started his first business: a small sweater-knitting factory. There were six men in all, and they would compete among themselves to see who could make the most sweaters.
Then, his father’s wish finally came true. The family moved to Manhattan in 1972, when Mr. Woo was 19. Mr. Woo first worked at a kosher butcher shop in Manhattan, and then drove cabs. From there, he went on to found several different businesses, but declined to comment on what they were.
Three years after arriving in America, Mr. Woo started studying architecture at the Pratt Institute. “I decided to try to simplify the whole process, and then I looked around, and it’s all buildings. Something clicked.”
But after six months of having his own architecture firm as a college senior, Mr. Woo realized that it was not for him. He decided to go into real estate.
Mr. Woo, who has two sons—one at N.Y.U., and the other working at Mirae Asset Financial Group in South Korea—has not forgotten his South American roots. He owns a sunflower farm in Paraguay and is building a combined condo and winery in Argentina—the Vineyard Estates—where loft owners can grow their own wine in their own section of the vineyard.
At the end of the interview, Mr. Woo—who has had no pictures of himself online until now—asked The Observer to write as little about him as possible.
“Any credit for who I am goes to my mother. I’m very reserved or kind of sensitive about my personal story appearing too much,” he said in a later phone interview. “I don’t mind about my company background profile and so on, but if you can leave it, my personal story as little as possible … People may think that I’m overreaching, telling you about my personal life.”
“EVERYTHING IS DESIGN,” MR. Woo said during the June 12 interview. While the iPod is “functionally not the best,” its design and even the color of the earplugs fit the young generation perfectly.
“So how do you make real estate into that kind of iPod?”
Mr. Woo has hired an outside consultant, Faith Popcorn, to discuss future trends in the next five to 10 years. Ms. Popcorn has said that Mr. Woo is the only person she has ever worked with from real estate, according to Ms. Lee. (Ms. Popcorn could not be reached for comment.)
Ms. Lee, also a Korean immigrant, said that the company pushes to stay ahead of the curve not only because of her and Mr. Woo’s “artistic background”—she went to graduate school in the fine arts—but also “as a way of survival.”
“We didn’t start out with such big, big capital like other generations of real estate founders, so we had to work extra hard, and we had to come up with something that nobody else could come up with,” said Ms. Lee, who also went to law school at night while working for Mr. Woo.
Mr. Woo works closely with the architects they hire, often imagining the original vision (like the SkyGarage). The firm’s two other principals, Ms. Lee and Mr. Carney, also have a significant say in architectural design. “He does things that are unusual and special,” Mr. Steinberg, the Douglas Elliman broker, said. “There’s always a market for that because you create a new market.”
One such market-creating niche was the Chelsea Arts Tower on far West 25th Street, Manhattan’s first art gallery condominium; another has been the car-hoisting condo 200 Eleventh Avenue. According to Ms. Lee, the firm has lost money on only one or two ventures of over 50 in the past 31 years.
Now they are competing against the Durst Organization and the Related Companies for rights to develop Pier 57 into a marketplace. The company has even put together a three-minute video, replete with modern-sounding music, about how the firm envisions putting together retail space made out of shipping containers.
Although their boldest project yet—a dormitory project—is at a physically smaller scale, they are already discussing it with Samsung.
“We concluded that a lot of young people lost faith in government and big corporations,” Mr. Woo calmly explained, rehashing an idea that Ms. Popcorn once proposed, according to Ms. Lee. “One of the reasons why the iPhone or iPod is so successful is because you can command the world. … We believe that is the future trend.”
Mr. Woo said that they are now developing a “dormitory” where the consumer has complete control: The prototype’s walls are cyberspace: If the consumer wants to be in Hawaii, he can tell the remote control that he wants to be in Hawaii, and a Hawaiian beach is broadcast to the room. The consumer would even control the speed of the wind and the waves.
It’s part of Mr. Woo’s larger wish to redefine the use of space. “People have this fixed notion what a living room is about. You have a couch, and you have a table, and you have certain things people say that’s a living room. For hundreds of years, that has not changed. So we want to bring a new meaning of the space.”
But for the AIG towers, “humble” is Mr. Woo’s key word.
“Our whole idea was, we have to be humble and respect the retailer’s culture. We don’t want to come in with this different energy and say, ‘Gosh, we want to take advantage,’” he said. “So we were extra careful to not be so out there.”
Though Eastern Consolidated’s David Schechtman described Mr. Woo as a “shrewd negotiator,” Mr. Woo may be the new nice guy in town. “His ex-partners like him, and that’s unusual,” Mr. Steinberg said, adding that Mr. Woo’s combination of decency and business savvy is “scarce” in real estate land.
Ms. Lee, who has worked with Mr. Woo for 24 years, said that in the sole project she can remember where the company lost money—during the recession in the early 1990s—he repaid the partner the full amount from a later deal that the partner had not been involved in. Even though the loss had amounted to only a couple of thousand dollars, Mr. Woo just “did not want her to lose money.”
“That made me really feel like I had a really good partner,” Ms. Lee said.
When it comes to the AIG towers’ future, Mr. Carney—Mr. Woo’s de facto spokesman—hinted at a vision that looks ahead to Lower Manhattan’s future: not just as a business district, but also as a “24-hour, mixed-use environment.”
“We see that area being transformed into a much more different environment, and so we want to be a part of that,” Mr. Carney said.
Though Mr. Steinberg said he believes a mixed-use building would be wisest, Mr. Woo “has the capacity to surprise us all—me too.” The AIG tower deal is expected to close around August, and Mr. Woo is likely envisioning what people downtown will want in 2011, after the recession has passed.
“[His projects] are always creative, always something unique, always refresh part of a neighborhood that at that point wasn’t as well looked upon,” Mr. Steinberg said. “And it’s all healthy.”