On an August morning in 2008, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Central Park, crowds lined up for hours to take a ride in a hot-air balloon 30 stories above the park’s southern end. Soaring above the trees, with a clear shot of the reservoir shimmering to the north and the midtown skyline to the south, for 10 minutes they glimpsed the elusive perfect view.
As the crowds gathered, a doorman at a faded rental complex nearby watched from an elderly resident’s spacious 20th-floor apartment. “People were paying $25 just to see that view for 15 minutes,” the doorman at 220 Central Park South recalled. “And I’m just sitting there, just looking out. To think, it’s the best view in the city and he’s got it for free, every day!”
Those days are numbered. Last month, tenants in 26 rent-stabilized units at 220 CPS ended their five-year battle to hold on to their perfect view, selling out to developers for a total of $40 million, according to public records reviewed by The Observer.
By this spring, all of the tenants at 220 CPS will have left the building, vacating one of the last remaining slices of affordable real estate lining the park and all but completing Central Park’s transformation from a desirable address to one that’s out of reach for everyone but the über-rich.
Already, real estate brokers, architects and anxious (even envious) neighbors are turning their eyes to the sky, where a partnership of Steve Roth’s Vornado Realty and Veronica Hackett’s Clarett Group plans to erect an ultra-luxurious 41-story condo tower. It’s expected to cost as much to build per square foot as the park’s reigning luxury king, 15 Central Park West–and to emulate its grandeur.
In all likelihood, 220 CPS will be the last big development on the edge of Central Park for a generation, and a microcosm of the economic divide that is–literally–splitting the city.
A couple of weeks after Christmas, only a brilliant red poinsettia in the lobby of 220 Central Park South looked fresh. The toothpaste-green sofas were stained, the Berber carpet worn and the amber lacquer on the plywood paneling was starting to chip.
Sitting between Seventh and Eighth avenues, it is an unremarkable building for the area, decorated with pigeon spikes and rusty balconies. Wedged between a sleek black ’60s condo to the east and the diminutive Gainsborough Studios to the west, it looks increasingly anachronistic in a Manhattan inundated last decade with sleek new condos, intermingling with the dowager co-ops that were already the domain of the wealthy and well-connected.
“Oh my God, you could not accuse it of being beautiful,” said Paula Del Nunzio, a top broker with Brown Harris Stevens who’s handled high-profile listings in the Columbus Circle area. “But it has a beautiful location.”
Over the past decade and a half, Columbus Circle has been transformed from the site of car shows and bargain stores into one of the city’s most coveted residential spots. It started in 1997 with Donald Trump’s golden Trump International, a hotel-condo development rising 52 stories at One Central Park West, and really got going in 2004, when Steve Ross’ Related Companies erected the angled, two-tiered Time Warner Center for $1.7 billion. Trump International put up an enormous sign, advertising, “We have the views you want,” recalls Doug Russell, one of the current brokers in the building. Thus began the battle for the choicest view of Central Park.
The latest and best building in the area is 15 Central Park West, a 201-unit limestone tower that Robert A.M. Stern modeled after the Candela co-ops up the street. The developers started out offering units at roughly $2,500 a square foot–already a top price–but they kept asking more throughout the construction, in 2005 and 2006, until tags topped nearly $4,000. The resales have been more incredible: Recently, one of 15 CPW’s developers, William Lie Zeckendorf, sold his penthouse for a city record $9,940 a square foot.
But with an 18-mile shot straight up the park and the somewhat startling reality that it will likely be the last of its kind for a long while, 220 CPS could render such sales figures quaint. Seasoned brokers note that it presents a singular opportunity to build a contemporary condo among predominantly older developments. In fact, because the border of the park along Fifth Avenue and Central Park West (except for some of the less desirable northern portion) is landmarked, this is a rare chance to build on the fringes of the park, period.
“It’s about what’s real and who really will have the view that’s forever,” said Mr. Russell, conjuring the perfect sales pitch: “The forever park view.”
The Vornado-Clarett partnership, known as Madave Properties, bought the 1950s rental complex for $131.5 million in August 2005, just as 15 CPW was topping out.
The 220 CPS complex contains a 20-story building fronting the park and a 13-story one facing 58th Street, which the developers also plan to tear down to build a luxury tower. Among the 130 units were 47 rent-stabilized ones, some of which have coveted park-facing balconies. In order to evict the residents and demolish the buildings, Madave needed approval from the state’s Division of Housing and Community Renewal, which stalled on making a final decision while tenants fought the DHCR and Madave in court.
The developers originally offered tenants $300,000 each. But given that a market-rate apartment in the neighborhood commanded upward of $8,000 a month, that was small compensation. The tenants held out. Over the course of the next five years, the developers kept offering increasing sums of money. Last month, the remaining 26 holdout tenants accepted payouts of around $1.5 million each, according to public records.