“What kind of idiot goes on vacation when a major deal is about to close?” one of the judges ribbed Newmark Knight Frank broker David Noonan, who took home the 2011 Most Ingenious Deal of the Year award from the Real Estate Board of New York on April 4.
Mr. Noonan, 50, took the joke as he takes most things, with good humor. In fact, he recounted that he had been on vacation in Panama, without cell phone service, standing in his swimming trunks shouting over the resort’s kitchen phone while he put the finishing touches on the deal and the resort staff put the garnish on lunch.
Along with partner Jennifer Schwartzman, Mr. Noonan won for the sale of a 42,000-square-foot building at 31 West 15th Street, in which the dollars exchanged totaled just over $16 million. It looked unremarkable compared to the runners-up: Newmark brokers Barry Gosin and Mark Weiss for the sale of a 250,000-square-foot building on Sixth Avenue, and CB Richard Ellis’ Darcy Stacom and William Shanahan for their sale of development rights on 57th Street. But as Massey Knakal investment sales guru Robert Knakal said when presenting the award: “Every so often you read the submissions, and one deal makes you think, ‘I wish I’d done that.’”
Three days later, in a conference room at Newmark Knight Frank’s Park Avenue headquarters, Mr. Noonan was still beaming from the compliment, as he recounted that the faulty cell phone reception was the least of the challenges.
The former union hall had been kicking around on the market for four years, but the owners needed to sell quickly because the mortgage was in default and they faced pending litigation. They called Mr. Noonan, a New York University law grad, to testify that the offers they had on the table were at market price. “What good is taking an offer to a judge?” he asked them cleverly. “You want to take them a signed deal.”
Within two months, Mr. Noonan had indeed got the union, the New York-New Jersey Joint Board, a deal in contract, but not before dueling with Alchemy Properties, the buyer, over air rights, which the developer needed to acquire from the neighboring school in order to build a roughly 30-story building. Alchemy said they had a letter of intent to give them the air rights, which would chill the bidding on the property and force the union to sell at a lower price. Mr. Noonan responded, he said, with “a little bit of cleverness, a little bit of poker.”
Alchemy insisted its letter of intent for the air rights was binding and secret, so the Newmark team received a letter of intent from another potential buyer, which they insisted was binding and secret. In the end, they still sold the building to Alchemy, but for the price the union wanted. “We were a little like two boxers,” he said. “We gave each other a couple of shots, but in the end we were friends.”
LIKE A PERIOD TO Mr. Noonan’s sentence, Jimmy Kuhn burst into the conference room. “What can I tell you?” he said, before taking credit for discovering a disillusioned lawyer with a knack for dealmaking, who joined Newmark in the early 1990s. “When I decided to build a capital group, I wanted somebody with a few extra skill levels that I didn’t have,” recounted Mr. Kuhn, who at the time was also new at Newmark. “David was in our downtown office renting 3,000 square feet or something like that.”
Mr. Noonan recounted that his first deal, to sell a garment center building for MetLife, was, in fact, “a series of disasters.” MetLife executives were visiting from Atlanta, and at one point, all of them climbed on fire stairs to look at a collapsed ceiling. “You would make me much more comfortable,” he told them, “if none of you would step on that landing.”
Today he works primarily on the far West Side, where one of his biggest clients is Verizon, which owns a number of parking lots. (“In the bad times they’re parking lots; in the good times they’re development sites.”) But he can walk through the neighborhood and look at former development sites that have become Hal Fetner’s Victory project, Jeff Levine’s Ohm and David Walentas’ project on West 53rd Street, all significant residential towers. “That’s kind of fun.”
The son of an architect, Mr. Noonan grew up in a suburb of Chicago and now lives in Tribeca and takes his daughters (he has three, ages 11, 17 and 20) to school in a yellow cab. His wife, Susan, works in financial public relations, a profession that gave him the freedom to take a chance on leaving law. He took up the piano in his 40s, and said jokingly that he’s “resolved to be mediocre.”
One might, perhaps, say that Mr. Noonan has a knack for transforming mediocrity into great success. Middle-market assets, where he works primarily, are a struggle to sell right now. “If you’re selling a building for a Vornado, they can pretty much sell the building themselves, with or without brokers,” he said. But selling a middle-market building for an inexperienced seller requires a particular combination of patience and ingenuity.
Lest one underestimate the bespectacled broker’s competitive edge, Mr. Noonan revealed at the end of the interview that he was an English major at Dartmouth College and wrote his own submission for the Ingenies. Throwing down the gauntlet, he said good-naturedly: “No one could write about my own deal better than I can.”