Mayor Michael Bloomberg failed to bring the Jets to the West Side. And now it looks like there’s little he can do to stop a controversial landlord from moving there instead.
Baruch Singer, who owns dozens of tenement buildings in the city’s poorer neighborhoods, has spent $61.7 million dollars with his partners on five lots on or near 11th Avenue since last December, including a warehouse formerly used by the artist Robert Rauschenberg.
The transactions are filed in the city’s online property database under official-sounding names such as Hudson Yards L.L.C. or Javits Center Development L.L.C., but they can be traced back to Mr. Singer’s company, Triangle Management, at 95 Delancey Street.
Mr. Singer is best known as the owner of a Harlem apartment building that partially collapsed in 1995, tipping sleeping residents from their beds into a pile of bricks and killing three people.
He had also tried to buy the massive Greenpoint Terminal Market just months before the 19th-century warehouse complex went up in flames in May.
In neither case was he charged with any wrongdoing. But Mr. Singer’s storied history as an owner is still troubling city officials, sources said.
In one case, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development tried to prevent him from bidding on one of its properties in Harlem, although Mr. Singer’s lawyer, David Jaroslawicz, said that H.U.D. later reversed its decision.
The West Side purchases imply that Mr. Singer is entering the second phase of a well-worn trajectory in real estate: going upscale and moving from residential ownership into office development.
The recently purchased lots are located in the 40-block area that was rezoned last year to make way for a major new residential and commercial district just west of midtown, dubbed Hudson Yards.
The placement of the purchases suggest that Mr. Singer is assembling adjoining lots to create at least two office towers, one between 36th and 37th streets and the other on the block to the north. The new zoning permits construction with a base floor-to-area ratio (F.A.R.) of 10, increasing to 21.6 if Mr. Singer purchases development rights from nearby property owners and the city. Only a small portion of the buildings, which could reach about 40 stories high with that F.A.R., can be residential.
The rezoning is one of the remnants of Mayor Bloomberg’s once-grand plan that included a new stadium for the 2012 Olympics and the Jets football team a few blocks to the south of Mr. Singer’s holdings. Across 11th Avenue, the state is going ahead with a $1.7 billion expansion of the Javits Convention Center.
And Mr. Singer has probably got the liquidity to take advantage of all that and become an office-building mogul.
He reportedly sold dozens of his apartment buildings last year to the Pinnacle Group, although he retained a minority share. This spring, he was down to 58 buildings, but has since purchased a number more and now owns 86 buildings which together have 4,565 outstanding housing violations, according to the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development. The violations may have predated Mr. Singer’s ownership, however, and may have been cured without the owner having notified the city housing department.
Mr. Singer didn’t respond to interview requests placed by phone and in person at his Lower East Side office.
A partner listed on one of the deeds, David Galanter, and a lawyer involved in two of the purchases, Kevin Vernick, also did not return telephone messages.
Mr. Jaroslawicz said through an assistant, “He is always buying and selling, since he is in real estate.”
Of course, Hudson Yards will only become attractive to commercial-office tenants once the No. 7 subway line is extended west along 41st Street and then south to 34th Street, an extension that is currently scheduled for 2012—which means that any building on the property is likely years away from materializing.
Mr. Singer may simply be speculating, purchasing property at prices ranging from $124 to $295 per base zoning square foot, only to sell them later at a profit. The lots he has purchased represent just a smattering of the property that he would need to assemble a footprint large enough for a Class A office building.
An incentive program proposed by the city last week to encourage development of the new Hudson Yards would cut property taxes on new buildings on Mr. Singer’s lots by as much as 40 percent for the first four years after construction. The tax abatements would gradually recede in subsequent years.
Rachaele Raynoff, spokeswoman for the Department of City Planning, told The Observer that representatives from Hudson Yards L.L.C. had inquired about the mechanism by which the city is selling extra development rights on the Far West Side, but they didn’t discuss their plans, she said. The development rights are selling for $106.48 per square foot.
City housing officials said that there was nothing stopping Mr. Singer’s foray into commercial development so long as he found banks willing to finance his purchases.
City records show that Mr. Singer is relying at least partially on Fortress Credit Corporation, a private equity firm in Manhattan.
The blocks where he is getting a foothold are now populated by warehouses, a stable for Central Park carriages and parking lots that serve visitors to the Javits Center. One of the properties, a 4,937-square-foot lot at 544 West 38th Street, includes a nondescript three-story brick warehouse that had been used by Mr. Rauschenberg since 1993 as storage for art works, according to a representative from the artist’s studio. Mr. Rauschenberg, who has long lived and worked in Florida, bought it for $875,000 and sold it for $8.575 million.
Three other lots that Mr. Singer purchased along 37th and 38th streets are occupied by warehouses formerly owned by a family business, Astra Spinning Mills, that once stored textiles in them. The lots, totaling 12,343 square feet, according to city records, went for $24 million.
Another property, a 9,875-square foot lot at the corner of 37th Street and 11th Avenue that is now occupied by three taxi repair shops, went for $29.13 million.
The remaining property owners say that they’ve been approached by a variety of developers since the rezoning, although they added that they wouldn’t know if Mr. Singer was one of them, since developers often employ representatives to mask their identities.
“The first condition is that they help me relocate, and after that we can talk about price,” said Cornelius Byrne, the owner of Central Park Carriages on West 37th Street. “So far, no one has done that.”