The Speyers: Victors of the Rail Yards, Quiet Kings of New York Real Estate

If there is anything to be learned from the moves and actions of the Speyer family over the past few years, it is that its members have a penchant for high-profile trophy properties; they have no qualms about aggressively engaging in mega-deals for the city’s largest sales; they can win out in tough contests; and they sell buildings for tremendous returns.

The Tishman Speyer kingdom, already extending to more than a dozen U.S. cities and three continents, will now raise a flag on the far West Side of Manhattan. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority yesterday declared the longtime New York real estate firm the developer and owner-to-be of its 26-acre rail yards, Manhattan’s largest chunk of undeveloped real estate, bounded by 11th and 12th avenues, and 30th and 33rd streets. [See our coverage from Wednesday here, here, here, and here.]

Now the fate of the West Side rests in large part in the Speyers’ hands, as officials and real estate executives say the successful creation of a new business district a few avenues west of America’s largest central business district depends on the development of the rail yards, long eyed as the site for something other than open air.

That the site went to Tishman Speyer, led by Jerry Speyer and his son Rob Speyer (who worked at The Observer some time ago), fits in well with recent real estate history in the city. The giant family seems to buy most everything giant, expensive and high profile. The firm bought Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, 11,200 apartments, in late 2006 for $5.4 billion; they picked up the MetLife Building at 200 Park Avenue in 2005 for $1.7 billion; they have control of the Chrysler Building; and in 2001 they took over Rockefeller Center.

The last on that list, the Art Deco palace built at the start of the Great Depression, is a fitting holding. Former Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff, and others, dubbed the rail yards a potential 21st-century Rockefeller Center, and Governor David Paterson made the direct comparison at the start of his remarks at the site yesterday.

And while architectural critics have not been so inspired by the Helmut Jahn and Peter Walker-designed master plan (The Times has a scathing piece today), Rob Speyer, who led Tishman’s negotiations with the M.T.A., clearly seemed honored by the comparison. “It’s humbling to hear the Rockefeller analogy, because what the Rockefellers did before and since is without precedent, and we’re very confident that we’re going to do something here that in its own way is going to be spectacular,” he said at the press conference yesterday.

Rob and Jerry Speyer have never been eager to get their names and photos in the papers. Calls to their spokespeople almost always seem to result in a “no comment,” and at the press conference, Jerry Speyer, the chairman and CEO, never stepped up to the podium to offer any remarks, though Rob Speyer said a few words.

After the conference, when Jerry Speyer took questions from reporters, he was reserved and to the point in his answers, saying little more than needed to be said.

One reporter said to Jerry Speyer that when M.T.A. officials spoke earlier about the deal, they left the status of a possible partnership with Morgan Stanley vague.

“We have to leave it that way,” Mr. Speyer responded.

Who else would move in besides financial firms?

“Anybody who can afford the rents.”

Where did the firm get all its financing?

“I can’t tell you about it.”

The Speyers will have plenty more opportunity to talk about their plans: The western portion of the rail yards must be rezoned, and that means going through the city’s lengthy public approval process.

The father-son duo acknowledged there was flexibility within their master plan to change during the public process, and they did not commit to strict adherence of the design guidelines crafted for the site, saying only that they liked them, though they also liked aspects of other teams’ plans (two of which did not follow the guidelines).

The land-use approval process for the western yards is slated to finish up in late 2009 at the earliest, though once Tishman Speyer finishes the deal, shovels can hit the ground on the eastern portion.

The Speyers: Victors of the Rail Yards, Quiet Kings of New York Real Estate