20 Pine: The Conniption

“I would be a fool to sit here and tell you we didn’t have challenges,” the well-tanned real estate marketing guru Michael Shvo said Sunday, April 19, from Dubai. It was a few days after he had last seen the nearly completed, long-delayed mega-condo 20 Pine: The Collection. “Unfortunately, the problems we faced here were not problems under Shvo’s control.”

Once, long ago, 20 Pine was supposed to be one of the great condos in one of New York’s great neighborhoods. Power, possibility, comfort, captivation, imagination, sophistication and sublimity were name-dropped in just the first two paragraphs of the foreword to the condo’s faux-magazine marketing brochure, illustrated with shots of crocheted Ferrari driving gloves and onyx Bulgari cuff links.

Then, according to pitiless Internet reports and livid lawsuits, 20 Pine was supposed to be one of the great New York condo catastrophes. “All I am telling you is that you’re about to lose a million dollars,” one of the buyers who tried to walk away from his deal was told, according to a phone transcript, “and we’re gonna have a million dollars that you now don’t have anymore.”

But as the building gets closer to its June completion, 20 Pine is shaping up to be something else entirely: Just a building. And it’s actually kind of nice.


AS MR. SHVO tells it, he was talking with Shaya Boymelgreen in Brooklyn in December 2004 when the developer asked what he thought about 20 Pine, the old Chase Manhattan Bank offices. “Shaya,” Mr. Shvo told him, “I don’t want to throw you a quick answer. Once I get out of Brooklyn, I’ll have my driver bring me to the building.”

Mr. Shvo called back 20 minutes later: “Buy the building.” Mr. Boymelgreen and the Israeli diamond billionaire Lev Leviev, who had been introduced to one another by a top-ranking Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi during a kosher cruise, paid $142 million.

Thirteen months later, when Mr. Shvo began selling 20 Pine: The Collection, he had an 8,000-square-foot on-site sales office with a 45-foot replica of Giorgio Armani’s Milan runway. The illuminated glass catwalk, like the building’s subtitle, reminded the world that Armani/Casa had done 20 Pine’s interior design.

“I said, ‘I want a fashion brand to design this building.’ Of course, everyone thought I was crazy, but I’d heard that before,” Mr. Shvo said this week. “I—and this is on the record—fully take credit for real estate and fashion: We were the first ones to do it and it’s a worldwide trend. I’m standing right now in Dubai. … I’m literally standing and looking at the Armani Hotel.”

To be fair, the marketing doyenne Louise Sunshine is widely credited as the first real estate marketer to exploit fashion. But Ms. Sunshine had never hired John Legend, who played 20 Pine’s opening party in March 2006 after winning his first Grammy. “Made us look like true superstars,” Mr. Shvo said. Nor had she ever proposed keeping a condo sales office open 24 hours to suit late-night visits. “Nobody said anything; they didn’t know if I was kidding or if I was serious. And, sure enough, I was serious,” Mr. Shvo recalled. “If I needed to create what would be the landmark residential building in the Financial District, I needed to create something 100 percent sexy.” He is the type of man who speaks about percentiles of sexiness without giggling.

The conversion was the first massive, self-serious project in a neighborhood with gobs of rich young things to lure, even if Mr. Boymelgreen’s kooky Philippe Starck–designed condo on Broad Street had come before, or if Wall Street’s Cipriani Club Residences began sales around the same time. “We know where they shop, where they eat, what cars they drive,” Mr. Shvo said about 20 Pine’s potential buyers this week. “We know everything from the Social Security number to the color of their underwear.”

Except for a Wall Street Journal columnist who sniggered about getting a membership card after visiting the condo for a sales pitch—“as if by merely showing up I had joined an exclusive club”—the press coverage dripped with giddiness. By September 2006, the condo’s 409 units were reportedly almost 70 percent sold. The next year, Page Six wrote that Jennifer Aniston was buying a 20 Pine unit, and had been bribing construction workers to take her up in the elevator.

“Buy into the financial district while (if?) you still can,” Time Out New York said in April 2007.


THAT WAS THE April Mr. Boymelgreen gave a snippy quote to the The Miami Herald about his partner, Mr. Leviev. Their falling-out had begun, and a divorce was confirmed in the Jewish Daily Forward that July: “Whatever we have obligations to finish together, we are finishing together,” one of the billionaire’s associates said. “Wherever we have no obligations to finish together, we will not finish together.”

Money became a problem. A month later, the real estate blog Curbed wrote that 20 Pine’s construction had been halted. At the end of the year, the Daily News reported that Ms. Aniston was buying elsewhere.

Then things got really nasty. Last May, a State Supreme Court judgment reportedly ordered 20 Pine to refund a buyer’s $229,500 deposit (plus interest) after officials didn’t appear at a closing. Three months later, news broke that Mr. Boymelgreen was named in a lawsuit from a Brooklyn-based buyer who wanted to get out of a contract to buy 10 apartments. “You’re playing games with me,” Boymelgreen associate Ari Schwabbel, the president of the 20 Pine condo board, told the buyer last June, according to a phone transcript filed in court records. The two were arguing about handwriting on a contract.

20 Pine: The Conniption