The Man with the Mystery Plan

Bruce Eichner, the developer who added City Spire, 1540 Broadway and hundreds of luxury condos to the New York skyline in the ’80s and ’90s before decamping to South Beach and Vegas, where he did much of the same, struggled to sit still in his office chair on the 26th floor of a midtown skyscraper, a Peter Beard photograph of a rearing cobra looming behind him.

Mr. Eichner, a well-preserved 64, has a polished white smile, the energy of a much younger man and the charisma of 10 average men. Which would help explain how, over the past three decades, he’s convinced one banker after another to part with billions of dollars. Now’s he back in New York. And after two years of quietly assessing the market, he’s hatched a mysterious plan, one that he’s loath to describe in anything but the most opaque of terms.

“I’m going to use my real estate expertise, which allows me to be a thoughtful buyer of dirt-land … and apply it to operating businesses in the New York metropolitan area.”

Even better, “I am ensconced in buying X number of sites, which I guarantee The New York Times and Wall Street Journal will be interested in, because that’s what I do.”

This month, he says, he’s entered into contract for two development sites in the New York metropolitan area. By year’s end, he wants to have acquired between eight and 10. While he will develop these sites, real estate development is no longer the end goal.

Real estate is and always has been an extraordinarily cyclical business,’ Mr. Eichner told The Observer. ‘If you happen to be at sea and there’s a tsunami, it doesn’t matter if you’re in a rowboat or a U.S. battleship. You are going to fare extremely poorly.

Two real estate sources said that Mr. Eichner was planning to do something related to senior housing. Mr. Eichner declined to confirm that.

“To do a real state project is like riding a bicycle,” Mr. Eichner said during a two-hour interview on a recent Tuesday afternoon. “The idea of coming up with some operating business and doing this and that and doing some prestidigitation …” at which point he crossed his forearms back and forth above his lap, like a human windshield wiper. “That’s cool.”

“We’re not talking about money,” said Mr. Eichner, who had just finished expounding on the thrill of the hunt. “We’re talking about 221B Baker Street.”

 

221B Baker Street.

THE FIRST-FLOOR Victorian flat where the fictional Sherlock Holmes kept his pipe rack, and where he labored over stubborn mysteries with the help of the loyal Dr. Watson. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is one of Mr. Eichner’s favorite writers. Mr. Eichner’s office-where he labors over stubborn real estate puzzles-has a creative disorder similar to Holmes’ study, with a dollop of master-of-the-universe grandeur and family-man sentimentality thrown in. Mr. Eichner decorated it himself. (“In another life I would have been a woman,” he said.)

There’s a desk whose sole purpose is to bear the weight of dozens of family photos. Since space on the desk is necessarily limited by its physical dimensions, Mr. Eichner also has a digital picture frame. On Tuesday, he excitedly turned on the frame to show a slide show from a recent African safari, complete with a close-up of a lion feasting on a bloody carcass. Across from the desk, there was a circular table surrounded by chairs and piled high with papers. That’s where Mr. Eichner works, and where he sat in black slacks and loafers and a white-collared dress shirt, its cuffs fastened by links he’d had specially made from coins dating to 331 B.C. that bear the straight-nosed profile of Alexander the Great. Before him, framed by a grand picture window, reared the New York skyline. When he looked at his visitor through his tortoise-shell glasses, the white marble of the GM Building reflected in his steel-blue, unblinking eyes.

“I think Bruce is a very, very smart guy,” said James Kuhn, the president of Newmark Knight Frank who in 1992 sold the Times Square skyscraper at 1540 Broadway to Bertelsmann after Mr. Eichner’s development team, which erected the tower, declared bankruptcy. “I think that he has vision. He was certainly ahead of his time with the 1540 Broadway building. But he’s a huge risk taker, and when you combine those two and you miss the market, it’s unfortunate, but that’s what happens.”

That Mr. Eichner should grow weary of real estate and want to dabble in something like senior housing is not, in and of itself, surprising. Not only did Mr. Eichner recently lose his $3.9 billion Las Vegas development, the Cosmopolitan, to his Deutsche Bank creditors, but he’s been playing the real estate game since the 1970s, when, as a government attorney, he wanted to supplement his income. First, he bought a four-story building on Montgomery Place in Park Slope. And then he bought a building on Seventh Street. Later he took on Brooklyn Heights, purchasing the old Hotel Margaret in Columbia Heights and converting it into apartments. When a fire destroyed the hotel, Mr. Eichner sought to rebuild it to 15 stories, shorter than the historic hotel but still too tall for the Brooklyn Heights Association, which proceeded to sue, arguing that the development’s height was out of keeping with the character of the historic neighborhood. Mr. Eichner ultimately won. That wasn’t enough.

“I don’t believe in getting angry,” Mr. Eichner declared in his lispy Queens accent. “But I do believe in getting even.” And so he did. When the appeals court dismissed the case, Mr. Eichner sold the building to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, then a new presence in Brooklyn Heights that residents feared would usurp the neighborhood.

Soon, Mr. Eichner moved on to Manhattan, building condominiums like the Kingsley, at 70th Street and First Avenue, and the America, at Second Avenue and 85th Street. They were followed by City Spire, a 72-story condo and office building on West 56th Street, and then, perhaps most famously, 1540 Broadway, a development chronicled from start to finish in Jerry Adler’s 1993 book High Rise: How 1,000 Men and Women Worked Around the Clock for Five Years and Lost $200 Million Building a Skyscraper.

As the title indicates, Mr. Eichner ended up losing 1540 Broadway, now known as the Bertelsmann Building. He also lost City Spire to bankruptcy.

Mr. Eichner didn’t let that get him down. He’s wont to attribute his loss of those buildings to the early ’90s real estate bust. Similarly, he says his recent loss of the Cosmopolitan on the Las Vegas strip was an inevitable result of the Great Recession.

“Real estate is and always has been an extraordinarily cyclical business,” Mr. Eichner told The Observer. “If you happen to be at sea and there’s a tsunami, it doesn’t matter if you’re in a rowboat or a U.S. battleship. You are going to fare extremely poorly.”

“Just about everyone who was in the middle of a development project in Las Vegas got wiped out,” agreed Dan Fasulo, managing director of Real Estate Analytics. “It’s not like this is a singular example. When you’re investing in a multibillion project and the debt markets dry up, you’re just out of luck.”

Similarly, “everyone and his brother was building buildings in the mid-1980s,” Mr. Fasulo said.

Overall, Mr. Eichner says, he’s fared extremely well, thanks to a lucrative settlement with Cosmopolitan lender Deutsche Bank and his wildly successful investments in South Beach.

“I haven’t made a new acquisition since 2004,” Mr. Eichner said. “Therefore, I have no legacy issues.”

The Man with the Mystery Plan