I follow Grecco into the “grand salon”—the 2,000-square-foot centerpiece of the penthouse duplex. Construction on skyscrapers works in two distinct phases: First the skeleton of the building is erected, and then the skin is stretched over the bones. In this case, the skin is a series of large interlocking glass panels—some 8,400 in all—which are dropped into place with a machine called a “crab.” But those panels currently extend only two-thirds of the way up the building, so at the moment, the penthouse walls are made of orange netting.
Lend Lease expects to have the building fully enclosed by February, at which point work on the interiors can commence in earnest. “That’s not soon enough but very soon,” Grecco says. “The hardship we’re going to endure is working through the winter at 1,000 feet.”
Grecco parts the netting so I can snap a photo with my phone. In the distance, the lawn at Central Park is visible as an emerald sea. Grecco points northwest. “That’s my corner,” he says. Grecco, although only 51, has been involved in some of the best-known luxury properties in town, including the Park Laurel on West 63rd, the Time Warner Center, and 15 Central Park West. All have been clustered near Columbus Circle, a relatively new area of interest for developers—and a sizable distance from the Gold Coast of yore. “The money has moved west,” Grecco says.
Lend Lease works with a range of developers, some of whom are in direct competition with Extell. I ask Grecco if he ever found himself stuck in the middle. He shrugs. “There is definitely a bit of one-upmanship,” he says. Still, he adds, the spotlight is usually only big enough for one building at a time.
The success of One57 thus far is in large part a matter of timing: No other project can match its size or opulence. Earlier this year, Harry Macklowe, the famed New York developer, started work on a new skyscraper at 432 Park Avenue, where the old Drake Hotel once stood. The building will eventually rise to 1,302 feet, 297 feet higher than One57; the penthouse is on the market for $85 million. But 432 Park won’t open until late 2015 at the earliest—right now, it’s not even a stump in the ground.
The New York headquarters of Sotheby’s International Realty sits on East 61st Street, not far from the edge of Central Park. Nikki Field, a senior vice-president, works in an office on the second floor. “High-net-worth individuals have a short tolerance level for depriving themselves,” she tells me on a recent visit. “I think we found out how short it is. I think it was three years”—from the collapse of Lehman Brothers to 2011—“and then they said they had to spend some money.”
Field is blonde, warm, and slight. A former marketing executive, she has spent much of her professional career as a broker of luxury real estate. In 2011, she and several colleagues were invited to a presentation on One57. Barnett himself presided. Although Extell has its own in-house sales team, it is relying on the assistance of well-known brokers like Field who have large Rolodexes full of potential buyers.
Field has been in the business long enough to have collected a fair number of her prospects from prior deals, but she also does her research. Many of her contacts surfaced after having purchased art or collectibles from a Sotheby’s auction. She travels to China four times a year, is learning Mandarin, and carries business cards printed in Chinese characters. She also works frequently with Middle Eastern, Russian, and European clients (French buyers, staring down the barrel of President François Hollande’s impending 75 percent income tax on millionaires, are especially eager to decamp for American shores). The typical potential buyer is young—thirties to early fifties—and “still upwardly mobile,” Field says. “This is not their last $50 million.”
She notes that every buyer of a floor-through unit in One57 is worth more than ten times the standard definition of the American one percenter (assets of at least $7.5 million). It’s a billionaire’s club, as the New York Times has it. But spend enough time around billionaires, as Field does, and you begin to understand that the checklist of suitable properties is actually relatively short. In fact, it’s a seller’s market. In the past, Knightsbridge in London was a perpetual favorite. Increasingly, given the tumult in the European markets, the United States—and New York in particular—is seen as a much more secure investment.
“Asian money gets here because [buyers] feel the security of the U.S. government will provide them a very safe haven for their finances,” Field says. “So, okay. When you get to New York, where do you go? You look around and you can do what some people have done and buy a Trump name or you can look for the newest and best. International buyers,” she continues, raising one finger at a time, “want new. They want view. And they want the right location.” One57 has all three. And it lacks something else: a co-op board. According to the Post, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, the prime minister of Qatar, was rejected by three co-op boards at high-end Manhattan properties, including the one at 907 Fifth Avenue, which balked at the size of his entourage and the various security risks. Later, the prime minister reportedly entered talks for the $90 million penthouse duplex at One57. (He appears to have finally landed on a single-family townhouse on 71st Street.)