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Trump Soho Is Not an Oxymoron

It’s a 46-story skyscraper being built on a graveyard that’s brought together shadowy Russians and a billionaire brand name to attract internationals in a zoning-skirting scheme that’s enraged the neighborhood, sent glass shattering to the street, and killed a construction worker. It’s New York in the aughts, and inside there’s a luxury suite just for you.

It looms over the neighborhood like a monolith, dwarfing everything for blocks around. Its boosters see a gleaming shrine to luxury and prosperity. Its opponents see an eyesore, a middle finger, or, in their angriest hours, even a tombstone. Stealthily conceived to dodge local zoning laws, and approved amid paroxysms of protest, the soon-to-be-46-story glass-and-steel tower isn’t even finished yet, but it has already amassed a dark history. During the course of its breakneck-speed construction, the bones of what may be nineteenth-century slaves have been discovered at the site, alleged Mafia ties have come to light, a worker was killed when a shoddily built wooden mold gave way, and a poorly secured panel of glass blew off the building and rained shards down on the sidewalk. Its developers make up a sort of cartoon of New York money in 2008: a pair of nouveau riche, real-estate-mad Russians and their garrulous, compulsively self-promoting American partner. It is called Trump Soho, and even if you shudder at the meeting of these two words, somewhere deep in your subconscious, you probably saw it coming.

Look out any window, and it’s plain to see that the city is in the middle of a historic building boom that appears to have outlasted the economic one. Amid all the tumescent towers shooting up around town, a Trump-branded building in the heart of Soho might not have the grand, city-altering impact of, say, Atlantic or Hudson Yards. Its symbolic weight, however, may be even greater. It’s not just that Trump has deposited himself into a previously squat neighborhood that traces its very origins to having successfully kicked out Robert Moses. It’s that the troubled history of the building itself seems almost a Victorian parable about twenty-first-century development in New York.

In its previous incarnation, the site was home to a parking garage—another square container in the land of square containers, on the corner of Spring and Varick Streets, just west of Sixth Avenue and hard against the exit and entrance ramps of the Holland Tunnel. Then along came Rudy Giuliani, plummeting crime rates, and a booming economy, and the lot was snapped up by Crescent Heights, the self-styled “premier condominium company” that specializes in building high-rises in “the nation’s most exclusive urban enclaves.”

This particular urban enclave wasn’t, in fact, Soho. It was just west of Soho, in a micro-neighborhood recently rebranded by real-estate agents as Hudson Square. And it certainly wasn’t exclusive. There was a Manhattan Mini Storage across the street, a UPS hub around the block, and no high-end apartment buildings in sight. Most services were a brisk walk eastward, and pollution from the tunnel traffic made neighborhood asthma rates worse than those in the South Bronx. But that was only one of the hurdles Crescent Heights would face in building condominiums there. Legally speaking, it simply couldn’t be done. West Soho is zoned “manufacturing,” a remnant of the bygone era when the neighborhood hummed with printing houses and wasn’t considered suitable for people to live in. Crescent Heights had devised a novel way around all that: a plan for a “condominium hotel,” in which buyers would own their apartments but stay there for only a few weeks a year. The rest of the time, their apartments would function as hotel rooms: “Transient hotels,” with no full-time residents, were legal under the zoning code. Still, the gambit would be tricky to pull off—it had never been done in New York—and Crescent Heights put the lot back on the market in 2005.

That’s when the Kazakh and the Georgian arrived. Tevfik Arif had gotten his start in the business world at the Soviet Ministry of Trade. After the fall of the U.S.S.R., he reinvented himself as a successful hotelier in Turkey, catering mostly to wealthy New Russians. With his gangling frame and burnt-sienna tan, he had recently become a fixture on the Cipriani circuit. Arif’s company, Bayrock, wanted to develop the lot but needed an equity partner. Arif tapped a friend, Tamir Sapir, born Temur Sepiashvili in Georgia and likely the richest ex-Soviet in the U.S. His Sapir Organization, now headed by his son, Alex, already controlled over 7 million square feet in Manhattan, including 2 Broadway and 11 Madison. On September 21, 2005, the partners closed the deal on the lot.

Alex Sapir concedes he didn’t at first understand the idea of the condo-hotel—“just like a lot of people don’t understand it now,” he says. But he came to see its promise. “I think it’s a great product for certain cities,” he says. “Probably five cities in the world.”

Arif and Tamir Sapir both happened to know one of the few big Stateside developers to have successfully carried off this business model. Sapir makes his home in Trump Tower, and Bayrock has its offices there. Their courtship of Donald Trump was by all accounts a layup. Trump already had similar projects under way in Chicago, Las Vegas, and Dubai, among other places; New York was an obvious brand extension. “Tom [Tamir] and Alex came to us with a complete proposal. We looked at it, and we loved it,” Trump says. In 2005, Trump signed on. He says he’s a full equity partner, which is a rarity: These days, he mostly licenses his name out to third parties for an 8 to 15 percent cut.