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Outside the Box

Developers try a novel sales pitch: top-notch architects and good buildings.

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Martha Stewart's biotech portfolio isn't paying off, but her eye for architecture still looks like a good thing. The unfinished penthouse she bought for $6 million in 2000 is back on the market -- at about $15 million. And it doesn't take insider knowledge to see why it's been such a good investment: The duplex is in the striking new Richard Meier buildings at 173–176 Perry Street.

Have developers finally figured out what Stewart built her empire on -- that design can sell? A new crop of signature buildings seems to say yes. "They're unique and special, so they can command a high price," explains developer Richard Born. Meier's glass-skinned towers have attracted not just Martha but fastidious types like Calvin Klein and Nicole Kidman, who've been willing to pay nearly $2,000 a square foot, easily twice the market rate.

New York, for all its design savvy and money, has for decades been a rotten place for architecture, thanks to developers who see beauty in terms of return-per-square-foot. Name architects often get the blahs here (witness Robert A. M. Stern's Chatham on East 65th Street, or Michael Graves's Impala on East 76th), and we won't discuss Philip "I am a whore" Johnson's gaudy extravaganzas. "You don't pass those buildings and say, 'Wow, look at that,' " says Born. (Except with a wince.)

This next wave of buildings seems to break the mold, and while developers are far from becoming tastemakers, they're making the city safe for better building. "If you've got a commodity everyone else has -- a brick box -- you can only compete by price," says first-time developer Jonathon Carroll, who, unshaken by market uncertainties, broke ground on an eleven-story condo at 497 Greenwich Street in January. "Ours will be so differentiated that I don't think we'll have to do that." The building, with an arresting façade of undulating glass (pictured), is by the local firm Archi-Tectonics, whose Dutch-born principal, Winka Dubbeldam, is a rising star. "We haven't even really begun to market it," says broker Richard Cantor of Cantor & Pecorella. As units go for $1.2 million to $7.1 million, "it's literally selling itself because of the quality of the design."

Others hope to follow. Developer Stephen Touhey's plan for a residential tower in the meatpacking district is controversial for its size and location, but its catchy design by renowned French architect Jean Nouvel has also earned it fans. And even the nonagenarian Johnson's plan for 328 Spring Street (killed off by community opposition) was surprisingly handsome. "There's so much garbage being built," says one entrepreneur who's itching to buy into the Greenwich Street building. "But this is great architecture. Very little would tempt me to move right now. Except maybe the Richard Meier buildings."


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