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Why some of New York's richest people are throwing off the tyranny of co-op boards and migrating to a new world of ultra-luxe, ultra-expensive condominium buildings.


The brokers for the Fischer Mills Building, a former nineteenth-century coffee, tea, and spice emporium on Greenwich Street in TriBeCa currently being transformed into luxury condominiums, admit that Apartment 3D doesn't show very well. To reach it, one must climb a slippery gangplank covered in sawdust and then squeeze through a hole in the wall.

Nonetheless, dozens of potential buyers have signed the release form -- liberating the owners of liability lest one of the building's original and lovingly preserved rough-hewn timber columns drops on somebody's head -- and donned hard hats to walk the plank for a peek at the future 2,700-square-foot four-bedroom apartment.

"That's the best example of exactly what the market's like right now," explains Richard Wallgren, a broker with Stribling Wells & Gay. "We've had grandmothers and pregnant mothers going up the plank."

Once upon a time, say ten years ago, condominiums were the social misfits of Manhattan's real-estate market -- especially among New Yorkers with the bank accounts and bluestocking connections to pass the right co-op boards. The floor plan of the typical condo had all the panache of a Rikers Island cell block. And, speaking of rap sheets, they were more likely to attract as tenants upscale call girls, former presidents-for-life of countries on the State Department's embargoed list, or bushy-tailed yuppies fresh out of business school than Social Register families one would hope to rub shoulders with at the Metropolitan Museum's annual children's gala.

But all that's changing. Condos have suddenly become chic, with such boldface new tenants as Bronfman, Boardman, Bowie, Nederlander, and Murdoch, not to mention a battalion of dot-com billionaires. They're now flooding buildings such as 515 Park Avenue, the Zeckendorfs' take on prewar glamour; 15 East 69th Street, the ex-Westbury Hotel presided over by its former concierge; and 838 Fifth Avenue, the former love thy neighbor home of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, where developers A. Alfred Taubman and his son-in-law Louis Dubin are now pursuing less spiritual goals with apartments that start at $9 million. Even Donald Trump's golden shaft, the Trump International Hotel & Tower at 1 Central Park West, attracted record prices last year, and such tenants as Johnson & Johnson heiress Libet Johnson.

The amount of money sloshing around out there and being sponged up by real estate is simply unprecedented. At 515 Park Avenue, eight apartments sold for more than $10 million each last year -- more than all the $10 million-plus sales in the city's entire co-op market the year before.

At 838 Fifth Avenue, still crisscrossed with scaffolding, Seagram heir Charles Bronfman paid a rumored $18 million for the future duplex penthouse. The building's maids' rooms, thoughtfully located on the ground floor to free up more closet space in the average 5,500-square-foot apartment, cost $500,000 each. "We had seven, and they've been snapped up," reports Bret Bobo, 838's sales director.

And at the former Westbury Hotel, where tenants such as Terry Allen Kramer and D. Dixon Boardman can pick up the phone and find concierge Anthony Pike on the other end, a lively market has developed before the building even officially opened -- not in sales but in resales.

"Everyone closed on them and resold them for a million-dollar profit in a few days," says real-estate agent Michele Kleier, referring to $3.5 million Westbury apartments that resold for around $4.5 million each.

Slightly behind these ziggurats to conspicuous consumption both pricewise and in terms of location stand such luxe post-modern condominium skyscrapers as the Chatham, the Empire, and the Millennium, where a $2 million apartment is considered bottom-feeding.

"It's like a frenzy of piranha out there," observes real-estate lawyer Ted Kaplan. "I got three calls last week from brokers who said, 'We are desperate for anything. We have people who will go up to $6 million, and we can't show them anything.' "

The most obvious allure of condos is economic. They're a form of currency almost as easily convertible as cash. Unlike in a co-op, where the seller is at the whim of his or her board of directors, a condo board can do little to prevent a sale except to exercise its "right of first refusal" and buy the apartment itself. In any case, the seller makes his or her buck.

Then there are the amenities. At 610 Park, the former Mayfair Hotel, you can get home-cooked meals, that is if home were a Rothschild château and the chef, Daniel Boulud of Daniel, conveniently located in the building's lobby. Wine cellars in many of these buildings have become as common as doorknobs. (Does anybody not have a personal collection of Château d'Yquem these days?) And 838 Fifth boasts a "four-pipe system" whose splendor escapes me no matter how many times it's explained but which is apparently unprecedented in apartment construction and allows a family member to turn up the heat in one room while another runs the air-conditioning in the rest of the house. "There's never been a building built to these specs," Bret Bobo gloats. "People are moving out of co-ops in the neighborhood into this."

Perhaps most attractive of all, prospective buyers more often than not don't have to undergo the financial colonoscopies that have become standard operating procedure with most of the city's co-op boards.

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