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Luxury Lemons?

The brochures and CD-roms promised old-world splendor and high-tech ease. But the buyers of some of the boom's most visible developments say: Promises made weren't promises kept.

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In a spacious, tastefully appointed living room at 145 East 76th Street, a couple who've spent most of their adult lives on the Upper East Side are reliving the moment when they decided to make the leap from prewar Park Avenue to their current $2 million, high-ceilinged three-bedroom in one of the nineties' signature residential developments. The seduction, which began in March 1999, was conducted with virtual-reality tours (on which the developer, Harry Macklowe, spent $100,000), renderings of the elegant Hugh Hardy facade, and with brochure copy that promised "a residents-only private lounge and dining room," along with a "cortile" -- a cortile! -- "patterned after the intimate colonnaded courtyards of Rome."

"I have to admit," she confesses, "I was somewhat captivated."

Eleven months later, however, the thrill is definitely gone, and hell hath no fury like a luxury-condo buyer scorned. "The hardwood floors look like rippling waves," the man says. "They told us oak floors are subject to shrinkage and swelling," the woman adds. "I'm a New Yorker, I've had wood floors all my life, and nothing ever got swollen or shrunk." There are floor-to-ceiling cracks bisecting the toile wallpaper in the study, and stained bathroom marble. The glass doors to the "Juliet" balcony are so heavy, they bent their own hinges. "Our contractor came in and said, 'We've never seen walls this uneven.' "

Then came the last straw: "I'm going to flush the toilet," she says, jumping up from the floral-patterned couch and marching down a long hallway to the powder room. Moments later, there's a furious, crushing explosion -- sssssppplllllluuuuussssshhhhhh!!! She marches back in. "And that's with the door closed."

When nineties money went searching for trophies, much of it ended up in buildings like 145 East 76th Street, which combines prewar details like maid's rooms, back stairs, and fireplaces with top-of-the-line amenities, appliances, and technology. They promised an idealized vision of Manhattan living to people -- bonus-heavy Wall Streeters, Internet moguls, Warren Buffett charter investors -- whose financial lives in the nineties couldn't have been more ideal.

These promises were typically made in hyperbolic brochures, one of the great art forms of the real-estate boom: heavy, luxe folders, packed with CD-roms, sentimental snapshots of neighborhood hot spots (Prada, Fendi, and the Carlyle, in the case of 145 East 76th Street), and near-pornographic pamphlets mapping out the promised land. For gourmands, there were Viking stoves. Webheads and workaholics got ISDN lines. Design connoisseurs were wooed with a Robert Stern facade or a David Rockwell lobby. Europhiles got details like the aforementioned cortile for dining alfresco (though just how many knew what it was is open to debate). And if creature comforts couldn't close the sale, celebrities did. Just about every boldface name that signed a contract for one of these buildings -- or even trooped through with a broker -- seemed to end up in the gossip columns.

Given the expectations that were loaded onto these apartments, how could the reality possibly measure up? But in a world where every tech stock went up, up, up, reality wasn't a major concern.

Now it's cold-grey-dawn time. "A lot of people are disappointed," says Michele Kleier, chairman of the brokerage firm Gumley Haft Kleier. "It's like buying from a catalog. The fabric looks beautiful in the catalog, but when you actually touch it, it doesn't feel as good as it looked."

At 145 East 76th, as at a few other new buildings, recriminations and bickering are the order of the day, and the three residents who sit on the building's board have begun battling Macklowe to have the building's deficiencies addressed. "Macklowe's like a character in a Molière play," says a resident. "He thinks he's a wonderful person, but he's a clown in my eyes. The attitude is, you don't like it, sell the apartment or fix it yourself."

The Macklowe camp, of course, sees things differently. "We have a flooring issue," allows William Macklowe, son of Harry and executive vice-president of Macklowe Properties, Inc. "And there are some individual punch-list issues. But this is not something we've dropped the ball on. When you have a successful sales program and you sell out during construction," he continues, "once the building's done you get a rash of move-ins, and that really takes a physical toll on a building. The unit owners, I think, have very good value and should enjoy their apartments."

Of all the new construction, the Chatam, at 65th and Third, is considered the best in value by many industry players. (As Dolly Lenz, executive vice president of Douglas Elliman, is quick to note, she was able to sell a $3 million three-bedroom there for $5 million in one day.) But that doesn't mean that all those who actually plan on moving into the Robert Stern-designed building are satisfied. One buyer started to worry when the developer, Related Companies, wouldn't let her inside her $900-a-square-foot apartment-in-progress. "First they promised I could see it when the building was framed out. Then they said not until ten days before we closed. I don't think I ever would have signed up for something that I really was never going to get a chance to see or plan in an organized fashion. The other thing that really ticked me off was that the master bath was designed with no medicine cabinet. That was their idea of fine. You'd get the hair spray when you meant to get the deodorant and pick out the killer pills instead of the aspirin because you'd be reaching down into a drawer. They wouldn't put one in, nor would they leave the bathroom blank. It was highly annoying." Aside from the unexpected $900 a month for a garage space she was lucky to get (residents of the 24th floor and above got first garage dibs), the biggest disappointment of all was not having the first-class restaurant she once heard was to be run by Jean-Georges Vongerichten. "That was a big hook for me. It was in all their marketing materials," she says. "I heard they had it stationed too close to a church entrance. So they couldn't get a liquor license and had to cancel it. Somebody really screwed up big-time."


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