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Chicago Hope

The Towers, on Central Park West at 105th Street, has long been one of the city's spookiest ruins. But developer Dan McLean thinks that when his renovation is done, affluent New Yorkers will flock to it, as they once flocked to the Dakota. Is he crazy? Maybe, maybe not. But he is from Chicago.

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You might think there isn't much of a market for a $5 million apartment on 105th Street, but Dan McLean disagrees. The Chicago developer, who built a significant chunk of his city's South Loop and purchased most of Fisher Island off the Miami coast, is making his first foray into the New York market. He's transforming a long-derelict Victorian cancer hospital on 455 Central Park West into $800-a-square-foot condos with a 25-story tower soaring behind it.

At the moment, however, the once lordly looking brick-and-Belleville-stone château with conical towers and arched windows looks more like the urban version of The Amityville Horror. Worse, it's within gunshot range of the Frederick Douglass Houses, a project that not so long ago hosted a brisk crack trade.

The Towers, as it's known, seems to be a haunted site. (Perhaps literally. One of the architects looking at a historic photo of the place spotted what he joked was a ghost in one of the windows.) At least three developers have tried to realize their visions for the project in recent years, but none have even gotten a spade in the ground -- until McLean.

"I've been lucky enough to be able to see things other people haven't necessarily seen," says McLean, who's not referring to ghosts. "I discovered early on that if you did a big enough project you could create new neighborhoods. A die-hard New Yorker wouldn't have lived there ten years ago. But you can become jaded in your own city. I look at it and see that it's on the park, there are women jogging. It's the Dakota of the north."

Building it is one thing. Getting Manhattan's most affluent apartment hunters up above 96th Street is another. McLean's MCL Companies has shelled out a reported $24 million in cash for the property (development will cost him another $150 million) precisely at the moment when the demand for super-luxury apartments shows signs of slowing down. Still, the person with the wherewithal to pay for that 4,000-square-foot duplex in a former chapel with stained-glass windows has got to feel, when he steps out of his private elevator, that his or her values are reflected. A condo, these days, is a statement of self, a message. That's what McLean has been spending much of his energies working on.

At the first of many Tuesday-morning marketing meetings, this one at the offices of Douglas Elliman, the building's sales agent, a phalanx of marketing and P.R. people pick at muffins, looking eagerly at McLean, whose sunny midwestern countenance is a surprise in the hyperintense world of Manhattan development. Mock-ups of 455 CPW stationery are being passed out for his approval: green paper with a small Four Seasons- esque tree mounted against black posterboard. "It's an important signature of the property," says a marketer. "That's the conservative choice. But then again, a lot of people do ivory. I think 'moss' gives it a little more signature. And again, it's the green of the park." "I'd go with green, sure," says McLean.

Later, at the Union Square offices of Perkins Eastman, one of McLean's two architecture firms, the fixtures are the focus. Chicago vs. New York standards go head to head. "Brass?" says MCL development director Anne Miller. "Brushed stainless," everyone retorts in unison. In McLean's Chicago buildings, he has a design center that offers thousands of options, but such customization is too costly in New York, he explains, flipping through binders of kitchen samples. "Here you just pick out a nice level of standards."

The Towers was originally put up in 1884 by John Jacob Astor III as the New York Cancer Hospital (a precursor of Sloan-Kettering). Its rounded towers were designed on the theory that germs couldn't hide in the corners.

In the fifties, it became the infamous Towers Nursing Home, which was shut down after owner Bernard Bergman was convicted of Medicaid fraud. Developer Lewis Futterman bought the property from the city for back taxes in the mid-eighties, and then spent three years getting plans for renovation and a tower designed by Peter Bafitis (the other architect, now of RKT&B, who has become the project's de facto historian) approved by the Landmarks Commission. He then turned a profit selling the package to Ian Schrager in 1988. It was Schrager who shifted the entrance from 106th Street to Central Park West, super-sized the units, and envisioned a kind of self-contained compound with a grocery store, a health club, and a gigantic parking garage, for which he had to apply to the zoning board.

When the market turned bad, Schrager was unable to get his project off the ground. Nine years later, Savanna Partners snapped up the Towers -- from the bank -- to build an assisted-living facility and brought in Perkins Eastman, which specializes in such ventures, to reconfigure the plans into smaller units. The zoning was changed from "residential" to "residential hotel."

In 1999, the Towers went on the block yet again, when the company that agreed to run the home for Savanna reneged. Columbia University made a serious run at it for faculty housing. Two private schools were interested as well, until McLean came in at the eleventh hour. Last March, the day before bids were due, he was playing golf on Fisher Island. "My friend Arthur Halleran, the only other Irish guy on the island, had known about it a while but didn't get around to telling me," he laughs. (Halleran is now an investor in 455 CPW.) "So I flew in the next day, looked at the project, and made an offer."

Now, a year later, as demolition of what was the Tower's non-landmarked former X-ray building on the corner of 105th begins and the project finally feels like a reality, the industry forecast is decidedly mixed: "I have a hard time getting people to look above 90th Street," says one condo broker. "There are some issues," says Carol Mann, senior vice-president at Stribling. "On Manhattan Avenue, there are blocks and blocks of projects -- that will never change. But I'd be bullish on 455, no question. Columbia has come down, the Upper West side has gone up. There's a huge resurgence in Harlem. It should work."

The winds of uptown gentrification might be in his sails, but all hasn't been smooth for McLean. For pre-development work, he hired Louise Sunshine, the brassy condo-marketing guru who helped make Trump millions and is currently overseeing high-end jobs like the AOL Time Warner tower at Columbus Circle and Richard Meier's Perry Street project. But when it came time to start selling 455, McLean's advisers wanted him to work with Elliman.

Of course, Sunshine's ready to run down the project. "If they made it $500 a square foot they'd be successful," she says. "The other issue is that the rock formations of the park are very high on 105th and 106th Street. For park visibility you'd have to get on the upper floors of the building. It's very risky."


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