"I think Richard Meier is the pretty girl sitting at the bar who everyone's afraid to approach," boasts Richard Born, the real-estate developer who partnered with André Balazs on SoHo's Mercer Hotel, rehabbed the Stanhope and the midtown Hotel Élysée, and assembled the garish Times Square Holiday Inn. Tan with slightly receding light hair and rimless glasses, Born, along with his partner, Ira Drukier, mustered enough nerve last year to ask Meier, the audacious Getty Center architect, if he would design a new apartment-and-hotel complex for their site at West and Perry Streets, steps from the new Hudson River Park.
Meier, who has never had an original construction in Manhattan, said yes, and the result will be something unique: two glistening, fifteen-story glass waterfront condo towers. The Meier pedigree is already said to have Calvin Klein and Gilles Bensimon clamoring to buy raw floors for up to $6 million each.
With this one deal, Born has vaulted into a pantheon of notable Manhattan builders. While many of his better-known peers might be wealthier, most have been either too cheap or too stodgy to work with a world-class architect. One sure-fire sign that he's truly arrived is the community uproar: This, after all, is the West Village, where two huge glass towers could taint what is left of the neighborhood's homespun Jane Jacobs charm. The towers will stand just one block outside the Village's landmarked low-rise district, free and clear of zoning problems, infuriating preservationists. (Born's tentative plan to build a 55-room boutique hotel next door hasn't helped, either.) City Council member Christine Quinn worries that the project "would gentrify the neighborhood even more than it already is," while Tom Duane, the Village's state senator, declares, "We don't look kindly at developers coming in and taking advantage of the character of our neighborhood and destroying it. In a battle for what's more exciting for people -- a Richard Meier building or preserving the character of the Village -- preserving the character of the Village will win out every time."
To call this gentrification is, in fact, an understatement. Jean-Georges Vongerichten is planning a restaurant at the ground level. (Vongerichten's partner, Philip Suarez, worked with Born on Vongerichten's Mercer Kitchen and brought the architect together with Born and Drukier.) Condo buyers can purchase only entire floors. For those wishing the full Architectural Digest treatment, Meier will even finish the spaces himself. "That floor-to-ceiling glass, that transparency, is something that doesn't exist anywhere in New York," Meier enthuses in his all-white loft office on Tenth Avenue. "To be on the park in a building with only fourteen units -- that's like living in a large brownstone."
If there's one thing the new park is sure to resurrect on the waterfront, it is real-estate hubris. But Born insists he's adding value to the Village by bringing two Meier structures to a spot that could have accommodated a single fatter brick building. "I'm sure there are SoHo residents who may say 'I'd never live in a glass tower,' " Born says. "But we don't need everybody. We only need 28 buyers." And while he admits that the more than $50 million projected cost is 50 percent more than a conventional project, he's fairly confident he can make it up on the back end.
"Richard Meier's done only fourteen homes worldwide," Born says with a grin. "Most of them are $20-to-$40 million homes in places like Honolulu or Tokyo. We're creating 28 more Richard Meier homes here in New York."