C ondo conversions are notoriously difficult, but the drama unfurling at Manhattan House, a 583-unit East 66th Street building that’s the epitome of the giant postwar white-brick, is reaching legendary proportions. Lawyers and legislators are hollering, and “animosity would not begin to describe what’s going on,” says Gail Amsterdam, who has lived in the building for sixteen years.
Tenants claim owners N. Richard Kalikow and Jeremiah O’Connor, who bought it last year for $620 million in the second-most-expensive sale of a rental building ever (topped only by the Stuyvesant Town deal), are muscling elderly rent-stabilized and market-rate tenants out the door. Those who’ve stayed gripe about renovations. One man well over 80 says his rent checks have gone uncashed; Amsterdam even blames the recent death of her uncle, Martin Burwick, on the resultant stress. (Publicist Steve Solomon, speaking for Kalikow and O’Connor, says “there’s absolutely no truth” to the harassment claims.)
It’s the stuff headlines are made of, and indeed the mess has made the papers repeatedly. But is it worth it for the developers? Their prices, around $1,500 per square foot, are pretty high, and questions linger over whether the cooling condo market will support them. A 1,482-square-foot two-bedroom on the seventh floor, for instance, is priced at $2.2 million; a 2,367-square-foot on a higher floor, $3.8 million. (Current tenants will get a slight discount.) In comparison, a 1,475-square-foot unit at the Philip Johnson–designed Metropolitan is listed in the offering plan at $1.68 million; a 2,200-square-foot three-bedroom on East End Avenue is $3.25 million. Even for a place that once housed Grace Kelly, those are ambitious numbers. “You’re going to be living with a lot of renters … My clientele would not be interested in that,” scoffs one uptown broker.
Furthermore, even with a planned makeover—roof deck, library, billiard room, fitness center—Manhattan House’s owners can’t do much about its modest ceiling heights and ungainly exterior. Appraiser Jonathan Miller, while noting the building’s appealingly large units, says the conversion “may fly, but there’s more competition out there.” Says Amsterdam, “If I was going to spend $2 million on a two-bedroom, I’d go to Park Avenue … You can teach an old dog new tricks, but an old dog’s an old dog.”
Solomon maintains “a lot of thought went into the pricing,” adding that he expects many residents to buy in. Some of those tenants wonder if they’re wanted, though. “We told them many times we were interested, and they [sent] us an eviction notice,” says software executive Ben Weintraub, who’s lived there for eleven years. Ditto Douglas Altchek, a doctor and 25-year Manhattan House resident who suspects that the developers would prefer the higher prices outside sales would bring. “I’m ready, willing, and able,” he says, sighing. “Why on earth they haven’t negotiated with me, I don’t know.”