Sometime in 1999, Viviane El-Yachar, a broker at Prudential Douglas Elliman, brought her client, Adriaan Van Der Knaap, to 145 Hudson Street. There was a sales office there for a project a few blocks away on North Moore Street, and El-Yachar thought one of the units would appeal to Van Der Knaap, a banker who could spend a couple of million dollars. Instead of being seduced by the North Moore condos, however, Van Der Knaap fell for the sales office itself, or rather the space it occupied—sunny and cavernous, with open views from huge casement windows. “It was exactly what we were looking for,” Van Der Knaap remembers.
He couldn’t live there, though: The building was zoned commercial-only. But he was still on the hunt by the fall of 2002, when 145 Hudson came on the market as a high-end residential project called Skylofts. Van Der Knaap jumped, going into contract for a 4,150 square-foot apartment on the eleventh floor.
Three years and five months later, he hasn’t moved in. Nor has anyone else. The finished lofts sit empty, collateral damage in a colossal misunderstanding among preservationists, the developer, and the city’s maddening process for approving conversions. “I’m always happy when people find their dream home,” says El-Yachar. “But it’s become a nightmare.”
Buying an apartment in New York is so onerous and competitive that buyers almost always end up compromising. Even if you spend a lot of money, you pay too much for space that half-fits your needs; co-op boards pick you apart; and in the case of new condos and conversions, you buy early—the earlier the better—and wait to move in. But even by these standards, the Skylofts debacle is impressive. The drama has played out against the backdrop of a neighborhood cooling toward development as it has grown richer and more coveted, and a bureaucracy that may be overloaded by so much construction. One veteran broker says that the buyers at Skylofts are facing “the longest closing in the history of downtown.”
The green industrial building at 145 Hudson Street went up in 1929. A half-century later, it housed architects, filmmakers, and commercial printers, many of whom clustered in the neighborhood’s solid loft buildings that could support their hulking presses. One of them, Stanley Scott, ran his business there from 1966 to 1991. He bought the building in 1981 and operated it as a commercial property well into the mid-nineties, when he started planning the residential conversion. By then, Tribeca had pretty much arrived, drawing movie stars and well-off families who liked the scale and the hushed nighttime streets. But the northern bit of the neighborhood, which local businesses had renamed Hudson Square, still had a rakish air, perfumed by exhaust from Holland Tunnel traffic. “You could still get rice and beans for $3,” says Rob Rogers of the architecture firm Rogers Marvel, which has worked on the conversion and kept offices in the building.
In 1996, the architect Joseph Pell Lombardi—known for his work on many historic projects—presented his vision for converting 145 Hudson Street to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which had to approve any changes to the building. The budget was $43 million, and the plans were rather adventurous. Masonry on all the elevations of the building would be repointed, the façade restored, the first four floors sold as commercial condos, and floors eleven through fourteen carved into two gigantic lofts. (Plans for floors five through ten were still undecided at that point.)
Lombardi’s renderings also included a sloping rooftop addition encased in glass. It looked very much like an unbuilt structure—presumably a skylight or greenhouse—that appears in early renderings of the building. In a September 2002 New York Times article, the then-chairperson of the Landmarks commission, Sherida Paulsen, said it “echoed the original design.” Lombardi remembers being asked how noticeable the penthouse would be, “and I made the statement that it would have minimal visibility or low visibility” from the street.
The issue of its visibility “wasn’t a major part of the presentation,” he says. At the time, penthouses were mushrooming on the rooftops of Tribeca, many of them less attractive than Lombardi’s. Besides, architects couldn’t always accurately determine how penthouses would look from below; they didn’t yet have the technology to produce visibility studies, and actual mock-ups providing precise sight lines cost tens of thousands of dollars to build. (Landmarks didn’t require them then; it does now.) In any case, Lombardi’s drawings were filed and “perforated” (Landmarks-speak for approved) in early 1997. The developer and architects got an okay from the city—the building was in an area zoned for manufacturing so it needed dispensation—and the conversion was on.
The luxury market was hobbling when 145 Hudson made its debut in October 2002. Though business in proletarian apartments had bounced back nicely after the 9/11 attacks, the high end had been slower to return, as buyers waited to see what would happen. So it came as a relief to co–listing broker Sean Murphy Turner of Stribling Marketing Associates when about 100 real-estate agents, eager to see what was available, swarmed the Skylofts sales office when it opened. There’d been lots of buzz about the conversion; many agents had been in the building and knew it was absolutely prime space. “I’d never seen an open house when there were so many brokers on the phone to their clients,” marvels Turner. All eight of the available units sold immediately, most at the asking prices, from $3.45 million (for 4,120 square feet) to $4.4 million (for 5,198 square feet). There’d been a concern that the lofts were too big, says Rogers, but buyers—including Adriaan Van Der Knaap—weren’t scared off.