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What Went Wrong at Astor Place?

The sinuous glass tower has a dream location, a name-brand architect—and sluggish sales. Five theories of the case.

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The Sculpture for Living joins Tony Rosenthal's "Alamo," a.k.a. the Cube, on Astor Place.  

The project seemed blessed. The wedge-shaped site at 445 Lafayette Street, behind the Astor Place cube and next to Cooper Union, had been a parking lot for decades, awaiting its moment. A project involving Ian Schrager, Rem Koolhaas, and (maybe) Frank Gehry had fallen through. And then came the Related Companies, fresh off the Time Warner complex at Columbus Circle, which remade a dead spot into one of the priciest corridors in midtown.

For Astor Place, Related hired architect Charles Gwathmey, who delivered plans for a beguiling amoeba-shaped building. Everyone expected success. It’s at a key downtown intersection, one that screams for its own Flatiron Building. From the north, the tower could look like a Brancusi set against the sky—and the building’s prospectus carried the slogan SCULPTURE FOR LIVING. Within days of the opening, 11 of its 39 apartments were poised to go into contract.

Nearly two years later, Astor Place is not sold out. It’s not even close. A Wall Street Journal article in April claimed that only one apartment had traded since last fall. In a market that’s been gobbling high-end apartments, it has the scent of a failure or, at best, not a winner. So how did the “It” building lose its gloss? Who, or what, killed Astor Place?

THEORY NO. 1: Paul Goldberger did it.
In May 2005, the New Yorker architecture critic and Parsons dean published a column in which he declared that the emperor had no clothes. It was a rebuke so stinging that real-estate people still lower their voices when referring to it. Preservationists had scorned Gwathmey’s wavy design from the beginning—no surprise there. But most everyone else had high hopes. Goldberger cut them down, calling Astor Place “an elf prancing among men” with a “garishly reflective” façade channeling not Mies but Trump. (He did admit to liking the interiors, calling them “assertive, sensual spaces that evoke the classic modernist houses of Le Corbusier.”)

From there, opinions started to turn. “It’s very aggressively designed. It ill-serves the neighborhood, and vice versa,” says one high-profile real-estate executive. Critics have been toughest on the greenish-blue glass shell, which gives the building a peculiar office-building vibe. (Goldberger likened it to the stuff of suburban office parks.) Assembled from flat panels rather than smooth custom curves, it looked a lot better in renderings than on the street.

That commercial quality got even more pronounced when a Chase bank branch took over the ground floor. Why not a restaurant, a gallery, something subtler? Or at least not so brightly lit? (Because a bank is the world’s easiest tenant. It produces no noise, no odors, no real trash, no late-night activity.) The funky shape also means that some apartments’ layouts are eccentric, and not everyone loves the finishes. “I don’t think people like fluorescent lights in their multi-million-dollar kitchens,” sniffs one high-powered agent. Then “there’s the privacy issue,” he says. “You either have to draw your shades or be in really great shape.” Says a developer: “If you put up curtains, what’s the use of having the glass?”

THEORY NO. 2: Blame the lawyers, and the landlord.
If it wasn’t the design snobs, then who else? Perhaps Cooper Union—indirectly, anyway. Instead of selling the land under 445 Lafayette to Related, the school opted to lease it for 99 years. That meant Astor Place had to be a co-op rather than a condo (though it’s technically one of those hybrids called a “condop”—that is, a co-op with condo rules). “The downtown buyer is a condo buyer. Are they buying co-ops? Yes, but reluctantly,” says Kathy Sloane of Brown Harris Stevens. “I had several customers I wanted to put there, but when they found out it was a co-op, they said absolutely not,” says one of her colleagues.

A land lease makes the building ineligible for certain abatements that keep real-estate taxes down. It also boosts monthly charges, because residents have to cover the ground rent. A tenth-floor 1,449-square-foot two-bedroom at Astor Place, for instance, has monthly fees in excess of $2,800; the Manhattan average, says appraiser Jonathan Miller, is $1.50 per square foot, in this case $2,173. (Moreover, the building’s taxes will rise 20 percent in July.)

Land leases also tend to scare off buyers, because real-estate lawyers often flag them. Why? If a building’s ground lease comes up for renewal, your monthly fees could spike overnight, and even if that’s deep in the future, buyers are often counseled by their attorneys to think about when they’ll be selling. (Never mind that few buyers will be around by 2090, when it’ll start to matter. Lawyers are paid to bring up that stuff.) “With the amount of inventory on the market, about 10,000 units in the next year, any attorney would say look for a condo,” says a broker who has shepherded numerous construction projects.


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