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This Is What $90 Million Looks Like

And yet the risk involved in One57 was obvious to anyone in the room during last year’s sales pitch. Barnett had showcased a potentially incredible product whose success was predicated upon a wager completely out of Barnett’s control: that the economy would remain relatively stable in time to complete construction. There was a sense, Field remembers, “of ‘Is this guy going to be able to deliver in 2014?’ ”

Still, Field says the response from her clients was “remarkable.” Citing a confidentiality agreement, she will not disclose names, nor the exact number of units she has sold, but she will give a laundry list of nationalities: Indian, Canadian, Chinese, Taiwanese. And in conversation she seems eager to hint that it was she who brokered the sale of the penthouse.

All of which—the winks and the nods, the purportedly insane demand, the armies of foreign buyers—would be easy to dismiss as extremely good marketing hype if it didn’t appear to actually be true.

Patrick O’Neill, a Hong Kong–based consultant who works with Chinese buyers—and plans to show clients several units at One57 this month—says that the United States, and New York in particular, is “the perfect dim-sum cart for the Chinese investor.” Back in 2009 and 2010, foreign buyers had little interest in preconstruction purchasing. Now, O’Neill says, high-end inventory is down 25 to 30 percent in New York and prices are up 10 to 15 percent. “If you want to look at this level, suddenly One57”—no matter that it is not finished—“becomes of real interest.”

“The way I usually characterize it is this,” says Jonathan Miller, the president of Miller Samuel, a real-estate appraisal firm. “Luxury real estate is the new global currency.”

So, yes, One57 is doing well. Extremely well, thank you very much. According to Barnett, more than 60 percent of the units are sold, and he expects to have the bulk of the remaining apartments unloaded by early next year. Still, let us, for the sake of argument, outline a few doomsday scenarios, for there is precedent. Here’s one: Extell, in pushing the international character of its new building, manages to alienate native New Yorkers and old-money types, who prefer the limestone environs of the Upper West Side and the Upper East Side—who want history, schools, trees.

“Look, these are people who aspire to be New Yorkers,” architectural historian Andrew Alpern says of the future residents of One57. “I’m a native New Yorker. I’m such a New Yorker that when you cut me, black coffee comes out. If it were me, if I had ten, fifteen million dollars, I’d spend it on 15 Central Park West. These international people, they’re a foreign breed to me. I feel comfortable with my own kind. I suspect others do, too.”

Second supposition: The economy tanks. The U.S. economy and the global economy, too. Money dries up. Construction stalls. This actually almost happened early in the history of One57, which was conceived almost ten years ago and got a false start in 2008. Back then, the situation was bad, but not calamitous: The foundation hadn’t been dug. Now it would be a disaster: One57, not yet fully enclosed in its glass skin, would stand open to the elements, its orange plastic netting flapping in the winter breeze.

The obvious analogue here is One Madison Park, a silvery, stark 60-story condo tower on East 22nd Street. Work on One Madison Park commenced in 2006, but a seemingly endless string of financial and legal misadventures—including near bankruptcy—kept the building unfinished for years. Sales at One Madison Park are expected to begin anew this winter, although it seems clear that the place has lost much of its luster. Luxury real-estate is like that: Perceived cultural cachet and momentum are everything.

Keep in mind that until the deals close, in 2013, the buyers at One57 are really only potential buyers—they’ve put down sizable deposits (tens of millions in some cases), but they can still walk away. Adam Leitman Bailey, a veteran real-estate lawyer, says Extell will likely have one year after the promised delivery date to present an apartment to a buyer. After that, the buyer could legally cancel his contract. Alternatively, he might attempt to negotiate a new price for the unit with Extell, which would suddenly find itself in a much less confident position of leverage.

“Remember when all those buyers walked from their contracts post-Lehman?” asks one prominent real-estate analyst. “The minute the cycle turns, they’re gone. This is the most fragile of all markets.” As for the developer, the analyst adds, “he would take the hit and take the deposits and pray people think it was only the cycle that took him down.”