REAL E$TATE 2000: MondoCondo

The brokers for the Fischer Mills Building, a former nineteenth-century coffee, tea, and spice emporium on Greenwich Street in TriBeCa currently being transformed into luxury condominiums, admit that Apartment 3D doesn’t show very well. To reach it, one must climb a slippery gangplank covered in sawdust and then squeeze through a hole in the wall.

Nonetheless, dozens of potential buyers have signed the release form – liberating the owners of liability lest one of the building’s original and lovingly preserved rough-hewn timber columns drops on somebody’s head – and donned hard hats to walk the plank for a peek at the future 2,700-square-foot four-bedroom apartment.

“That’s the best example of exactly what the market’s like right now,” explains Richard Wallgren, a broker with Stribling Wells & Gay. “We’ve had grandmothers and pregnant mothers going up the plank.”

Once upon a time, say ten years ago, condominiums were the social misfits of Manhattan’s real-estate market – especially among New Yorkers with the bank accounts and bluestocking connections to pass the right co-op boards. The floor plan of the typical condo had all the panache of a Rikers Island cell block. And, speaking of rap sheets, they were more likely to attract as tenants upscale call girls, former presidents-for-life of countries on the State Department’s embargoed list, or bushy-tailed yuppies fresh out of business school than Social Register families one would hope to rub shoulders with at the Metropolitan Museum’s annual children’s gala.

But all that’s changing. Condos have suddenly become chic, with such boldface new tenants as Bronfman, Boardman, Bowie, Nederlander, and Murdoch, not to mention a battalion of dot-com billionaires. They’re now flooding buildings such as 515 Park Avenue, the Zeckendorfs’ take on prewar glamour; 15 East 69th Street, the ex-Westbury Hotel presided over by its former concierge; and 838 Fifth Avenue, the former love thy neighbor home of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, where developers A. Alfred Taubman and his son-in-law Louis Dubin are now pursuing less spiritual goals with apartments that start at $9 million. Even Donald Trump’s golden shaft, the Trump International Hotel & Tower at 1 Central Park West, attracted record prices last year, and such tenants as Johnson & Johnson heiress Libet Johnson.

The amount of money sloshing around out there and being sponged up by real estate is simply unprecedented. At 515 Park Avenue, eight apartments sold for more than $10 million each last year – more than all the $10 million-plus sales in the city’s entire co-op market the year before.

At 838 Fifth Avenue, still crisscrossed with scaffolding, Seagram heir Charles Bronfman paid a rumored $18 million for the future duplex penthouse. The building’s maids’ rooms, thoughtfully located on the ground floor to free up more closet space in the average 5,500-square-foot apartment, cost $500,000 each. “We had seven, and they’ve been snapped up,” reports Bret Bobo, 838’s sales director.

And at the former Westbury Hotel, where tenants such as Terry Allen Kramer and D. Dixon Boardman can pick up the phone and find concierge Anthony Pike on the other end, a lively market has developed before the building even officially opened – not in sales but in resales.

“Everyone closed on them and resold them for a million-dollar profit in a few days,” says real-estate agent Michele Kleier, referring to $3.5 million Westbury apartments that resold for around $4.5 million each.

Slightly behind these ziggurats to conspicuous consumption both pricewise and in terms of location stand such luxe post-modern condominium skyscrapers as the Chatham, the Empire, and the Millennium, where a $2 million apartment is considered bottom-feeding.

“It’s like a frenzy of piranha out there,” observes real-estate lawyer Ted Kaplan. “I got three calls last week from brokers who said, ‘We are desperate for anything. We have people who will go up to $6 million, and we can’t show them anything.’ “

The most obvious allure of condos is economic. They’re a form of currency almost as easily convertible as cash. Unlike in a co-op, where the seller is at the whim of his or her board of directors, a condo board can do little to prevent a sale except to exercise its “right of first refusal” and buy the apartment itself. In any case, the seller makes his or her buck.

Then there are the amenities. At 610 Park, the former Mayfair Hotel, you can get home-cooked meals, that is if home were a Rothschild château and the chef, Daniel Boulud of Daniel, conveniently located in the building’s lobby. Wine cellars in many of these buildings have become as common as doorknobs. (Does anybody not have a personal collection of Château d’Yquem these days?) And 838 Fifth boasts a “four-pipe system” whose splendor escapes me no matter how many times it’s explained but which is apparently unprecedented in apartment construction and allows a family member to turn up the heat in one room while another runs the air-conditioning in the rest of the house. “There’s never been a building built to these specs,” Bret Bobo gloats. “People are moving out of co-ops in the neighborhood into this.”

Perhaps most attractive of all, prospective buyers more often than not don’t have to undergo the financial colonoscopies that have become standard operating procedure with most of the city’s co-op boards.

“I’m always saying to myself, I’m going to move to a condo,” explains etiquette guru Charlotte Ford, whose Sutton Place penthouse is plagued by leaks. “Because to get into an apartment today is ridiculous. The way the boards function – ridiculous.”

“We have a balcony that goes all the way around this vast apartment,” reports a credentialed socialite who moved from a sprawling Carnegie Hill townhouse into the Gotham, a condo on 87th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues. “There’s a fantastic Olympic pool that nobody’s ever in, and a state-of-the-art gym downstairs with trainers waiting to show you how to use the weight machines. The subway’s right outside the door. I’ve gone downtown a couple of times on it.”

Nonetheless, she and her husband are renting, and he won’t let her buy. “It’s not where he would end up,” she states, choosing her words carefully. “It’s too modern, too nouveau – not that he has anything against that.”

Whatever the drawbacks of the cooperative screening process, it does provide comfort for those who make the grade. “They feel they have a sense that the people they’re going to meet in the building, the gym, and the elevator or whatever are safe, nice families that somebody has vetted,” explains socialite Jamee Gregory. “And the part of that that’s nicest is that you know it’s not just about money.”

Buying a condo, especially in this market, is unequivocally about money. Dolly Lenz, senior vice-president of Sotheby’s International, recently sold an “Internet baby” a three-bedroom $12.5 million apartment at Trump International. According to her calculations, that comes out to $3,833 a square foot. “They saw it for ten seconds and bid way over the ask.” Contracts were signed in one day.

“They’re willing to overpay to get what they want,” she says, speaking of the e-zillionaires in general. “They know they’re overpaying. I advise them it’s 50 percent more than anybody ever paid for this apartment, and they’re fine with it.”

At 515 Park, stratospheric transactions take place without a single tax return’s changing hands. “We asked for a reference letter,” explains Will Zeckendorf, who developed the building with his brother Arthur. “If Merrill Lynch wrote and said, ‘Mr. So and So has over $50 million in liquid assets with us,’ we didn’t pry into tax returns.”

If there’s anything more amazing than the prices the rich are willing to pay, it’s the faith they have in the good taste of their developers. The young family who mounted Fischer Mills’s gangplank and recently bought the apartment for $1.5 million saw more of their future home than most do in this fast-moving market. The model apartment is becoming a thing of the past.

“You are basically looking at finishes, and the rest you are buying from a floor plan,” states Kirk Henckels, director of Stribling Private Brokerage.

Indeed, one reason given for the lively resale market even before these buildings open is that the finished product doesn’t live up to buyers’ expectations and they want to unload them. Or the buyers passed up a chance previously but are so impressed with the finished results that they’re willing to pay a premium.

Five-fifteen Park is currently showing a thirty-ninth-floor apartment whose view may be the best from any bathtub in Manhattan. Nonetheless, the folks who paid $16 million for it are supposedly changing their minds, reports a broker who recently toured the apartment. “They didn’t like the finishes,” she says.

“These people have the kind of money to act on a whim,” says Michele Kleier. “You made a mistake, and you return it. It’s like going to Bergdorf’s and buying a pair of shoes. They hurt, and you take them back.”

Perhaps the best indication that condos are becoming more socially acceptable is that some condo buildings are starting to cop the same attitude as top-of-the-line cooperatives. The St. Tropez, the city’s first condo, built in 1964 at 340 East 64th Street, has passed by-laws forbidding purchasers from renting out their apartments for two years to dissuade those buying only as an investment. At 923 Fifth, board packages sometimes get sat on for months. “The old biddies don’t want the new biddies,” states a disgruntled broker. And at Olympic Tower, once known as a crash pad for wealthy South Americans and Arabs and where the renovated lobby still leaves something to be desired – “Where do I park my camel?” is how one broker describes the décor – the amount of paperwork the board requires from potential buyers is quickly approaching the foot-thick millstone routinely demanded at cooperatives.

“The boards are getting so tough and picky,” sighs real-estate lawyer Ted Kaplan, one of whose clients recently got the runaround at Olympic Tower before being accepted. “It’s no longer just ‘Show us your first $20 million.’ “

One of the city’s more fearsome condo boards is said to be that of Bristol Plaza, at 200 East 65th Street, where the developers, the Milstein family, still own the top two floors and a private elevator to take them there. One recent Bristol victim was shock jock Howard Stern, rejected when he tried to buy a $2.7 million apartment on the building’s forty-third floor. The board was apparently concerned that the popularizer of “Butt Bongo” would disrupt the condo’s “businesslike” ambience, according to a broker familiar with the deal. And so the building exercised its right of first refusal, she says.

Stern eventually found himself a home at a more celebrity-friendly condo – the Millennium Tower, at Broadway and 67th Street, where his neighbors include the Lindas Fiorentino and Evangelista, Regis Philbin, and Elton John’s former manager, John Reed. However, Stern paid the price for building a career on the sore backs of stutterers, dwarfs, and lesbian strippers: His penthouse cost a staggering (at least in 1998 terms) $7 million for what his broker describes as “raw space.” He spent a few million more to make it habitable.

“The Millennium didn’t want him, either,” his broker states. “They’re so disorganized, they couldn’t figure how to keep him out.”

Downtown, the only apartment that’s proved hard to sell is JFK Jr. and Carolyn Bessette’s North Moore Street loft. It was on the market for $2.4 million, a price brokers consider too high for the space, especially since equivalent apartments in the building are selling for a million less and Kennedy hadn’t done much to put his stamp on the loft. “Anything that had a stitch of his personality was removed,” explains one broker. “It was been on the market two to three months, and in this market two to three months is a long time.” (It’s currently said to be under contract.)

Indeed, if Kennedy were to return today, the surrounding neighborhood would already look a little different. With the possible exception of Times Square, no area of Manhattan is changing as rapidly as TriBeCa, and most if not all the new development is luxury condominiums.

If money is the narrative thread in the condo boom, fun seems to be the back story. Empty-nesters who once wouldn’t have ventured below 59th Street without making sure their vaccinations were up to date are now spending gleefully for pied-à-terres in Chelsea and TriBeCa. The reason? Luxury lofts the size of airplane hangars. Young, hip neighbors whose presence confirms the fact that you’re happening, too. And restaurants such as Nobu and Chanterelle, which mean you won’t starve. So what if TriBeCa still has a supermarket shortage?

“What I find fascinating about TriBeCa is that it’s a neighborhood that didn’t exist very much ten years ago,” Stribling’s Richard Wallgren says. “It’s exciting to walk down blocks where every building you see that isn’t a luxury condo is going to be.” Some longtime TriBeCa residents angrily complain that the neighborhood’s been hijacked. Susan Bodo is an art dealer who’s seen the neighborhood where her kids grew up change from a haven for Birkenstocked baby-boomers to a sort of Colonial Williamsburg for Wall Street hotshots. “I walked into Walkers, our local restaurant, the other day, and there were several tables of these thirtyish people,” she says. “The girls all had streaked blonde hair and cell phones.”

“The NASDAQ nouveaus don’t have a lot of money in the bank but can pay high finance charges and a lot of maintenance,” explains Clark Halstead, founder and managing partner of the Halstead Property Company. “So condos suit them fine.”

The neighborhood is attracting a new kind of “artist” – and one far better compensated than the average paint-stained wretch who inhabited the neighborhood in the old days. Billy Crystal and Martha Stewart’s daughter Alexis have bought in the Ice House, a renovated luxury condo overlooking a not especially scenic traffic island on Ericsson Place. David Bowie and his wife, Iman; poor Eric Nederlander, who will probably forever be known as the husband Jessica Sklar left for Jerry Seinfeld; and Lachlan Murdoch purchased at 285 Lafayette Street, a former artist-loft building.

Others making the trek downtown include Lachlan’s dad, Rupert, living la vida loca with his third wife, Wendy Deng, in the duplex penthouse at 141 Prince Street. Mariah Carey, smarting on the heels of a turndown when she tried to purchase Barbra Streisand’s apartment at 320 Central Park West – she showed up with bodyguards (not the sort of touch that goes over big at a haimish building like the Ardsley) and an exposed navel after she was warned to dress like she was on her way to a funeral – is buying two floors at the Franklin Tower, an Art Deco beauty in TriBeCa where Ben Stiller will be a neighbor.

“She was refreshed by the freedom of condominium purchase” is how one broker who helped show the diva around 140 Franklin, another building she was considering, put it. At the moment, 140 Franklin boasts TriBeCa’s most expensive condo, an $11 million penthouse with 29 mahogany-framed windows, eleven-foot ceilings, and a living room whose 200-by-50-foot dimensions would be suitable for just about anything from celebrating your dot-com’s IPO with your worldwide staff and all your investors to Little League play.

“She arrives with a driver, two bodyguards, a business manager, an attorney, two brokers, and they all had cell phones,” sniffs one broker. “She was on her cell phone the whole time. She never looked at the apartment.”

In the diva’s defense, there still isn’t much to look at unless your taste runs to distressed brick, bare light bulbs, and exposed wiring. She’s paying around $9 million and hiring Mario Buatta to decorate it.

By the way, when the building opens for business in the near future, don’t expect to see doorman Anthony Perricone in an uptown monkey suit with gold braid and epaulets. “We’re not going to be in a uniform like you can tell we’re a doorman,” he explains. “The people who live in this building don’t want that flash.”

REAL E$TATE 2000: MondoCondo