Chicago Hope

You might think there isn’t much of a market for a $5 million apartment on 105th Street, but Dan McLean disagrees. The Chicago developer, who built a significant chunk of his city’s South Loop and purchased most of Fisher Island off the Miami coast, is making his first foray into the New York market. He’s transforming a long-derelict Victorian cancer hospital on 455 Central Park West into $800-a-square-foot condos with a 25-story tower soaring behind it.

At the moment, however, the once lordly looking brick-and-Belleville-stone château with conical towers and arched windows looks more like the urban version of The Amityville Horror. Worse, it’s within gunshot range of the Frederick Douglass Houses, a project that not so long ago hosted a brisk crack trade.

The Towers, as it’s known, seems to be a haunted site. (Perhaps literally. One of the architects looking at a historic photo of the place spotted what he joked was a ghost in one of the windows.) At least three developers have tried to realize their visions for the project in recent years, but none have even gotten a spade in the ground – until McLean.

“I’ve been lucky enough to be able to see things other people haven’t necessarily seen,” says McLean, who’s not referring to ghosts. “I discovered early on that if you did a big enough project you could create new neighborhoods. A die-hard New Yorker wouldn’t have lived there ten years ago. But you can become jaded in your own city. I look at it and see that it’s on the park, there are women jogging. It’s the Dakota of the north.”

Building it is one thing. Getting Manhattan’s most affluent apartment hunters up above 96th Street is another. McLean’s MCL Companies has shelled out a reported $24 million in cash for the property (development will cost him another $150 million) precisely at the moment when the demand for super-luxury apartments shows signs of slowing down. Still, the person with the wherewithal to pay for that 4,000-square-foot duplex in a former chapel with stained-glass windows has got to feel, when he steps out of his private elevator, that his or her values are reflected. A condo, these days, is a statement of self, a message. That’s what McLean has been spending much of his energies working on.

At the first of many Tuesday-morning marketing meetings, this one at the offices of Douglas Elliman, the building’s sales agent, a phalanx of marketing and P.R. people pick at muffins, looking eagerly at McLean, whose sunny midwestern countenance is a surprise in the hyperintense world of Manhattan development. Mock-ups of 455 CPW stationery are being passed out for his approval: green paper with a small Four Seasons- esque tree mounted against black posterboard. “It’s an important signature of the property,” says a marketer. “That’s the conservative choice. But then again, a lot of people do ivory. I think ‘moss’ gives it a little more signature. And again, it’s the green of the park.” “I’d go with green, sure,” says McLean.

Later, at the Union Square offices of Perkins Eastman, one of McLean’s two architecture firms, the fixtures are the focus. Chicago vs. New York standards go head to head. “Brass?” says MCL development director Anne Miller. “Brushed stainless,” everyone retorts in unison. In McLean’s Chicago buildings, he has a design center that offers thousands of options, but such customization is too costly in New York, he explains, flipping through binders of kitchen samples. “Here you just pick out a nice level of standards.”

The Towers was originally put up in 1884 by John Jacob Astor III as the New York Cancer Hospital (a precursor of Sloan-Kettering). Its rounded towers were designed on the theory that germs couldn’t hide in the corners.

In the fifties, it became the infamous Towers Nursing Home, which was shut down after owner Bernard Bergman was convicted of Medicaid fraud. Developer Lewis Futterman bought the property from the city for back taxes in the mid-eighties, and then spent three years getting plans for renovation and a tower designed by Peter Bafitis (the other architect, now of RKT&B, who has become the project’s de facto historian) approved by the Landmarks Commission. He then turned a profit selling the package to Ian Schrager in 1988. It was Schrager who shifted the entrance from 106th Street to Central Park West, super-sized the units, and envisioned a kind of self-contained compound with a grocery store, a health club, and a gigantic parking garage, for which he had to apply to the zoning board.

When the market turned bad, Schrager was unable to get his project off the ground. Nine years later, Savanna Partners snapped up the Towers – from the bank – to build an assisted-living facility and brought in Perkins Eastman, which specializes in such ventures, to reconfigure the plans into smaller units. The zoning was changed from “residential” to “residential hotel.”

In 1999, the Towers went on the block yet again, when the company that agreed to run the home for Savanna reneged. Columbia University made a serious run at it for faculty housing. Two private schools were interested as well, until McLean came in at the eleventh hour. Last March, the day before bids were due, he was playing golf on Fisher Island. “My friend Arthur Halleran, the only other Irish guy on the island, had known about it a while but didn’t get around to telling me,” he laughs. (Halleran is now an investor in 455 CPW.) “So I flew in the next day, looked at the project, and made an offer.”

Now, a year later, as demolition of what was the Tower’s non-landmarked former X-ray building on the corner of 105th begins and the project finally feels like a reality, the industry forecast is decidedly mixed: “I have a hard time getting people to look above 90th Street,” says one condo broker. “There are some issues,” says Carol Mann, senior vice-president at Stribling. “On Manhattan Avenue, there are blocks and blocks of projects – that will never change. But I’d be bullish on 455, no question. Columbia has come down, the Upper West side has gone up. There’s a huge resurgence in Harlem. It should work.”

The winds of uptown gentrification might be in his sails, but all hasn’t been smooth for McLean. For pre-development work, he hired Louise Sunshine, the brassy condo-marketing guru who helped make Trump millions and is currently overseeing high-end jobs like the AOL Time Warner tower at Columbus Circle and Richard Meier’s Perry Street project. But when it came time to start selling 455, McLean’s advisers wanted him to work with Elliman.

Of course, Sunshine’s ready to run down the project. “If they made it $500 a square foot they’d be successful,” she says. “The other issue is that the rock formations of the park are very high on 105th and 106th Street. For park visibility you’d have to get on the upper floors of the building. It’s very risky.”

“I think Louise did an excellent job helping us design the project,” offers McLean. “I think it’s unfortunate that she would say something derogatory about a project that she helped design.”

By 9 a.m. on an icy January morning, the crew has set to work peeling slabs off the Towers’ roofs and hurling them to the snow-covered ground. No small task, considering ailanthus trees are now sprouting from the turrets. The inside is filled with pigeons, squatters, and ash from a fire in the seventies. Even the electricians are getting spooked. “You walk in there, you hear things up top,” whispers one. “Crazy stuff up there,” agrees another, shaking his head.

“They’ll be reused,” says McLean, pointing to a growing pile of bricks in back, next to a cone-shaped smokestack that was once the hospital’s crematorium. As McLean steps onto the Street, a colorfully dressed woman, who looks more like the lead singer in an East Village rock band, interrupts: “I just want you to know, I think what you’re doing is terrible!” “What?” asks McLean, slightly chuckling, “Saving the building?” Then he steps over, hardhat-less, to inspect the spot where the circular driveway and fountain will someday be. “Hey!” says the foreman, known as Big Tony. “Don’t die before you finish paying!”

In his limo heading downtown, McLean thinks about what the girl said. “I think she thought we were tearing it down,” he concludes. “And she had purple hair and a nose ring, so I’m not too worried.” She’s not the only neighborhood resident who’s unhappy, however. “All I’m going to get out of it is rats running around the street for the next year,” says a resident of West 103rd Street. “And I hardly consider that progress.” In zoning-board hearings last summer, a group called the Save the Towers Committee tried to overturn the city ruling that changed the zoning back to “residential,” citing an increase in traffic and noise level. They lobbied for a university or even, as a local psychiatrist suggested, an American Museum of Medicine. Either idea would not cover the $20 million needed for the restoration. “Building a condo,” says McLean, “and having the new tower is, economically, the only way.”

At the next marketing meeting, there is some good news: They’ve signed David Rockwell to do the lobby and children’s room. “It’s a name!” says LD&A’s Len Dugow. “Anne was beating him up on the price,” laughs McLean. “And he says, “Well, you are going to use my name aren’t you?” A final mock-up of the brochure is ready. “I didn’t care for ‘sleek modern architecture,’ ” says Miller. “I’d use ‘traditional.’ And where it says ‘slate and marble finishes’? We don’t have slate. The rest is great.” Next are the photos: autumn parkscapes, jazz cafés, and one abstract shot of a gigantic black-and-white dog asleep on a red velvet couch. “I like it. It says we’re tender, dog-friendly,” jokes McLean, “and that the rooms are big enough to fit a dog that size,” adds an Elliman broker. “How long’s it going to take to print?” asks McLean. “Six weeks? Jeeze, give it to me, we’ll take it to Chicago and get it done in two.”

Next on the agenda are amenities. It is decided to amp up the health club and lap pool and turn it over to American Leisure and the Rockwell group to configure. “How about a storage area?” someone suggests. “Will the valet wash cars?” “We can put that in,” says McLean. “Tailoring maybe?” “Sure.” A debate ensues over what to call the extra-helpful concierge. “Supierege” is voted down. “That’s not right,” sighs Miller. “We’ll work on it.” “How about a temperature-controlled wine cellar?” say Dugow. “We can charge by the bottle,” says McLean.

He may not be part of the New York real-estate elite, but McLean is, as they say, a big deal. His 350-acre estate in Wisconsin has an eighteen-hole golf course. The sand traps spell out his initials. “Oh, I know Christie Hefner,” he says, when she comes up in conversation. “Very serious girl.” Mayor Daley lives in one of his buildings. Oprah – is there a bigger Chicago name? – has a place on Fisher Island. “The other day, my sales guy was talking to these college kids,” says McLean. “I said to my secretary, ‘Why is he wasting his time with those kids!’ And she goes, ‘Dan, those are the Backstreet Boys.’ “

Still, one has to wonder if he has other, perhaps greater, worries about the Manhattan market. “Things are very different than they were in the overbuilding days of the eighties,” he says, shrugging off even the possibility that he’s missed one of the city’s greatest booms. “More people want to stay in the city. They’ve already branched out to Chelsea, the 59th Street Bridge … there are not very many opportunities elsewhere.”

This week, the triple trailers that will make up the sales office have been installed where the X-ray building was. Despite a few last-minute glitches (like the fact that LD&A suddenly went out of business), the selling is set to begin the first week of April. Even now, MCL gets two or three calls a week from eagle-eyed buyers who’ve tracked them down from the tiny logo posted on the site. There are rumored to be sports figures who’ve come calling. “No one we can say,” says McLean. The resident who McLean is really hoping for, however, is one he figures can easily commute to his new office: Bill Clinton. “It’s a natural,” he says, his excitement gaining speed. “We are definitely,” he says, “definitely sending him a brochure.”

Chicago Hope