This is a book about the 1%, the billionaires, or some of them, who can pay $50 million for a condo they use a couple weeks a year while otherwise camped in one of their other lavish homes. Mitt Romney accused ordinary people of feelings of entitlement when they expect social security and medicare but Mitt was playing to his audience, the true practitioners of entitlement. But this is not a political book. The wall street protests are mentioned in passing but its focus is the acquisition of Fifteen Central Park West property, the construction of the outstanding structure and the selling of its units to the aristocracy of money. That oligarchy ranges from celebrities like Sting and Denzel Washington, Wall Street tycoons, rags to riches immigrant billionaires, heirs, Saudi Royalty, Jewish entrepreneurs and foreigners seeking a stable place to flee should their little dictatorship fall apart. Mini-bios of the developers, bankers, architects and many purchasers occupies a fair part of the book.
To demonstrate that this project cost some money and byzantine maneuvering, a section on the wheeling and dealing necessary to get the land and city permits, financial backing and partners in place is narrated. A sub-story of the last three hold-outs at the Mayflower Hotel, which sat on the otherwise empty lots, is included where two were given a million dollars each to vacate and the third held out long enough to be offered and finally accept $17 million. This is not just heady, this is stratospheric financial opera.
Whenever I encounter splendid architecture, whether the Parthenon or 15CPW, my response is always twofold: first admiration and then lament that the same energy could have gone into social justice. There was never any danger of that here. One of the billionaire occupants switched his allegiance from Democrat to Republican before 2008 over the single issue that Obama was calling for some minor regulation of the market rules. I express this over and over again, my befuddlement over people who have more money than they can ever spend worrying themselves crazy over a little tax, or a simple regulation designed to protect investors from predators. The idea that they are driven, at root, by fear takes on credibility in the face of such irrational behavior.
The architect, Robert A.M. Stern, modestly claims that city code created the building, requiring the lower “house” on the park and the tower behind. But it was the developers, brothers Arthur and Will Zeckendorf who backed to the hilt the architect’s insistence on the expensive Indiana white limestone against the bean counters at Goldman Sachs, the chief financiers. Much ink is spent on the developers and their family history, descendents of famous developer “Big Bill” Zeckendorf, who went bust in his endless juggling of projects, meshing, or not, with economic trade winds. Bust of course doesn’t mean penury for the super rich. Their father too went belly up when his ambitious plans met the wrong economic trade winds. The brothers thus developed cautiously yet with a persistence and ambition that, so far, has served them well. The profits on Fifteen Central Park West are enormous, the price-per-square-foot reaching unprecedented numbers, $10,000 and rising. One penthouse apartment went for $80 million. The term “flipping” is where purchasers sell their units. No one re-sold and less than doubled their investment. Some “flipped” without even moving in. One $9 million unit sold two years later for $29 million. The buildings cachet almost guarantees a never-ending value increase.
There are some smaller units but most occupy half a floor with many purchasers buying a “duplex”, meaning the whole floor. Then there are the penthouses on top of the House and tower, situated such and so expensively that one could claim, credibly, to be living on top of the world. Imagine spending millions on a brand new “apartment” then gutting it for redesign. Many did. The cartoonist Lurie for example ripped out all the walls and replaced them with glass so upon entering one has an immediate panorama view of the park and skyline. One of the tenants has signed the Gates/Buffet pledge to leave money to charity. Another sold his unit, pledging the profit to subsidize anti-poverty work in New York. Still another called for reinstatement of the Glass Steagle Act, the man who more than anyone else, was responsible for its repeal. So there is some conscience at Fifteen Central Park West, or guilt, but mostly it seems to be occupied by those who look through the reverse telescope, the distorting lens of Mitt Romney. But hey, they’re pretty nice people once you get to know them, if you can afford the proximity.