Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Sunday, June 19, 2005

More on the San Remo Apartment

There's a mention of this in an earlier post but this adds a bit more info.

Book delves into world of Manhattan real estate
By Scott Eyman
Palm Beach Post Books Editor
Sunday, June 19, 2005

THE SKY'S THE LIMIT, by Steven Gaines. Little, Brown; 288 pages; $26.95.

In the guilty excitement it occasions, real estate is the new porn. Forget Flamingo Park, College Park, Old Northwood, Port St. Lucie and every other place in Florida experiencing apparently unsustainable property inflation.

For true insanity, you have to go to Manhattan.

Steven Gaines' The Sky's the Limit is a once-over-lightly overview, a snapshot really, of what's happening in Manhattan real estate. Gaines takes us into the world of the brokers, the buyers and the developers in order to get some sense of why an 800-square-foot efficiency is worth $750,000, and why anybody would pay $30 million for an apartment.

All this is a long way from 30 years ago, when you could have bought any apartment in Manhattan for $250,000. Nowadays, top real estate brokers in Manhattan, who specialize in status addresses on Fifth Avenue and Central Park South, are paid between $250,000 and $1 million a year as an advance against commissions; a few make as much as $2 million in advances.

Because listings tend to go to brokers regarded as "hot," and the competition for major listings is fierce — there are 40,000 brokers in the New York city area — many brokers cultivate star personalities to accompany their star paychecks.

These are all brassy, Type A personalities, such as Linda Stein, who was showing Sylvester Stallone around some apartments when he idly wondered out loud if perhaps he would be happier living in Connecticut.

"Rambo in Connecticut just isn't happening," Stein replied, a crack that probably removed hundreds of thousands of dollars from her pocket.

Gaines also spends time with Dolly Lenz, whose accumulated gross sales have topped $3 billion. "Will the bubble burst?" echoes Lenz. "No, I don't think the bubble is going to burst in Manhattan. There were many years when I said, 'It can't go up anymore,' but everything is based on supply and demand, and there's a limited supply of land in New York."

Gaines collects some funny stories about co-op nightmares, the Manhattan equivalent of condo boards, except with bigger names and more money.

Stringent financial disclosure demands are made of prospective buyers at prestigious buildings; Gaines writes that "today's toughest boards want the previous three years of an applicant's tax returns; statements from all savings and retirement accounts; an accounting of all financial liabilities, including personal debts, loans, mortgages, credit card balances and alimony payments; and the last three months' canceled checks. Canceled checks in particular are scrutinized for incriminating evidence, such as regular amounts written out to Lehman's liquor store on Lexington Avenue."

"You must remember," says one high-end real estate broker, "these aren't just apartment buildings. They're not just brick and mortar. They are not investments, like stocks and bonds. They are vertical neighborhoods. I'm not selling brick, I'm selling lifestyle."

But some lifestyles are more appreciated than others. Donna Karan became known as a serial renovator when she undertook a major overhaul of an apartment she was subletting for only two years. This lost her an apartment at 55 Central Park West, when the other tenants didn't want to have their lives disrupted by a tenant who would strip the apartment down to the wall studs.

Then there are the tricky divorce situations, as with Steve Martin, who joined two San Remo apartments together when he was married to Victoria Tennant. After the ugly divorce, the two apartments were again separated, and the two still live side by side, even though Tennant has remarried. When they run into each other at the elevator, they do not speak.

Some people who inconvenience other people pretend not to notice, others try to soften the hammer blows — literally. When Steven Spielberg spent $7.3 million for an apartment at the San Remo, there ensued two years of nonstop jackhammering to remove marble floors installed by the previous tenant. The noise was so intolerable that Spielberg offered to rent offices for the people who lived below him, one of whom was screenwriter Marshall Brickman.

The fact that gossipy, anecdotal books are being written about real estate is because money, as every Palm Beach blonde knows, is sexy, and real estate has proven to be more than the place where you raise your kids and grow your orchids. It's an investment, with a better recent track record than the stock market. Not only that, but with equity loans and refinancings, it can also be tapped with far greater ease than previously.

Mostly, the book is about Success and its permutations, but Gaines is a witty, knowing writer, and he stops the book dead for a long, fascinating section on real estate in need of a pick-me-up, as with the Ansonia Hotel, a Gilded Age relic that's still hanging on. Also in need of a make-over is One Sutton Place South, at one time one of the most desired addresses in the city, now a place where as many as five apartments are for sale at a time, and where the late Bill Blass' apartment had to have the price dropped three times by his executors.

The only problem with The Sky's the Limit is that it's really a series of magazine articles stitched together — something that's probably inevitable with non-fiction dealing with an intrinsically liquid subject.

Still, living as we do in a world where land equals money, there's rarely a dull page.


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