In the 1970s, when “the Bronx was burning,” few could have imagined what New York would become: a city with a Starbucks on every corner, towering luxury towers, and an area literally known as Billionaires’ Row.
Gentrification has been particularly accelerated over the past two decades. For a chronicle of how urban transformation happened – and a look at the colorful personalities who drove it – there is “The New Kings of New York: Renegades, Moguls, Gamblers, and the Remaking of the World’s Most Famous Skyline” (The Real Deal) by Adam Piore.
“While the pandemic has been catastrophic for small business owners, these owners are not the ones buying condos in places like Time Warner Center, 15 Central Park West and One57. A lot of people made a lot of money during the pandemic – in May 2022 Oxfam released a report noting that a new billionaire was being hit every 30 hours as Covid surged,” says Piore. “And real estate in New York still remains the ultimate amenity. So in the second half of 2021, there was a surge in the sale of ultra-luxury real estate, with the city seeing the most activity in five years. .
We asked Piore to pick five buildings that are most representative of the city’s change in the 21st century. Looked.
The TimeWarner Center
The mixed-use building at Columbus Circle is the one that started it all. Piore describes it as a “flagship building” because, in addition to helping to commercialize Manhattan, it was one of the “early examples where expensive park-view real estate was the ultimate amenity” .
When plans for the resort came to fruition in the late 1990s, Columbus Circle was a no-man’s land populated by prostitutes, homeless people and drug dealers. The state, which controlled the abandoned convention center, the Colosseum, occupying the site, chose five finalists in 1997 to rebuild it.
Among them was a developer who had opened a building across the street, Donald Trump. The Donald brought his trademark bluster but cut off his speech to officials in order to take a phone call from Bryant Gumbel, who was seeking divorce advice, according to the book.
The contract was awarded to Steve Ross, a veteran developer and owner of the Miami Dolphins. Ross had a vision for an upscale establishment, with retail on the lower floors and luxury on the top floor.
“People thought he was crazy, that a mall would never work,” says Piore.
But the developers knew luxury brands and food would drive interest, so they secured what they considered the best hotel name in the world, The Mandarin Oriental, as the anchor tenant and brought in world-renowned chefs to open restaurants.
The Time Warner Center, now called Deutsche Bank Center, opened in 2004 to generally good reception.
“People were happy that New York was coming back, that crime was down and that they had all these conveniences,” explains the author.
15 Central Park West
The 35-story luxury tower adjacent to the park has become one of the most thunderous addresses in Manhattan, with residents like Denzel Washington and Alex Rodriguez. It stands on the site of a former hotel and was developed by Arthur and William Lie Zeckendorf, brothers of a powerful real estate family.
Family-owned brokerage firm Brown Harris Stevens therefore had access to field data that other developers did not. They sensed a growing demand for housing for the ultra-rich.
The brothers had also learned from developing previous sites to dispense with co-ops and their notoriously demanding councils and build condos instead. The only thing you needed to get in was lots and lots of money.
“It was a move that helped spark the wave of no-questions-asked deals by super-rich buyers who would eventually dominate Manhattan,” the author writes.
Developers bought the 15 Central Park West site for a whopping $401 million in 2004, and to get their money back they had to “go for the moon” by asking a ridiculous $2,000 per square foot.
They finally got it – and more. The agreements signed in 2006 and 2007 broke records.
Then, in 2011, a Russian billionaire named Dmitry Rybolovlev paid $88 million to buy an apartment in the building for his college-aged daughter.
The deal marked the most expensive apartment purchase in the city’s history at the time and “wreaked havoc” on the market, Piore says.
“These sites around the park have suddenly skyrocketed,” the author says, “And the only way to run them economically [for the developers] was to build for the ultra-rich.
One57 is a 75-story blue glass hotel and condo built by Gary Barnett. But as rival developer Steve Ross in the book said, it was “a lousy, ugly building” with “no sense of taste”.
“It was the first major construction after the Lehman crash [in 2008]says Piore. “It was backed by foreign money, which allowed Barnett to build it after the banks froze. Many people have followed this business model.
Barnett also came up with the idea of building from the inside out, imagining all the over-the-top amenities the super-rich might want, then designing the interiors around them first.
“Then he would go to the architect and say, ‘Here, do something with this,'” the author explains. “It’s a pretty ugly building and we have to look at it from the park.”
Critics raved about the building for its design, as well as what it represented.
“People were so irritated with One57 that when Bill de Blasio was thrust into power, he tried to build a homeless shelter next door,” Piore said.
The shelter opened last year after a years-long legal battle.
The 50-story tower at 322 W. 57th St. is “revealing of the battle between landlords and tenants,” says Piore. It was purchased by developer Kent Swig and his partners in 2005 with the intention of converting the rental building into condos. But Swig quickly ran into trouble with the 95 units (out of 845) that housed rent-stabilized tenants.
Residents expected big payouts, as tenants in other buildings had gotten, including the rumored $1 million each that three stubborn holdouts had secured in the conversion of 15 Central Park West. But Swig and its partners dug in, offering tenants some concessions. Tenants soon rose up and began pushing back, including staging a sidewalk protest in April 2007. Swig, having caught wind of the action, hired a large fanfare to play for four hours and drown out the protesters.
The protesters, however, would have the final say.
“They ended up delaying construction, and when [the 2008 financial crash] arrived, the building was not done,” says Piore. The project put so much strain on the relationship between Swig and its partners that during a meeting in 2008, Swig’s investor allegedly hit him with an ice bucket.
The building was sold to an investment group in a 2009 foreclosure auction, and Swig — for a while, at least — fell on hard times. At some point, Swig received a call from his banker requesting a meeting. Swig showed up expecting the worst, only for the banker to hand him a credit card and invite him to a nearby Trader Joe’s to buy groceries.
The author says the sprawling, mixed-use complex in Manhattan’s West End acts as a bookend for the second era of the Golden Age. “When Time Warner came along, people liked it,” he says. “By the time we got here, the hyper-gentrification got so out of control that there was a total backlash.”
The first phase opened in 2019, and then-New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo were conspicuously absent from the lavish launch ceremony. “No one wanted to be seen there,” the author says.
The complex quickly came to represent all that was bad in the direction of Manhattan. Its mall was filled with global luxury brands and its accommodations were far beyond the reach of average New Yorkers. Developer Steve Ross had been forced to sink so much money to get the project built that, again, the only way to recoup his investment had been to meet the needs of millionaires and billionaires.
“People described Hudson Yards as turning their backs on the city and it was this vision of the gated community for the ultra-rich,” Piore said.
The author says that the last two decades won’t necessarily define the next one and that things are “changing a bit”.
“Thoughtful people are working on how to overcome this problem,” he says.
The solution could involve building more affordable housing or closing money laundering loopholes so it isn’t as easy for the wealthy to hide their money in real estate.
“The city has always gone through cycles,” explains Piore. “And it will start again.”