Although developers Larry Silverstein and Harry Macklowe headlined the impressive list of speakers at Massey Knakal’s Commercial Real Estate Investment today, it was developer Sharif El-Gamal who jazzed up the audience at the second-floor auditorium in the McGraw-Hill Building in Midtown.
Speaking as part of a panel that included Brookfield Properties CEO Richard Clark, George Comfort & Sons CEO Peter Duncan and Himmel + Meringoff Properties’ managing partner Stephen Meningoff, El-Gamal talked about his company’s competitive advantages. “We’re young, and a lot more aggressive than these guys,” the Soho Properties CEO said. “We would even pay a couple more dollars for things because we’re hungrier than the other guys. Our bellies aren’t full like theirs are.” El-Gamal also said the notoriety he gained from his infamous Lower Manhattan Park51 mosque and community center project has been “an incredible blessing. I have a lot more direct access to money, and I can bring in sovereign wealth from other pockets of the world.” El-Gamal founded Soho Properties in 2003.
Later, El-Gamal told The Real Deal that the Park51 project became more important to him as it sunk deeper and deeper into controversy. “I feel a responsibility,” he said, “to help reclaim my Muslim identity, after it was robbed by the tragic events that people connected to our entire community.”
As for what he considers the best deal of the year, during an afternoon session, El-Gamal deferred to his co-panelist Stephen Meringoff’s purchase of 158 West 27th Street. Himmel + Meringoff bought the property for $25 million in December 2010 from a seller that paid $47 million for it at the height of the bubble. “Now,” Meringoff said, “it’s probably worth close to what the seller originally paid.” According to Meringoff, the $20 million jump in valuation over five months is a concerning sign that the market may be rebounding too quickly — and well ahead of the market fundamentals .
The market’s rapid rebound since the end of 2010 was the theme throughout the whole-day event, although few speakers expressed the same concern that Meringoff did.
Silverstein, who delivered a morning address that focused on his development of the World Trade Center site, was particularly thrilled with the growth in Lower Manhattan. “Sixty thousand families live downtown. There are more and more restaurants and shops” he said. “Who would have thought that would happen after Sept. 11?” He said by the time his development in the area is done, which he estimated would be 2016, it would be the most important real estate project in Manhattan, “far exceeding the impact Rockefeller Center had on Midtown in the 1930s.”
The event ended with a presentation by Macklowe, founder and chairman emeritus of Macklowe Properties, who shrugged aside questions about his personal financial struggles in 2008, and focused on what he considers his most successful project — the GM Building at 767 Fifth Avenue and the Apple Store underneath it. But, he said of his current project at the former site of the Drake Hotel at Park Avenue and East 57th Street: it will be “a capstone” and “as much of an icon as the Apple cube.”