The Real Deal New York

Paydirt: I got 666 problems, and the deal for this tower is one

The industry news you need to start your week, and what’s ahead

Clockwise from left: 666 Fifth Avenue, Anbang’s Wu Xiaohui , 30 Park Place, StreetEasy’s Susan Daimler and a view of Central Park

“If you choose to stay in rural villages, you can only meet common village girls. Yet if you come to Paris, you will have the chance to lay your eyes on the Mona Lisa.”

So said Wu Xiaohui, chair of Anbang Insurance Group, while addressing students at a recruitment event at Harvard University in 2015. Anbang was fresh off the $1.95 billion acquisition of the Waldorf Astoria, and Wu was explaining the insurer’s global push. During the talk, Wu described Anbang’s investment philosophy as being anchored on three key principles: “whether the business model is profitable, whether the cash flow is sustainable, and whether the investment can generate an acceptable risk-adjusted financial return” – over 10 percent in their case.

If that’s the philosophy they applied to 666 Fifth Avenue, then I am bamboozled by why they’d want to invest at the numbers discussed. According to Bloomberg’s story last Monday, Anbang agreed to cough up $400 million to Kushner Companies, allowing it to take a big chunk of their money off the table while still maintaining a 20 percent stake in the tower. Further, it agreed to take on the burden of redeveloping the property, adding luxury condos and revamping the retail in an undertaking that would seek a construction loan of $4 billion. No typo there.

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We tried to wrap our heads around that number. A $4 billion construction loan would be the largest of its kind by a huge margin. The property is estimated on potential investor documents to be worth $7.2 billion post-redevelopment – that’s more than twice the valuation of the GM Building, America’s most valuable office tower, and more than twice the projected sellout of 220 CPS. To make those numbers a reality, one developer in the know told me that Kushner and Anbang would have to underwrite the condos at an average of up to $9,000 per square foot.

If this is a political gambit for Wu — or if he is acting as a proxy for the Chinese government  — all bets are off. (It’s worth noting that the Chinese government has in no uncertain terms told insurers to pull back on overseas investments.) He is looking to take Anbang public in Hong Kong and eventually take a crack at the U.S. capital markets, and it’s possible he feels a deal on 666 would help him rack up clout with the Trump administration – clout he could parlay into power back home. But as a pure-play real estate deal, the numbers are ludicrous.

Could it be that having news of an impending deal out there but with some degree of uncertainty – Anbang has denied any investment – serves as a call to action for other investors to come to Kushner Companies with offers at more realistic terms? I can’t figure this one out.

The luxury resurrection: The great columnist Jimmy Breslin, who died Sunday, once told a tale of a man who sold newspapers on the East Side. In Breslin’s telling, as per the Times’ superb obit, the man would call out the two most lucrative headlines. One was “War!,” the other, “Big Guy Dies.”

Substitute “Big Guy” for “Luxury Market” and you’ve got yourself an irresistible real estate headline. Over the past 18 months, this publication (and several others) have chronicled the high-end condo market’s woes, and the failure of developers and brokers to come to terms with them. But as I said in a recent column, if good product is priced fairly, with merely moderate levels of greed, it’s still selling just fine. And a new report from Stribling seems to bear that out.

The report found that 152 contracts on Manhattan condos and co-ops asking $5 million and above were signed so far this year, a 29 percent increase from the same period in 2016. Condos, in particular, performed well, with the number of contracts in that price range – 106 – representing a 61 percent year-over-year jump. Some of these trades may involve significant discounts, of course – we won’t know until they close. But the fact that luxury product is moving is likely to calm broker jitters.

“We’re definitely on an up-trend,” said Stribling’s Kirk Henckels. “We’ll see how much strength there is in it.”

Shots fired, and returned: REBNY recently added its heft to the campaign against StreetEasy’s “premier agent” program. It urged the Department of State to look into the pay-to-play initiative and alleged that it violated a rule that prohibits advertising a property that’s under an exclusive with another firm. StreetEasy then penned its own letter to the DOS, accusing REBNY of trying to “suppress competition” and saying that premier agents merely give buyers more options.

Now, REBNY is back with its counterpunch, TRD’s Kathy Clarke reports. It’s accusing StreetEasy of triggering a “maelstrom of consumer confusion” by pairing up buyers with, in some cases, agents REBNY says do not even live in New York.

All this sniping is going on through letters to the DOS, which is generally painfully slow to take action on real estate enforcement issues. So if we can count on DOS taking its time, will the premier agent issue get resolved by the private sector? For now, brokers are unlikely to actually follow through on their threats of removing their listings from StreetEasy – the site is too important with buyers. Will the long-awaited REBNY MLS alleviate some of the brokerage community’s Class-A dependence on the platform?

Bonus: Just in time for March Madness, TRD’s Konrad Putzier delivered a story on Tate George, the UConn player who pulled off “The Shot” and later became the mastermind of a real estate fraud scheme. I highly recommend it.

(Paydirt is a weekly column that riffs on the biggest NYC real estate news of the moment, providing analysis and historical context on the deals and players that make this town tick. Read more from Paydirt here.)