In January 2016, workers reached the 711-foot pinnacle of 100 East 53rd Street, one of the most hyped ultra-luxury developments outside of Billionaires’ Row. It took nearly 10 years for the development team, led by the owner of the adjacent Seagram building, Aby Rosen, to get there. Selling the tower would prove harder still.
Prices at the 94-unit project range from from $2.2 million to $65 million for the penthouse, and the total projected sellout is $866 million, according to a December 2015 amendment to the offering plan. Prices per foot range from just over $2,000 to over $9,500 a foot for the penthouse. But today, 20 months since units first hit the market, brokers at the Norman Foster-designed project admit it’s been a less than stellar debut.
“When we launched the building, we hit the market at exactly the wrong time,” said Compass’ Leonard Steinberg, who is handling sales. “I am not going to beat around the bush, it was a slow start.”
Other top brokers in the area say it’s not just the market that’s to blame – it’s the building itself.
“Who in the hell wants to be at 53rd and Lexington?” said Berkshire Hathaway’s Laurence Kaiser as he peered out his office window at the development. “It’s a residential tower in a sea of office buildings. You are two blocks from the Waldorf, which means major construction. $65 million [for the penthouse]? Such are dreams. I wish them well.”
“All of Midtown has a location problem at the end of the day,” said Ryan Serhant of Nest Seekers International. “People typically want to live in residential neighborhoods.”
It’s a problem that Rosen recognizes. Equal parts builder and art world bon vivant, he’s been hard at work rebranding this corner of Midtown, which includes the Mies van der Rohe-inspired Lever House, the actual van der Rohe-designed Seagram Building, and now Foster’s 100 East 53rd.
More than views or housing, it is his take on the lifestyle of a well-heeled New Yorker that Compass and RFR is now selling. They’ve taken to calling the area the “Midtown Cultural District” and publishing a small paper celebrating the area’s modernist architecture, art galleries and proximity to MoMA. And though they refuse to give specifics, they insist these efforts are paying off in terms of sales.
“A year ago, had you given me this call, I would have been very depressed,” Steinberg said. “Today, I have a very different attitude and I am falling in love all over again with this building.”
The building’s highlight this year came in February, when Page Six reported back-to-back marquee purchases: George and Amal Clooney picked up a high-floor pad, followed by Cindy Crawford and her husband Rande Gerber. Those deals instantly gave the building celebrity cachet, which can help distinguish it from the pack. Downtown is where the glitterati tend to flock nowadays – both Related Companies 70 Vestry and Metro Loft Management’s 443 Greenwich Street are said to be celeb magnets – so having star power in Midtown could be a selling point.
But a celebrity buyer can sometimes be an orchestrated publicity stunt. They often get fat discounts on their purchases, sources said, with the hope that the buzz their buys generate will draw in the rich and not-so-famous.
“I imagine that they got good deals because they are supposed to draw people in, the same way Clooney partnered on [Dune Deck] in West Hampton,” Kaiser said. “That is also a lot of bullshit. Their names draw people.”
Neither Clooney nor Crawford’s representatives responded to requests for comment.
Since those deals, however, there’s been little news about sales. RFR and its partners, Hines, China Vanke and China Cinda Asset Management, refused to disclose numbers. When presented with StreetEasy’s sales figures for the project, which show that just 15 out of 94 units are in contract, they said they are far from accurate.
“In the last three or four months, we have released a group of apartments that were priced with an incentive,” Steinberg said. “ Since doing so, our showing volume has quadrupled. Our signed contract offers spiked.” He noted that both the polished concrete lobby and the amenities, which included a swimming pool, treatment rooms, gym and library, are almost ready to open.
More specifically, he claims that in the last few weeks, 10 contracts were signed at the project. If that pace is sustained, the building would sell out in six months.
If the mountain won’t come to Aby
Originally conceived in the mid-2000s as a mixed-use Shangri-La Hotel and condominium, the hotel portion of the project was abandoned after construction came to a halt during the financial crisis.
During the most recent boom, it seemed like there was inexhaustible demand for anything boasting Central Park views and hotel-style amenities. Dozens of super-towers — each battling its neighbor to rise a few feet higher, to offer an amenity a bit more show-stopping – were in the works, transforming the sterile office-hours neighborhood into a residential oasis and global safety deposit box.
In 2015, the developers secured $360 million in financing from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China for the project. Cinda has the majority stake in the project, for which it paid $140.5 million, property records show.
“You have to look ahead 50 years when you are a developer and build toward the future,” Rosen told Haute Time of the project that year. “When you go over 20 floors, the building has a certain permanence — it’s not going to come down. I have a civic duty to maintain something that has longevity — not just an eye-catcher for today.”
Since then, however, the top end of the market has taken a beating, and nowhere more so than in Midtown. Trophy penthouses are slashing their asking prices or are being divided into smaller units. Suddenly, 100 East 53rd is competing with a lot of projects with top-tier amenities mere blocks away.
Rosen isn’t just trying to make his project stand out, however. He’s taken on the far loftier task of rebranding the entire corridor in which it sits.
The change began when he booted out what had been considered the jewel of the neighboring Seagram building, the Four Seasons Restaurant. In its place have come Instagram-ready fine-dining concepts the Grill, the Pool and the Lobster Club. In the old private event space, where you could regularly spy Upper East Side ladies giving birthday luncheons and geriatric real estate moguls holding court, a glittering cocktail lounge hosts the open-collar symbols of younger, trendier wealth.
And Kardashian-friendly dining isn’t the only change Rosen pushed on the neighborhood. Blue-chip contemporary art is also essential to his vision of the new Midtown.
For instance, the sales office at 100 East 53rd is sprinkled with works by Warhol, Basquiat, and Koons from Rosen’s personal collection, hints at the type of work that will fill the building’s lobby. Shortly after sales launched, Wendi Murdoch and a cadre of art world influencers stopped by to toast Rosen and the project in front of reporters.
Midtown certainly isn’t Greenwich Village, but it’s sure starting to feel like Soho. All of the correct big-box, high-culture brand names are there.
“The biggest obstacle we have had aside from price was the question, ‘Is this a neighborhood where I want to live?’” Steinberg said. “Now you are going to have the greatest concentration of culinary hotspots on one block. You are going to have the Pool the Grill and the Lobster Club, plus a Joël Robuchon fine-dining concept [on the first two floors of 100 East 53rd]. Then across the street at the Citibank building you are going to have this mammoth food hall similar to Eataly. It has been proven again and again and again that adding food elements to an area is actually what makes it into a neighborhood.”
The team behind the project is now hoping that smaller units priced like pied-à-terres, high-Modernist design and the privilege of living above a Philip Johnson or Peter Marino-designed dining room will do the trick.
“Most developers try to be safe. They do white, beige pallets, and the A line is the same as the B line and ultimately there are just views to sell because the product is all the same,” said Sheldon Werdiger, head of marketing and design for RFR. “Aby takes a position. He is very confident in his point of view and enabling people to live a certain lifestyle.”
But this still doesn’t account for what sleight of salesmanship will eventually move the 6,760-square-foot, $65 million penthouse.
Broker babble says that penthouses are either the first or last unit to sell in a new development. In this case, it will probably be the last, as its standout feature at the moment is construction debris.
“Believe it or not, we have had some very good showings there. Not a lot, but a few,” Steinberg said. “No offers yet.”
It could be argued that the slow sales activity is a direct result of 100 East 53rd’s extremely specific aesthetic mission, one that comes directly from the mind of Rosen. It requires wealthy buyers to embrace high-octane urbanism and a material as quotidian as concrete in their vision of luxury. It requires an army of Rosen mini-mes. So is Rosen’s vision truly marketable? Will people get it?
Rosen has “built apartments for those people who understand [his vision] already, and those people who are seeking a lifestyle they couldn’t live anywhere else,” Werdiger said. “But we also educate people. Sometimes you have to challenge people to go a place they normally wouldn’t go on their own. Once they’ve experienced it, they get it.”