Jeff Bezos hunted for the perfect New York City apartment for months. But in the end, he opted to go a DIY route that’s increasingly popular among the superrich.
Months after the Amazon chief’s people checked out HFZ Capital Group’s The XI in West Chelsea and Vornado Realty Trust’s 220 Central Park South, Bezos finalized a deal this month to buy three apartments at 212 Fifth Avenue — including the top penthouse and two other condos — for around $80 million. In all, he’ll own 17,000 square feet spread over four floors at the project, developed by Madison Equities, Building and Land Technology and Thor Equities.
Though developers often hold back a building’s prime penthouse in order to get top dollar for it, they’re now increasingly willing to cater to trophy buyers like Bezos who want to combine units, or redraw floor plans altogether. Brokers said that few developers these days would dream of dismissing the whims of VIP buyers, a sign of the times in which ultra-luxury product is plentiful, but buyers are not.
“It’s so much a question of ‘where is the balance of power?’” said Jeremy Stein of Sotheby’s International Realty, whose clients have bought at 520 Park Avenue and the Puck Penthouses. In a buyer’s market, Stein said, “if someone wants to buy the most expensive apartment in the building, the developer will probably have to make some changes.”
Buyers, the thinking went, want the perfect home designed for them by an expert development team. Now, however, an ethos that’s growing in popularity is that some buyers – call them captains-of-the-universe types – want to call the shots on everything from how big the space is to its layout. Getting them to bite requires a developer to get far more creative.
Tessler Development, for example, this week listed a 19,815-square-foot “white box” penthouse at 172 Madison Avenue for $98 million. The listing promises buyers a luxurious home outfitted with “nearly anything that money can buy and the mind can imagine.” At Madison Square Park Tower at 45 East 22nd Street, Ian Bruce Eichner is asking $77.7 million for a penthouse combination with “spectacular customized interior space that literally cannot be replicated.”
Hedge-fund mogul Ken Griffin closed in January on a $238 million spread at 220 CPS, setting a record for the country’s priciest home purchase. Some may recall that in 2016, the developer, Vornado, amended the building’s floor plans and assembled the 23,000-square-foot spread by combining an 11,000-square-foot duplex asking $150 million with three smaller apartments priced between $26.2 million and $43 million.
“These buyers are looking to be in the quality buildings and need more square footage than is offered,” said Shaun Osher, founder of CORE Real Estate. “A lot of the buyers in these ranges want something that’s unique”
Griffin and Bezos’ buys aren’t entirely a new trend. More than a decade ago, Harry Macklowe and his ex-wife, Linda, paid around $60 million for seven contiguous apartments at the Plaza Hotel, which they turned into a 14,000-square-foot abode with 54 windows. In 2014, Rupert Murdoch shelled out $57.3 million to buy a triplex plus a full-floor unit at Related Companies and HFZ’s One Madison. (In 2015, Murdoch decided not to combine the units and briefly listed the 6,850-square-foot triplex for $72 million; it did not sell.) And Taylor Swift has spent nearly $50 million on a townhouse at 153 Franklin Street, a penthouse at 155 Franklin and a second-floor condo at 155 Franklin, where the star reportedly punched through walls to create passage between the two buildings.
But the demand for complete customization is growing at the very top of the market. And knowing that, developers have taken to working up multiple contingencies for new buildings.
At 520 West 28th Street, the 39-unit boutique condo designed by the late Zaha Hadid, Related intentionally placed risers and plumbing in a central location to accommodate combinations.
“We tucked all of the plumbing up against the columns, with horizontal distribution, so if you wanted to demolish anything, there was no ducting anywhere,” said Greg Gushee, an executive vice president at Related.
Last year, after buyers who toured the top penthouse expressed a desire for more space, Related drew up plans to combine two penthouses into an 11,000-square-foot residence with 4,000 square feet of outdoor space. (It is now offering Penthouse 37, with 6,853 square feet, for $29.75 million, or Penthouse 37 and 39 for $48.75 million.) “This combination is currently the largest penthouse Downtown if you combine indoor and outdoor space,” Gushee said. “Buildings like this are extremely special and can attract the person who’s willing to spend that kind of money.”
He added that the need for maximum flexibility rises when it comes to larger apartments at higher price points.
“People come in and say, ‘I don’t need four bedrooms, I only need three, but I want an amazing closet,’” he said. “We can literally remove a bathroom with no trace of if ever being there.”
At Quay Tower in Brooklyn Heights, an unknown buyer is set to set a new borough record with the $20 million purchase of a penthouse combination spanning about 7,400 square feet.
“The two units were designed with adjacent private elevator foyers with just a sheet rock wall that needed to be omitted, creating a grand foyer for entry,” said David Wine of Oliver’s Realty Group, who developed the property with Robert Levine’s RAL. “At certain price points, the buyer wants the ability to create their own residence to suit their individual taste and needs.”
Daniel Lobitz, a partner at Robert A.M. Stern Architects, said the firm will often plan for multiple scenarios, and has also been called upon to revisit plans based on buyer demand.
At Silverstein Properties’ 30 Park Place, for example, RAMSA revised its original plans — which were drawn up before the Financial Crisis — and redesigned each unit so that they could be combined when the market recovered and buyers were willing to spend more on bigger apartments.
In the top penthouse, RAMSA designed a floor slab in the living room that could be removed if someone decided to also purchase the floor below and wanted to create a double-height living room. The architects also identified a location where someone could add stairs.
“It ended up not getting combined,” Lobitz said. “But we were ready in case it did.”