Alf Naman’s climb

The developer's first ground-up building was 25 years in the making

May.May 31, 2011 05:12 PM


Alf Naman and HL23
Alf Naman is standing in front of a wall of plate-glass windows, in skinny jeans and a blazer, sipping a Pellegrino and gazing down on workers tending a grassy stretch of the High Line at 23rd Street. A sliver of New York Harbor shimmers in the distance.

It’s the kind of multimillion-dollar view the veteran real estate broker spent decades showing off to clients when he worked on the Upper East Side.

But this particular $5 million apartment — one of 11 units in a 14-story luxury building known as HL23 — has an added twist. Naman built it himself.

“As a former broker,” he is saying, “you understand all the features that trigger positive feedback from buyers, based on your own experiences.”

Thus the bathrooms built of marble imported from Italy, the steel-paneled building exterior designed by famed architect Neil Denari, and the glass walls with remote-controlled shades for privacy.

Naman, who has been inching toward full-time development work for years, will find out soon enough whether buyers respond to his refined tastes, and those of his development partner, Garrett Heher, and his broker, Erin Boisson Aries of Brown Harris Stevens, who is handling sales at the 515 West 23rd Street project. HL23’s official opening is this month, timed to coincide with the opening of the newest stretch of the High Line, which will extend the existing park built on elevated tracks in a second phase stretching from 20th Street to 30th Street.

Of course, that “official” date is an arbitrary one. Naman says he already has three units in contract, and offers on several others.

While Sam Zell is opening up a luxury rental a stone’s throw away (see “With 500 W. 23rd, Zell bets on West Chelsea”), few developers have as much reason to celebrate the neighborhood’s current promise as Naman, who is completing his first-ever ground-up development.

“My dream was always to develop and build and create,” Naman says.

‘Something a little different’

A native of Andover, Mass., Naman moved to Manhattan after graduating from Tufts University, began selling real estate on the Upper East Side in the late 1970s during a stint at New York University’s Stern School of Business, then took an advertising job hawking Folgers Crystals.

He later returned to real estate and opened up his own shop in the mid-1980s, focusing on rental apartments but eventually expanding to everything from shopping centers to high-end brownstones.

But it was the co-op conversion boom of the 1980s that gave him his first chance to buy his own properties. The owners of apartment buildings across the city were converting rentals to co-ops, under laws that required them to first offer the units to their tenants at steep discounts.

Naman formed a firm called Apple Rights, contacted tenants in buildings about to be converted, and offered to pay for the tenant’s “right to buy.”

“When I first moved here, everything was a bit run-down and shabby,” Naman explains. “I saw an opportunity to offer something a little different. I would paint the apartments, renovate them and freshen things up.”

Naman flipped about 150 apartments between 1983 and 1989.

When the condo conversion boom dried up, Naman moved to the construction side of the business, working as a general contractor.

All the while he continued his real estate business. During the downturn of the early 1990s, he teamed up with investors to buy distressed properties, including the former site of Andy Warhol’s 47th Street studio, known as “The Factory.” He also worked with a steady stream of high-profile clients, ranging from Annie Leibovitz to Arthur Schlesinger, acting variously as seller, buying agent or simply real estate consigliere.

Jed Garfield, a veteran broker with Leslie J. Garfield & Co., says Naman has had “one toe in development and one toe in brokerage” for a long time. Naman “has always been very good at finding deals,” Garfield notes, then calling in someone with “real money.”

Garfield adds: “I think if you peel back the layers behind Alf, it’s very rare that he is the majority equity in deals. But he is very, very good at putting deals together. Alf is always wheeling and dealing- — that’s Alf’s thing.”

Trading properties
In the late ’90s, when West Chelsea was still a desolate stretch of car-repair shops, Naman became convinced the area was poised for development.

This was long before the High Line, but Naman — who had begun to focus primarily on buying real estate — noticed that galleries were already beginning to colonize the area, and developers had invested millions in Chelsea Piers.

Naman had previously fought for a toehold during Tribeca’s real estate gold rush, but found himself priced out by better-financed concerns. He was determined not to let that happen again. “By the time I got to Chelsea, I had amassed enough capital, and I had help,” he says.

Naman hit the streets of West Chelsea on foot. He noted the properties he liked, and started knocking on doors.

“You’ve got a great property,” he told the owners. “We’d be really interested in talking to you if at some point you have an interest in selling.”

Over the course of several years, Naman cultivated personal relationships with owners throughout the area as he acquired around 10 lots. Naman knew the owner of the HL23 site for five years before the man decided to sell.

“He was a beverage wholesaler. I would go visit him; he kept saying he would sell me the building when he retired,” Naman says.

The neighborhood was already beginning to develop, but when the High Line project gained steam in the mid-2000s, interest exploded. When the city finally did convert the rusting, elevated train tracks into an urban park, Naman looked prescient.

In recent years, he’s been trading properties like baseball cards. He subdivided a 24,000-square-foot plot on 24th Street and 10th Avenue; sold a 29th Street site for $400 per square foot; and got $300 to $400 per square foot from Avalon Bay for air rights at 28th and 10th.

It was Naman who tied up the property and accompanying air rights that would be used to construct Jean Nouvel’s high-profile tower at 100 11th Avenue — though Naman’s equity partner ran into trouble during the recession and Naman is no longer part of the project.

Naman’s dealings have not always won him friends. Several brokers he has worked with had negative things to say. One opined that he is unethical, “but gets things done.”

“I don’t think he is broker-friendly,” said one broker, who asked not to be identified. “He is really difficult to work with.”

Yaron Zohar, of Zohar Properties, notes that Naman attempted to bypass the brokers representing the owners of buildings he wished to buy, in order to avoid paying commissions.

“I know he was trying to go after properties where I was strictly representing the owners, everybody knew it,” Zohar says. “But he would still approach the owner and try and deal directly with them, even if the owners said I was representing them.”

Naman vehemently denies that.

“We would never knowingly cut any broker out of a property, because that is how I made my living,” he says, “and if anything, I made sure brokers were given generous fees on buildings.”

Naman noted that he paid a broker a $650,000 commission on the deal at 24th and 10th, though he did acknowledge that he knew many of the owners personally in Chelsea, and that might have caused some confusion.

Laurence Kaiser IV, the president of Key-Ventures Realty, says that Naman is a “gentleman.”

“He is proper, he is knowledgeable, and he is a handshake type of guy,” Kaiser says.

Despite any criticism, Zohar credits Naman with “having a vision.”

“There are very few properties that he doesn’t know,” Zohar says. “He was aggressive, showing other people’s money in terms of trying to buy properties. … He was involved in the game way before the game started, so he knew the people.”

Like the rest of the city, West Chelsea saw its share of financial setbacks during the downturn. Just down the street from HL23 at 245 10th Avenue, the owners of a stainless-steel 11-story condo were forced to bring in new investors after Citigroup filed a foreclosure action amid lawsuits from unpaid contractors.

Greg Winter, president of W Financial — which records show gave Naman a $10 million mortgage on HL23 in 2008 — says the property, too, has “had some challenges,” but declined to elaborate. “I felt that the team of developers of Alf and his partners would be able to overcome any obstacles that they face, and in fact they [did],” Winter says.

Naman downplays any talk of difficulties, noting that downturns are “just the nature of the business.”

“I was very lucky to have a phenomenal partner who really believed in the project,” he says of Heher. Since the project was “built mostly with equity, we were able to withstand” the downturn.

Any such setbacks, however, now seem like ancient history, with demand in Chelsea now red-hot. One 20,500-square-foot building on the High Line sold for $7.4 million last month, a tidy spoke over the $6.2 million paid by buyers in 2007, says Zohar, who brokered the deal.

But Naman is already looking ahead. He says he is close to closing deals on a new project in the neighborhood.


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