On a brisk November day, developer Young Woo headed towards a pair of hay-covered shipping crates just inside the entrance to a vast, cavernous structure on the 15th Street pier.
With his neatly coiffed, salt-and-pepper hair and conservative blue blazer, the trim 61-year-old could have been mistaken for a Wall Street CEO on his way to brief investors. But the scene inside the shipping crates could hardly have been further removed from the staid corporate world.
Inside, the walls and a fireplace were encased in white wax, emitting an eerie backlit glow. Nearby was a floor-to-ceiling display of jet-black feathers, while a twin bed, forming something like a misshapen heart, jutted into the center of the room.
The art installation — by designer Michael Bastian and architecture firm Bittertang — was just a small morsel of the mind-bending creativity that will soon be on display in the 12-acre space, Woo said as he stepped inside.
In 2015, a multi-tiered, 560,000-square-foot retail complex is slated to open on the property. Woo claims it will be nothing like anything anyone has ever seen before.
“What we want is to create a powerhouse for all creative people in one location,” Woo, the CEO and founder of Youngwoo & Associates, said. “We call it the ‘SuperPier.’”
It’s an ambitious vision. But it would not be the first time Woo has done something cutting-edge. Indeed, while he may not be the most active developer in the city, in recent years he’s pushed the envelope with projects like the headline-grabbing Sky Garage, a luxury condo in Chelsea where each unit comes with a personal car elevator.
Broker-turned-developer Michael Shvo said Woo has done some “groundbreaking” projects.
“[We] do share a belief that your competitive advantage is there when you think out of the box, develop unique properties and give consumers something they wouldn’t … get from other developers,” Shvo said.
Woo envisions the SuperPier as a place where a Williamsburg chef making the world’s smallest donuts sets up shop next to a Japanese entrepreneur hawking square watermelons.
To ensure his vision comes to fruition, Woo has hired a team of retail specialists to “curate” the mix of tenants.
When complete, Woo’s floating $200 million Hudson River complex will be populated by 430 uniquely decorated shipping crates, each roughly 160 square feet (some of which will be subdivided or combined) to create hundreds of retail “incubators” with low rent, and non-traditional leases. (Lease terms range from one to 10 years, at prices as low as $3,000 to $5,000 a month.)
Woo’s goal is to remove the barriers to entry that normally prevent emerging talent, and international designers, from gaining a foothold in New York.
The incubators will be housed on the two main stories of the complex. But Woo also plans to mix in 20 larger spaces, ranging from 3,000 to 20,000 square feet. These retail “superspaces” will have 28-foot ceilings and custom-designed configurations that will be offered under longer lease terms. (Still, they will be priced at about $100 to $150 a square foot, compared with $400 to $550 in the nearby Meatpacking District.)
Though official leasing of the smaller spaces has not yet started, the company has already received 70 applications, said Zachary Beloff, Woo’s head of leasing. They range from a top Cape Town shoe designer to an online company that’s created a gel that can waterproof anything — from an iPhone to a piece of tissue paper, he said.
For now, however, the team is focused on inking deals in the larger “superspaces.” Woo announced the first anchor tenants in September: a Riverfront Spa and Beach Club by hotelier Andre Balazs, the trendy clothier Opening Ceremony, and a Brooklyn Boulders rock climbing facility.
“We are not looking for tenants that would do something in a mall type of environment and we are not looking for tenants who are looking to replicate what they have on Fifth Avenue, Broadway or any other high street in the world,” Beloff said.
Woo’s ambitious plans have already generated a small-scale controversy.
In October, Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Film Festival filed a $100 million lawsuit claiming that Woo suckered the organization into giving its backing to the project during the bidding process, but then backed out of a deal to give the film festival naming rights and use of the 450,000-square-foot rooftop once it was selected by the city to develop the pier.
“[Young Woo] apparently wanted to take the opportunity to use this public space as more of a profit center rather than for the public use that was contemplated in the agreement,” the lawsuit said.
Officials from the Tribeca Film Festival did not respond to request for comment and Woo downplayed the dispute.
“It’s like [a] typical deal, at the last minute … everybody gets stressed out and excited,” he said. “It’s like brother and sister: sometimes we fight, next day we become better friends.”
Woo chuckled when asked if he had been in contact with De Niro, saying, “I’ve never met Robert De Niro. I don’t think he knows anything about this.”
It’s not the first controversy Woo has faced in recent years. Ironically, in 2011, as part of a lawsuit, Woo accused a Korean investment bank of cutting him out of a deal after using his name and connections to acquire the AIG building at 70 Pine. (The lawsuit was referred to an international arbitration panel, which dismissed it this spring.)
Whatever the outcome of the newest lawsuit, the SuperPier is already generating excitement among retail brokers.
“If it’s successful, it’s obviously going to change the traffic flow of the entire [Meatpacking District],” said Kelly Gedinsky, a director at Winick Realty. “People would be driven to go past 14th Street, cross 10th Avenue and the highway,”
But convincing people to cross the highway is no small task, Gedinsky noted. And the larger barrier is Woo’s untested concept.
Nonetheless, Woo told The Real Deal he’s planning to roll out similar templates in five other major cities, and eventually bring it to “ghost towns” like Syracuse, which are starved for retail.
Woo embodies the classic American pull-yourself-up-by-the bootstraps immigrant tale. But even today, he’s deeply reluctant to discuss much of it publicly.
As has been reported before, Woo was born in Seoul, Korea. In 1953, at the age of 12, he immigrated with his family to Paraguay and later moved to Argentina. The family was part of a mass exodus of Koreans who moved to South America in the early 1960s when South Korea was encouraging emigration in an attempt to reduce unemployment and control the population.
Woo arrived in the U.S. alone in 1972 at the age of 19. Upon arriving in Irvington, N.J., he got a job working at a Jewish butcher, and began saving money. A few months later, he moved to the city, and enrolled in NYU language school. To make ends meet, he drove a taxi and worked other jobs.
Eventually, he enrolled at the New York Institute of Technology and went on to study at Pratt University where he majored in architecture.
Meanwhile, he sent for his family, who, upon arrival, pooled their nest egg with Korean friends, and opened a green grocery in the Gramercy Park area, where Woo worked in his spare time.
As a junior at Pratt, Woo opened his own architecture firm, brought on a retired architect with a license and went out on jobs himself. He began approaching Korean restaurant owners, grocers and even dentists, offering to redesign their spaces. These clients would only have to pay, he told them, if they liked his work.
“I was pretty good getting the jobs, but I didn’t like it,” Woo recalled. “The creative side I studied in school had very little thing to do with the real world where there’s a budget. And it was very tough to collect the fee.”
By the time Woo graduated from Pratt in 1979, he’d decided he didn’t want to be an architect. Instead, he began searching for a property to buy. In those initial months, Woo estimated, he looked at 20 buildings before settling on a small office building at 45 West 33rd Street, right by the Empire State Building.
To Woo, the building seemed ideally located. The financing was favorable, too. The owners had recently purchased the building for $400,000 and were looking to flip it. And though they were asking double what they’d paid, they were willing to offer a $500,000 “peer mortgage”— figuring that if they made back the $400,000 they had nothing to lose. That meant Woo only needed to raise $300,000. He approached two friends, who each agreed to pony up $100,000. Woo and his family provided the final third.
Less than a year later in 1980, after spending about $50,000 on renovations, Woo said he sold the building, for $1.8 million. Finding investors for future projects was never a problem after that, he said.
Between 1981 and 1988, Woo estimated, he purchased, renovated and flipped an average of two properties a year, looking at an average of 80 properties for every one he bought.
Woo purchased his first large “avenue” building — 655 Sixth Avenue at 23rd Street — in 1985. Thirteen artists were living there and were protected by the “artists in residence” law. Woo recalled Barry Gosin, of Newmark, scoffing when he heard what Woo hoped to garner in rent — far above comps in the area. But after buying out the 13 tenants, and renovating the building, Woo claimed he achieved the highest neighborhood rents in the area, luring Elsevier the book publisher.
Gosin has a slightly different recollection. “I don’t remember telling him he was crazy,” Gosin said. “I remember getting him a really good rent — I do remember that. It was a special building.”
(Woo said he sold the building at a large profit to a Japanese investor, though he said he can’t recall the price at which he brought or sold at. Broker sources say he paid $7.5 million. However, it’s difficult to determine what he sold it for because public records indicate he sold the ownership corporation rather than the building.)
In recent years, Woo gained attention for racking up big profits even when the economy was tanking. But on one of his projects, his high-profile approach backfired.
In the midst of the financial crisis in 2009, he was widely reported to have purchased the 63-story AIG tower, along with the neighboring 72 Wall Street for $150 million.
Shortly after the purchase, Woo told an audience at an NYU forum that he had a bold plan to rehab 70 Pine and convert it into condos, which he hoped to then sell for about $2,000 a square foot.
But Woo and partner Kumho Investment Bank were silent until 2011 when a KIB official was quoted in the New York Post disavowing Woo’s early plan. The official claimed the building was “100 percent” owned by KIB and said Woo was merely “one of the unit holders of the asset management company that we created to manage the building.”
Woo, meanwhile, said he was the driving force behind the deal. “I went to Korea to find the money and I convinced the Korean investment bank to invest with me.”
In late 2011, KIB flipped the two buildings for $101 million more than it paid.
Woo filed a lawsuit against KIB, claiming an employee misappropriated confidential information which the bank used to oust the developer from the deal. A lower court upheld Woo’s complaint, but on appeal, an arbitration panel ruled in favor of KIB, rejecting Woo’s claim to 4.95 percent of the sales’ profits. It noted that Woo breached his contract and engaged in “willful misconduct and negligence.” He did so, the panel said, by refusing site access to representatives from Samsung, which was interested in acquiring the AIG building, but indicated that they would not hire Woo as the developer.
Greg Carney, a principal at Youngwoo, maintained the firm’s instrumental role in the AIG transaction.
“Youngwoo sourced the deal, acquisition funds and concept,” he said. “It’s no coincidence that in mid-2009 when U.S. investment activity had collapsed, a Korean investment bank was introduced to the deal.”
In terms of Woo’s overall activity, Real Capital Analytics credits him with involvement in sales at six properties since 2000 in New York and Texas, and one refinancing. (Those figures don’t include some projects Woo is associated with in the media.)
For their part, Youngwoo officials would only say that, during that period, their firm had developed over a dozen projects across the city, in other parts of the U.S. and in Latin America.
There has been less controversy and more plaudits for Woo’s role in two cutting-edge projects in Chelsea. In 2006, he and his partners, the Chelsea Development Group, completed the Chelsea Arts Tower, on West 25th Street. The 20-story glass tower was built to appeal to gallery owners and artists, many of whom had been priced out of Soho. Woo and his partners developed commercial condos and unloaded them at prices ranging from $700 to $2,000 a square foot, according to published reports.
Then, in 2007, Woo developed the Sky Garage at 200 11th Avenue. The Annabelle Selldorf-designed building garnered international headlines for its groundbreaking innovation: private elevator garages for each individual unit. Woo sold the 2,598-square-foot penthouse for $23 million, a spokeswoman said.
Woo’s name was also in the news as one of the two final bidders to redevelop the Knightsbridge Armory in Queens. But he lost out to a rival bidder.
Meanwhile, Woo and his team say they’re developing major projects abroad, including a “gentleman’s winery” in Mendoza, Argentina, where global investors can grow their own grapes on three-to-10 acre lots and produce wines in a professionally managed winery.
In recent years, as Woo has come up with new concepts for projects, he said he’s consulted with artists, scientists and trend experts.
Indeed, the Pier57 idea stemmed from a discussion Woo had with a scientist at Bell Labs, who said he expected shopping malls to disappear in the next 10 years. At the same time, the consultants he spoke to stressed that the flood of young adults into the cities was only going to increase.
What was needed, Woo concluded, was a new kind of marketplace to cater to these individuals — an urbanized version of Main Street, where the young and talented could hawk their wares.
To provide that, however, required a new business model that eliminated the barriers to entry.
Woo planted his flag on the West Side pier after beating out Related Companies and the Durst Organization in a competitive RFP.
While some have criticized him for not moving fast enough at the site, Woo’s team has fanned out across the city and globe interviewing potential merchants, brand executives, and other entrepreneurs to come up with a viable approach. In the last year, Beloff said he’s been to Germany, Spain, the UK, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Argentina.
The team decided to target four types of tenants: hip, local entrepreneurs (similar to those who populate Brooklyn’s DeKalb Market, a temporary bazaar which uses shipping containers); global retailers with unique brands that are having a hard time breaking into the U.S. because they lack the credit and resources; established brands looking to try new things; and online companies looking for small brick-and-mortar outposts.
To attract the desired tenants, Woo’s firm offers a manner of in-house services, including insurance, accounting and sales-tracking. Also included is design work: Woo’s firm is showcasing prototypes of different configurations of new shipping crates (they are currently building them). It’s also contracted with a Tokyo-based company to facilitate shipping and help deal with legal obstacles for Japanese tenants.
Success not guaranteed
Dan Fasulo, managing director at Real Capital Analytics, called the Pier57 concept “brilliant.”
“There is so much generic luxury in Manhattan today,” he said. “If he could put together something really unique, it will be a huge winner.”
Lisa Rosenthal, a managing director at retail brokerage Lansco, said she toured the space and was “blown away.” But she sounded a cautious note.
“It is just a phenomenal space, and it’s different. You’re on the water and you’re in the city. It’s kind of surreal,” said Rosenthal, who is on the board of BOFFO, which sponsored the art installation currently at the pier. “But it will all depend on client demand. And it isn’t yet on tenants’ radar. There has to be a lot more education.”
Success, she noted, “really depends on who signs onto the project,” and the “challenge is filling in the first couple tenants.”
Beloff, the leasing director, said the company has planned for those challenges. The firm is close to announcing a couple more anchor deals, he said. They include a boutique cinema, with an “authentic movie theater experience,” and a home goods brand that will have a restaurant in its space, Beloff told TRD.
The team, he said, is also talking to a “really big fashion company” that would use the space as a permanent installation for collaboration with prominent designers and fashion shows. In addition, the firm is said to be in the final stages of negotiating with a prominent restaurateur for an Asian marketplace that will rent space to many small merchants and create an atmosphere similar to Mario Batali’s Italian-themed Eataly in the Flatiron District.
“It’s going to be an extremely exciting atmosphere, creative and chaotic with lots going on,” Beloff said.