Three years ago, an up-and-coming real estate firm called Extell Development Company was denied the right to develop the controversial Atlantic Yards site, despite outbidding rival Forest City Ratner by $100 million.
Now, the world has completely changed for both companies, with fortunes rising for one and falling for the other. The credit crisis has halted the $6 billion Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn for Forest City Ratner, while Extell has emerged as the most active developer in the rehabilitation of Manhattan’s West Side. If Extell’s chief executive Gary Barnett is accurate, when the market finally reaches bottom in the near future, he might emerge as one of the last men standing in New York City real estate.
“In most of our completed projects, we don’t owe the banks a dollar,” said Barnett. “We are not under pressure to sell, and have a lot more flexibility to [ride out] today’s market.”
On Jan. 8, the New York City Department of Planning is scheduled to begin public debate over the latest plans to expand Extell’s Riverside South project. The so-called Riverside Center project, located on Riverside Boulevard between West 59th and 61st streets, would include five mixed-use high-rises; 617,000 square feet of commercial space (including a cinema, automobile showroom, hotel and retail); a public school; 1,800 parking spaces; and 3.8 acres of privately owned park space that would be accessible to the public.
The plan has run into fierce opposition on the Upper West Side, as political leaders and planning advocates argue the site would overwhelm the area’s infrastructure. Barnett argues that he has strongly considered the site’s environmental impact.
“In terms of the density, we really have been very modest in our desires,” Barnett told The Real Deal in an interview. “I think our project is very sensitive to urban development and will not put a strain on the infrastructure.”
Given the realities of the economic environment and the lengthy Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) process at the Department of Planning, Extell estimated the project would not be completed until 2018.
Still, that is not stopping the opposition from organizing now.
“Nobody should lay down arms on the presumption that the project isn’t going to get built because of the economy,” said Micah Lasher, an aide to Congressman Jerrold Nadler.
Jonathan Miller, president of Manhattan-based appraisal firm Miller Samuel, said that Extell’s vision for the West Side would likely be realized only after a deep and lasting economic downturn, which has yet to fully play out.
“I would assume this is a long-term view because of the lack of financing and the number of units that would need to be absorbed by a market that is constrained by tighter credit and a recession,” said Miller.
However, other observers say that if anybody can pull this off, it will be Barnett.
“I think Gary gets to go ahead, first of all, because he’s got a lot of unique locations,” said attorney Carl Schwartz, chairman of the real estate department at Herrick Feinstein, who has represented Extell on several projects. “He also has great relationships with his lenders.”
Based on the current state of the market, Barnett’s relationships with his lenders are not just “great”; to some, they defy reality. He has some of the biggest names in the world backing his projects, and even small community banks that won’t touch other projects are working with him.
In June, Extell, the Carlyle Group and RREFF, the alternative investment unit at Deutsche Bank, were able to secure a $613 million construction loan for two of Extell’s luxury towers at Riverside South, marking it the largest construction loan in the country last year.
Deutsche Bank led a consortium of nine banks that syndicated the deal for the two buildings, which will be located at West 62nd and West 63rd streets, between Riverside Boulevard and Freedom Place South, a new street. The 38-story tower will have a mix of condo and rental apartments, while the 23-story building will have just rental units.
“We do have a very good reputation in the banking community for delivering what we say we are going to deliver,” said Barnett. “They feel comfortable that when they give us money, we’re going to put it to good use.
“If you don’t deliver the product you promise, there’s always the chance people can’t close on the units,” he continued. “The days of the easy money financing on Wall Street are over.”
Last month, Barnett was able to secure financing for another one of his new condominium projects at 535 West End Avenue. Bank of America, Helaba Bank, Capital One and New York Community Bank agreed to finance a two-year, $135 million construction loan for the 27-unit condominium.
As The Real Deal previously reported, the developer is being asked to put up 40 percent in equity.
Apparently betting that the proposed Hudson Yards development on the far West Side remains viable, Extell has also announced plans for a 60-story office tower called the World Product Centre, which would operate as a merchandise mart for the medical industry. Estimates of the tower’s cost range from $500 million to $1 billion; however, financing for this project has not been announced.
Extell is working with the Greater New York Hospital Association and an investor named Israel Green on the former Copacabana site at 11th Avenue and 33rd Street, which is scheduled for completion by 2013.
Officials said they plan to find at least two anchor tenants to commit to 10-year leases at the site, but it remains unclear whether the development has any chance of reaching fruition, or if this is just another political stake being driven into the ground with the intention of keeping the Hudson Yards plan viable.
Schwartz, who said the economic downturn is just beginning and believes that recovery is several years away, argues that this is “a really good time” to be positioning properties for development for the next up cycle. “We’ve been encouraging a number of our clients to do exactly that,” Schwartz said.
Barnett, who has developed buildings from the Stanhope, at 995 Fifth Avenue, to the Avery, at 100 Riverside Boulevard, has been widely praised for his ability to market and sell luxury condominiums. Since transitioning from the diamond business into real estate during the 1990s, his buildings have won acclaim from his colleagues and competitors in the real estate industry and gained the confidence of the banking industry.
“They were lucky enough to sell out most of their buildings,” said attorney Ed Mermelstein. “Timing-wise, a lot of things fell into place for them, as opposed to some of these other developers.”
Debra Shultz, director and senior mortgage consultant at Manhattan Mortgage, is the preferred mortgage broker at both the Avery and the Rushmore, two of Extell’s luxury condominiums on Riverside Boulevard. She said Extell has been very accommodating with her clients, particularly those who are having trouble with financing in the current economic environment.
“They’ve been very proactive in this market,” said Shultz. “They’ve been fair when buyers need short extensions to solidify their financing, [and] the properties I’ve worked on have all appraised at value, or higher.”
Shultz said one buyer at the Avery is having some difficulty with financing because he only has a 25 percent down payment on a $6.2 million deal at the building.
The buyer is combining three units.
“He didn’t explore his options prior to going to contract over a year ago,” Schultz recalls. “He was referred to me a few days ago because his current financing option seemed to be falling through.”
Schultz said she has two possible financing options for the client, but the lenders want proof that he would have enough liquid assets to cover 24 months of mortgage payments and a $2 million net worth after he closes.
It’s certainly a financing environment that gives many developers white knuckles. Veteran players like Maurice Mann at the Apthorp and Kent Swig at 25 Broad made risky bets on high-end properties at the height of the market, and now are swimming upstream against the tide. Thus far, it appears that Barnett has been able to withstand the tide.
“He’s a pretty bold man,” said Louise Phillips Forbes, executive vice president at Halstead Property, “I don’t know many people who have taken on the diverse amount of projects he has taken on and been able to be successful.”
Barnett is not without his detractors, which include community groups, building residents and fellow real estate moguls.
In a third attempt to derail the Riverside South project, rival developer Donald Trump filed suit in October, alleging that Extell and the Carlyle Group engineered an illegal purchase of his 77-acre site on the West Side.
The suit, filed in New York State Supreme Court, claims that $16.5 million was transferred to the Cheng Group, Trump’s partner in the deal, in order to influence the $1.76 billion purchase of the property.
Barnett denied that there was anything illegal or improper about the deal and characterized the suit as Trump trying to revive a dead issue.
“If you’ve gotten anywhere near Donald Trump and you haven’t been sued, you’re doing something wrong,” said Barnett. “It’s just Donald being Donald.”
A June 2008 suit filed in New York State Supreme Court by the condo board at 45 Walker Street alleges that Extell developed a seven-story condominium with hundreds of thousands of dollars in construction defects, including missing fireproofing in the ceiling, hot water pipes without insulation, numerous electrical code violations and an open sewage pit at the building.
According to court records, the $19.45 million condominium includes six apartments that were priced at $2.75 to $3.75 million. The offering plan was originally filed with the state Attorney General’s office in February 2001, and the lawsuit alleges that Extell failed to obtain a permanent certificate of occupancy, and failed to provide detailed expense records and annual reports, which are required under the Martin Act that governs co-op and condominium conversions in New York.
Kenneth Glassman, attorney for the plaintiffs, said that Extell dumped more than a dozen boxes of records on his lap after the case went to court, but he is mystified as to why the company failed to maintain what he considers proper recordkeeping and maintenance on the building.
“The main problem is, if they give everything they have, and everything is proper in the end, why in the hell didn’t they do it before we sued?” said Glassman. “This is not a mom-and-pop shop; this is a substantial real estate company.”
Barnett says the company has given up management of the property and argues there is nothing in the allegations that rise to a legal matter.
“When we left [the building], it was in magnificent shape,” he says. “There’s certainly no basis for litigation.”
Questions have been raised about alleged harassment of tenants and the company’s finances, after sources said Extell tried to push out Latino tenants at the Westbourne, at 601-611 West 137th Street. In an effort to open up units to market-rate tenants, sources say that Extell reneged on promises made to local tenants and recently backed out of negotiated buyouts. Barnett says that the company may have spent too much money to upgrade the units and that tenants were demanding too high a price.
“We have renovated a number of apartments there,” he said. “We have a tendency to over-renovate and over-beautify. We are leasing them up now even in today’s market. We’re not ready to do any large buyouts because there’s no development upside there.”
There are also other voices out there who question whether Extell can really deliver on everything it promises, from spectacular sellouts at its condo projects to on-time delivery of its commercial buildings.
In July, Extell boasted of $507 million in residential sales at its numerous condo projects, including claims that the Lucida and 212 East 47th Street were 90 percent sold out. At 535 West End Avenue, the developer claimed to have sold 40 percent of its units in 30 days.
Barnett told The Real Deal that banks remain comfortable with underwriting loans in his buildings, as the company has closed more than 800 condo and co-op units in the last year and a half.
However, Eric Anton, senior director at Eastern Consolidated, says that commercial banks are “terrified” of the prospects of approving loans right now and questions whether Extell, or any other developer, can withstand the rigors of the biggest market collapse in a generation.
“It seems, over the last year or so, they’ve been pulling rabbits out of a hat,” said Anton. “I don’t think anyone that’s trying to sell a condo is having much success right now.
“At the moment, we’re in hell.”