From his rooftop garden on Central Park West, the Corcoran Group’s Robby Browne can see the roses, gardenias and lilacs he cultivates as well as the blossoming Upper West Side neighborhood he has helped nurture.
For 20 years, Browne has been a unique figure in Manhattan’s real estate world, known for his charm, love of storytelling and penchant for riding a bicycle to showings — and for his success as a broker.
Recognized as one of the city’s top sales agents, with a team of brokers once ranked among the nation’s 10 biggest sellers, Browne set a record in 2003 when he swung a $42.5 million deal for a penthouse unit at One Central Park in the Time Warner Center.
It was the highest-price residential sale in Manhattan at the time, a distinction it held until 2006, when it was topped by a $45 million penthouse sale at 15 Central Park West. [That record, in turn, was broken by the sale of a seventh-floor condo at the Plaza, which sold for more than $50 million last month].
When Browne, a transplant from Louisville, Ky., first put down roots on the Upper West Side in 1990, the Columbus Circle area wasn’t much of a residential neighborhood.
The Coliseum exposition hall, which defined the area, was still standing and had yet to be replaced by the glittering Time Warner Center. The Trump International was still the Gulf + Western office building. The neighborhood seemed overrun by homeless people who burned fires in trash cans to generate heat.
And yet Browne “was so excited.” He said it wasn’t considered “a great neighborhood yet, but it was great to me.”
In 1990, Browne purchased a condo in the Century at 25 Central Park West for approximately $650,000. The prewar Art Deco building is the sister building of the Majestic, a co-op building farther north on Central Park West. At the time, the Century was one of the few condo buildings on the Upper West Side.
“Condos were a new idea, and a co-op would never have accepted me because I didn’t have any money,” Browne said. “But at least with a loan from a bank, I could live in a condo.”
Now units similar to Browne’s 1,200-square-foot two-bedroom in the Century sell for $2.5 million.
Inside Browne’s own condo, there are displays of memorabilia from his eclectic personal history. In his living room, stacks of photo albums chronicle his efforts as a sponsor with the Teach for America program, a nonprofit organization that sends recent college graduates to teach in low-income communities. Another album holds identification tags from his year of medical school at St. George’s University Medical School in Grenada in 1982 — a year before the invasion by U.S. soldiers — as well as worn passes to the Studio 54 nightclub.
There is also evidence of great sadness in his life: The walls are lined with photos of his three late older brothers. Near the entrance is a collage honoring his brother Roscoe, a Navy Pilot, who died of AIDS in 1985.
Other artwork includes paintings of family and pets, and an aerial photograph of his Bridgehampton home, where he spends his summers gardening.
Browne has long been active in the Gay Games and Senior Action in a Gay Environment, an advocacy group. He has served on the board of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and, since 1985, has hosted an annual party for Toys for Tots that provides holiday gifts for disadvantaged children.
Browne said Corcoran is generally supportive of all philanthropic interests of its brokers, including gay organizations.
In 1997, Browne moved Downtown for a change of scenery. He thought, correctly, that Chelsea would be the next hot spot. But just as he was about to close on an apartment there, he had a change of heart, and canceled the deal at the last minute, settling for a condo in the West Village. Three months later, he was once again living in the Century, in a different apartment.
What made him go back?
“I was riding my bike along Central Park West and could smell the park,” Browne said. “I sold my home and moved around until I got this apartment. I couldn’t afford to keep both. I was living off credit cards.”
Browne returned to a neighborhood that was rapidly going upscale. The Trump International Hotel and Tower at the corner of Central Park West and 60th Street had replaced the Gulf + Western. Millennium Partners built 600 high-end condos at 1965 Broadway, 150 Columbus Avenue and 101 West 67th Street. They also brought in Barnes & Noble, Tower Records and Pottery Barn to the neighborhood. The Related Companies followed with the Time Warner Center. The mall, home to high-end retailers, celebrity-chef restaurants and the Mandarin Oriental hotel, was completed in 2003.
“What really changed peoples’ minds was Trump coming into the area,” Browne said.
Since then, the high-end condo building 15 Central Park West recently sold out after opening for sales in October 2005. According to Zeckendorf Development Corporation, 15 of the 202 units sold for more than $20 million and the penthouse sold for $45 million last year.
“People were nervous that [15 Central Park West] would block views and light,” Browne said. “But instead it blocked noise from Broadway, and the building’s façde reflects light rather than absorbing it.”
As a broker, Browne doesn’t specialize in a particular area or group of people. On the Upper East Side and West Side, Browne has sold and resold units to couples, families and empty nesters. From poring over blueprints and floor plans, Browne has memorized all the J lines and M lines in buildings and can tell you which apartments can be merged together.
While Browne’s heart may be on the Upper West Side, most of his business is now Downtown.
“[Business] used to be all Upper East Side and Upper West Side listings,” said Browne. “But it has shifted Downtown with more and more products.”
Last month, Browne started selling 11 Spring Street in Nolita, a three-unit building that he calls, “the best-known unknown building Downtown.”
The 15,000-square-foot property, an 1888-vintage horse stable that seemed abandoned for many years and attracted graffiti artists who covered it with a vivid mural, was at one time owned by Lachlan Murdoch, the former New York Post publisher. In 2006, Elias Cumming Development paid $12 million to Murdoch, with plans for a residential conversion. Browne and his team of Corcoran brokers — Gregory Sullivan, Chris Kann and Karen Alcoba — are marketing the exclusive listings.
The three-story penthouse has 4,600 square feet inside and a 1,075-square-foot terrace. It’s priced at $17.95 million. A 2,085-square-foot apartment has a $6.7 million price tag and the 4,205-square-foot, three-story townhouse with a garage lists for $15.15 million
Browne continues to commute Downtown to sell, but says he personally won’t leave the Upper West Side.
“This is home,” Browne said. “I get to be myself and go to appointments on a bike. You can’t really be successful if you can’t be who you really are.”