The Real Deal New York

Is the assemblage game going to pieces?

As the market drops and many give up on stitching together plots for big projects, some players are still quietly buying up NYC sites
By Mark Maurer | December 01, 2017 11:00AM

(Illustration by Andrew Colin Beck)

Piecing together a sizable parcel of Manhattan land is a time-consuming and hairy process.

And in today’s tanking investment sales market, many are just avoiding it outright.

But there is still a handful of players — many of them among the city’s savviest and most risk-tolerant — in the assemblage game. And the chess moves they are making, which often involve seemingly unconnected purchases throughout Manhattan, offer a window on the next batch of projects coming down the Manhattan pike.

“With assemblages, you get a sneak peek of the next wave of development,” said Ross Moskowitz, a partner at law firm Stroock & Stroock & Lavan.

Isaac Chetrit and Sioni Group, for example, picked up two buildings and 235,000 square feet of air rights over eight years to make way for an 80-story mixed-use tower on Sixth Avenue in the Garment District designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox. Icon Realty Management, meanwhile, stitched together eight parcels and nearby air rights over nine years to create an Upper East Side site where it’s now planning two condo towers. And MKF Realty snapped up three parcels and a batch of air rights for its planned 250,000-square-foot Hell’s Kitchen office building, though that project isn’t slated to break ground for another few years.

Generally, these types of assemblages involve negotiating with reluctant sellers, figuring out who has air rights to unload at nearby parcels and hashing out the exits of residential and commercial tenants — all while ensuring that the project still pencils out profits. And all of that is becoming increasingly tricky to pull off in this market.

In a stronger market, investors tend to buy contiguous low-rise buildings with the intention of waiting out the remaining leases and then demolishing the properties.

These days, many players won’t even bother doing that, largely because lenders have pulled back on construction lending and the luxury condo market is oversaturated.

Eastern Consolidated’s Brian Ezratty — who recently represented the Carmel family in its sale of an $80 million Upper West Side parcel to Gary Barnett — said today is “not time to buy and hold and gamble.”

“I don’t even look at deals where the guy says, ‘There are only two tenants left,’” Ezratty said.

Colliers International’s Scott Latham, who co-heads the firm’s capital markets and investment services division, also said the pool of investors looking to put property puzzles together has shrunk. Assembling in this market, he said, is “just not the wisest idea.”

Manhattan investment sales activity plummeted 45 percent in the third quarter year over year, while residential rents, office rents and condo prices are all down, making it hard to justify construction. Perhaps as a result, some who have completed assemblages have determined that selling the site is more profitable than constructing an actual project.

Italian developer Est4te Four seems to be one of the players making that calculation. In May, it sold its six-building, 12-acre site on the Red Hook waterfront for $110 million to Sitex, a landlord that’s since leased the plot to UPS. Est4te Four had been planning a $400 million, 1.2 million-square-foot mixed-use megaproject.

In addition, brokers and landlords said, while giant assemblages are now few and far between, midsized assemblages — often between 100,000 and 200,000 square feet — have grown more popular.

“I haven’t seen development rights deals for megaprojects in the last year or so,” said Kramer Levin’s Paul Selver, who worked on deals for Extell Development on the sites that ultimately became One57 and the now-rising Central Park Tower. “There is, however, a steady supply of middle-sized projects.” 

This month, The Real Deal looked at five players that despite the thinning ranks are still aggressively trying to lock in the final portions of assemblage sites.

Extell Development: 2551-2555 Broadway

Extell’s Gary Barnett has long been viewed as New York City’s most skilled assemblage guru. His firm is currently juggling over a dozen separate assemblages — some that it’s preparing to sell, others that it’s priming for projects.

The company — which sources say brought together six sites for One57 and five for Central Park Tower (plus air rights for both) — closed on a two-story building on the southwest corner of West 96th Street and Broadway in October.

The $80 million purchase, which came with about 150,000 buildable square feet, is a crucial piece in a $100 million-plus swath that Barnett is in the homestretch of finalizing. Sources say the firm has been negotiating to buy air rights from nearby co-op buildings along 95th Street, including one batch that’s in contract for north of $300 per square foot.

While plans have not been filed yet, the end game is a mixed-used condo tower with well over 200,000 buildable square feet, Eastern Consolidated’s Ezratty said.

Extell, sources say, is nearing demolition of the low-rise building — Gristedes, which was on a month-to-month lease, moved out in June, and Chase Bank, which has a termination lease agreement, is getting ready to pack up.

Ezratty — who in addition to brokering this deal also handled Extell’s $63.5 million sale of a NoMad development site to Rockefeller Group in May — said the Upper West Side transaction hinged on the air rights.

“Without air rights, [Barnett] couldn’t have made it work,” he said. “If there’s five years left on a lease, there’s no shot he’d buy it.”

But the deal is just one of the many balls that Barnett has in the air.

On West 48th Street, his firm is planning a 35-story, 445-key Hard Rock Hotel. The developer has owned the ground lease at 151-159 West 48th since 2011 and picked up an extra 45,000 square feet of air rights in June, bringing the project’s planned size to about 207,000 square feet.

Meanwhile, Extell recently sold 499-501 Third Avenue — a collection of two parcels and air rights — on the Murray Hill-Kips Bay border for $75 million. It also unloaded a shuttered Bronx movie theater for the same amount.

In many cases, “Gary locks these [assemblages] up and, as soon as he does, he’s marketing them for sale,” Colliers’ Latham said. 

Related Companies: 536-552 West 23rd Street

The Related Companies’ assemblage play in West Chelsea, south of its Hudson Yards megaproject, has been one of the most expensive such deals since the commercial slowdown took hold.

After more than a year in contract, the firm closed in October on the $234 million purchase of six parcels — which are owned by U-Haul’s parent company, Amerco, and house U-Haul buildings — at the corner of West 23rd Street and 11th Avenue.

While Amerco owned all the pieces of that puzzle, it wasn’t the only party Related needed to win over. The firm, which is headed by CEO Jeff Blau, also needed City Council approval to transfer air rights from a neighboring U-Haul site, which was located in different area of a special West Chelsea zoning district.

The Council signed off in April. Now Related is moving ahead with plans for a 23-story, 145-unit mixed-use residential building on the assemblage site. In November, the firm filed preliminary plans with the Department of Buildings for a portion of the 288,000-square-foot project.

But the $823 per square foot Related paid for the six parcels illustrates how the market has dropped in two years. In 2015, HFZ Capital Group paid a stunning $1,100 per square foot for a West Chelsea site at West 18th Street, where it is now building a 950,000-square-foot mixed-use complex.

Latham, who was not involved in either deal, said while Related may have paid a “rich price,”  it was within reason. “To buy today feels right at $800,” he said.

HFZ Capital Group: 3 West 29th Street

HFZ’s development site in NoMad is proof of how complicated it can be for an assemblage dream to become reality.

Ziel Feldman’s firm acquired three properties — the iconic 1890s-era Bancroft Building at 3 West 29th Street as well as a 12-story commercial property and a four-story row house — from the Collegiate Reformed Protestant Dutch Church for a combined $70.1 million in 2013.

Residents lobbied to get the Bancroft landmarked in an effort to halt the building’s demolition. But they failed and HFZ razed the building in 2015, agreeing to create a park in its place. Then last year,  the Landmarks Preservation Commission signed off on a plan for the developer to restore the nearby Gilsey House and the Marble Collegiate Church, both of which are landmarked. In exchange, the developer got the buildings’ air rights.

The LPC also greenlit the demolition of three row houses — one that HFZ already owns and two that sources said it’s in contract to acquire. Sources also said the firm is negotiating to buy more property in the surrounding area.

“If you already bought the footprint site, you may be interested in your neighbor’s parcels as well,” Kramer Levin’s Selver said.

In October, the developer filed plans with the DOB for a 34-story, 301,167-square-foot office tower on the site, which sits between Fifth and Sixth avenues.

But those plans, sources say, were merely filed to keep the approval process rolling with DOB. Sources said HFZ’s true plan is to build a tower double that size.

HFZ declined to comment, so the exact size of the project is not clear. The firm, however, recently tapped starchitect Bjarke Ingels, who is also designing its High Line project, for the site.

Naftali Group: 1039-1045 Madison Avenue

Sometimes, timing in the assemblage game is everything.

Miki Naftali’s Naftali Group took a couple years off from acquisitions while the market softened, and instead focused on wrapping up construction at two boutique Upper West Side condo projects.

But the developer’s quiet stretch ended in September when it closed on the $21.2 million purchase of 1041 Madison Avenue, part of an assemblage it’s begun to gather between East 79th and 80th streets on the Upper East Side.

The swath, which is located at 1039-1045 Madison, holds four adjacent five-story mixed-use buildings and currently has 60,000-plus buildable square feet.

Naftali’s plans for the site are unclear, but the recent deal suggests that slightly more cautious developers like Naftali will soon return to the market after a period of hibernation.

“One advantage of buying right now is that we’ve been in the cycle down point for the past 12 months,” said Colliers’ Stephen Shapiro. “So it has to pick up.”

For most of those who’ve been on the sidelines, price plays a key role in coming back into the fold.

“Naftali is very price-sensitive,” Ezratty said. “He’s a smart guy.”

Ackman-Ziff Real Estate’s Jason Meister predicted that activity will increase.

“Over the next one to two years, you’ll see more firms dipping their toe back into the water,” he said. “But they will be cautious about condo price assumptions.”

Rockefeller Group: 148 West 48th Street

After more than a decade of shuffling around parcels in the heart of the Theater District, Rockefeller appears to be finally forging ahead with a large development on West 48th Street.

Sources said the firm paid $41.1 million — at about $500 per square foot — this summer to acquire 82,300 square feet of air rights above the Shubert Organization’s Cort Theatre at 138 West 48th Street, where Clive Owen is now starring in “M. Butterfly.”

Rockefeller acquired several properties west of the theater in 2008, paying a combined $87.5 million. But its development plans have been on-again, off-again since. And in 2014, the firm sold two of its parcels for $48 million.

Now, however, Rockefeller is demolishing a six-story former garage on its remaining assemblage, which is likely to house its planned project. While Rockefeller has long kept its plans under wraps, sources said the firm will probably build a hotel or offices on the site, which includes West 48th Street frontage and partially runs through to 47th Street.

Meanwhile, as part of its more recent deal, Shubert acquired a 25-foot-wide plot of land from Rockefeller that it will use to expand the five-story, 105-year-old Cort.

The New York Post reported in October that the garage demolition is being done to avoid “unnecessary upkeep” and that construction is not imminent.

If that is true, it would be consistent with how assemblage deals often play out — over the long term.

Cushman & Wakefield’s Bob Knakal, who recently brokered Sam Chang’s $76 million purchase of a Chelsea hotel development site, put it this way: “The assemblage game requires patience, foresight and guts.”