Surf’s up for Swig

After rough waters of Sheffield 57, rising mogul faces new challenge with Nobu hotel tower

Jun.June 01, 2008 06:27 PM
Swig_and_Mao.jpgWith his California charisma, beaded bracelets and dapper disposition, Kent Swig is clearly a new kind of mogul. As he gets excited, he waves his arms over his paper-strewn desk, creating a blur of purple shirt sleeves, soccer ball cufflinks, and surfer bracelets. Raising his eyebrows, his voice accelerates with each new sentence.

“It’s that one second,” he says. “It’s absolutely perfect. You’re timing it. You can just feel it. Then when you hit it, it’s just incredible!”

Swig is talking about surfing — that sublime instant when a surfer paddles into a wave and gets ready to drop in — but the 46-year-old blond with the sunburned face might just as well be talking about his real estate deals.

Over the last five years, Swig has poured hundreds of millions of his family’s real estate fortune into New York City buildings. And last month, he announced plans for one of his most ambitious and certainly his most high-style projects yet: the construction of a 62-story glass tower near the New York Stock Exchange that will house a 128-room, five-star “Nobu” hotel, 77 luxury condos and a Nobu restaurant.

His previous purchases include $418 million (setting a 2005 record) for the Sheffield, the West 57th Street apartment building he’s converting to condos; the acquisition last fall of the fabled real-estate services firm Helmsley-Spear; and billions of dollars of Downtown office properties during a three-year period between 2003 and 2006. Of that last, he says, “I saw the greatest opportunity of a lifetime, and bought every single property I could possibly buy.”

If Swig has timed everything right — and he believes he has — he’ll ride those investments all the way to the bank, cementing his place in moguldom. Of course, if he’s timed everything wrong, his surfing wisdom holds just as well.

“If you make a mistake, it can be rather punishing,” he says. “There’s that thing about being held down and drowning.”

Despite his West Coast demeanor, most real estate insiders will tell you: Kent Swig is no New Age beach bum.

In recent years, he’s brawled with unions, tenants and politicians. With his growing public profile, his huge portfolio, and his stake in three major brokerage and property management firms, Swig has emerged as a vocal booster for his industry. But due to a softening market and slower than expected sales at residential projects like Sheffield 57 and 25 Broad Street, both purchased at the height of the market, a smooth rise to the top of the industry is far from assured.

“He has made a very definitive mark in Lower Manhattan,” says Larry Silverstein, who is developing the World Trade Center site and shares Swig’s affinity for Downtown properties. “He understands value, has a vision for tomorrow, and has participated in a very major way in growing Lower Manhattan. I enjoy his energy, his determination, his enthusiasm and professionalism, and that combination has really worked very well.”

Still, Swig has his own way of doing things, which is apparent in his office at his investment firm Swig Equities.

His desk is piled high with four tall mounds of papers, gradually merging into one another, along with miniature rubber Gumby and Pokey figures, a couple of green pins that say ‘Waiting for Gore,’ and, in deference to the Passover holiday, an oversized zip-lock bag of whole wheat matzoh.

A bottle of unopened Dom Perignon sits on the top of a cabinet behind his desk, above a bulletin board with “Weiner for Mayor” stickers. Instead of pictures of buildings, dominating the room are two humongous multi-colored Warhol prints of Mao Zedong with pink and blue lips. Another wall displays a painting by famous British artist Damien Hirst, depicting a needle with blood on it, amidst multicolored pills.

Swig has decorated the hallways with large, black-and-white photographs of waves breaking on sandy beaches and artwork made from the album covers of artists like Grace Jones. He also has installed a special closet to house his surfboards, in case he decides to drop everything and head out to Far Rockaway to catch some waves.

He admits to wearing the string from a tequila bottle around one wrist — and in between details about cap rates and loan terms, his stories about deals are just as likely to reference “good energy” or “bad energy,” and “going with the gut.” The informality would be hard to imagine in the buttoned-up world of his 71-year-old father-in-law Harry Macklowe, or that of Macklowe’s nemesis Sheldon Solow, 79.

But Swig’s growing real estate portfolio and rising profile in the industry belie his Kumbaya persona.

Unlike a number of established moguls, Swig has distinguished himself by straddling several different parts of the market. In the mid-1990s, he teamed up with David Burris and Arthur and William Zeckendorf to form Terra Holdings to purchase and upgrade two of Manhattan’s most active residential brokerage houses, Halstead Property and Brown Harris Stevens.

His acquisition of Helmsley-Spear last fall gives him a firm footing in the commercial services sector, and prompted some to speculate — speculation Swig encourages — that he is aiming to reconstruct the empire of the late mogul Harry Helmsley. Some speculate Swig may challenge commercial brokerages like CB Richard Ellis and Cushman & Wakefield. But Swig said such a speculation is premature. Both those firms, he points out, have gone global in recent years and Helmsley-Spear has not.

Swig now has large commercial and residential holdings — more than 4 million square feet of office space and 1,200 luxury apartments. And with the Nobu project, Swig is sticking a toe into the world of hotels and restaurants.

Swig has also had his share of mogul-sized controversy of late. He skirmished with organized labor last spring for using non-union laborers on some jobs — prompting the union display of a 30-foot-tall inflated rat outside his ultra-swank co-op at 740 Park Avenue (also home to businessman/philanthropist Ronald Lauder and Blackstone chieftain Steven Schwartzman).

His efforts to convert the Sheffield on West 57th Street and Eighth Avenue into condominiums, meanwhile, exploded into a major battle with a small group of tenants, who accused him of unleashing asbestos in the hallways and launching a campaign of “harassment and intimidation” to drive them out. The charges resulted in a potentially precedent-setting legal decision favoring market-rate tenants, which has drawn the attention of several prominent New York politicians.

During one now-legendary protest last spring, the tenants gathered outside the building to demonstrate, only to find their shouts drowned out by the Steppers Marching Band, a flashy, nationally recognized, African-American teen group known for its swinging music. Though some saw the move as a swashbuckling and witty response to a humorless campaign of landlord demonization, supporters of the tenants were not amused.

“I think that was a good example of his complete contempt for his tenants,” complains Assemblyman Richard Gottfried. “Rather than respond in an honest way to their complaints, he thought he would just drown them out with a lot of noise.”

“He strikes me as someone with a very arrogant disregard for the welfare of anyone else or for the law,” he adds. “It seemed that he was bent on moving forward as quickly as he could, as cheaply as he could, to make as much as he could as fast as he could. And like a lot of people in his line of work, he felt he didn’t have to let anything stand in his way.”

Late last month, a group of tenants at the condo conversion asked a New York Housing Court judge to appoint an administrator to take control of the building, accusing Swig of harassing them to leave by neglecting to make repairs.

Swig’s ambitions have also caused tension with his partners. In the latest example of that, after he acquired Helmsley-Spear with his private real estate company, Swig Equities, the Zeckendorfs complained that he failed to inform them of the move. In November, they filed a summons against Swig claiming he had violated an agreement that specifically prohibits the partners from purchasing competitive companies (Helmsley does some residential projects). Swig has since agreed to shut down Hemsley-Spears’ residential management portion; he maintains that everything has been smoothed over. But some insiders say the Zeckendorfs remain “disappointed.”

Still, Swig’s speed and daring have won praise from his contemporaries.

“He seems to be buying well; I don’t think he’s an egregious risk-taker,” says Bob Freedman, co-chairman of GVA Williams. “He’s a pretty good marketer, he’s a promoter. He’s becoming more and more of a factor.”

A real estate legacy

Swig’s grandfather Benjamin formed a partnership with J.D. Weiler in the 1930s, which ballooned into a $1 billion empire that included the 50-story W.R. Grace building on 42nd Street, among many other properties. Now, the business which Kent Swig is heir to is a grand real estate empire, best known for the San Francisco-based Fairmont Hotel chain that they sold a few years ago.

Yet Swig says he grew up largely uninterested in his family business. When he attended college at Brown University, he studied Chinese history. He wrote his thesis on “the way Westerners depicted China between the Taiping rebellion through the end of the Ming Dynasty” and went on to the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, with plans to go into international law.

It was China’s growing clout and emerging empire that fascinated the young Swig. “For me back in 1979, the power of China, the real sheer power, was so awesome, versus anywhere else, it seemed only a matter of time before they were the country,” Swig says.

But circumstance forced Swig to put his China fascination on hold. His father got cancer and asked Kent to help run the family business — and soon Swig saw the benefit of building an empire of his own. When his father’s cancer returned a second time, Swig was charged with replacing a partner who had just backed out of an acquisition in Los Angeles. Swig cold-called Harry Macklowe, whom he’d read about, and convinced the mogul to fly to L.A., check the property out, and eventually invest in the deal.

(Macklowe recently narrowly avoided financial ruin brought on by the frozen credit markets last month with a 11th hour deal to sell his prized GM Building for $2.9 billion to a group led by Boston Properties. The deal allowed him to pay back a bridge loan to Fortress Investment. After the deal, he announced he would step down as chairman of Macklowe Properties, turning the reigns over to his son William).

That early partnership between Swig and Macklowe would have a profound effect on both their lives. In the mid-1980s, Swig moved to New York City for three months to work on his family investments. Macklowe invited Swig over for dinner ostensibly to “meet his family.” In reality, Macklowe’s aim was to play matchmaker — introducing Swig to his daughter, Elizabeth.

“She found out she was being fixed up and was upset, so she cancelled the dinner and went out with a friend,” says Swig.

Swig, meanwhile, received a call from an old law school pal visiting New York, who scheduled a meeting at Saloon restaurant — where he was spotted waiting on line by none other than Elizabeth Macklowe. She recognized Swig from her father’s office, approached him, and the two started talking.

The pair were engaged in September 1986 and Swig went to work for his new father-in-law.

“It was like graduate school in real estate,” he says. “I think he’s probably one of the most gifted, talented real estate people I’ve ever met.”

After leaving Macklowe’s employ in 1994 — Swig says amicably — Swig joined forces with David Burris and the Zeckendorf brothers to form Terra Holdings, which acquired Brown Harris Stevens in 1995 and Halstead Property in 1999.

At the time, Brown Harris had name recognition, but no computers and an antiquated phone system. Terra centralized the infrastructure for both firms, focusing on accounting, human resources, marketing, payroll, and information technology. Today, Halstead and BHS are two of the largest brokerages in the city, and they have 25 people in the information technology group and 26 people in advertising, managing 300 buildings with $6 billion in apartment sales a year. In Manhattan, Halstead has 540 brokers, while Brown Harris has 329, ranking them fourth and fifth largest in the city, respectively, according to a survey by The Real Deal in last month’s issue.

The businesses continue to grow, Swig says, with BHS expanding into Palm Beach and the Hamptons and Halstead moving into Riverdale and the Hudson Valley recently.

But Swig had even greater plans. In 1998, when he felt the brokerages had been stabilized, he sat down to analyze the opportunities and write a business plan. Swig says he came up with several things he wanted. He sought an urban market with high-rises, a place with factors that would provide a barrier to entry for “amateurs,” and somewhere with a strong secondary leasing market that would continue to provide opportunities even in a down market.

“I thought Lower Manhattan was the best opportunity I saw in the U.S.,” he says. “It had the third-highest office concentration in the country at the time, behind Midtown and Chicago. It had a large barrier of entry, lots of water surrounding it, not much available land, and it’s tough to understand.”

What’s more, Swig maintains, historically leasing activity has performed well in both bad and good environments.

“In the worst economic year, 13 million square feet of office space leases; in the best, 25 million,” he says, referring to Lower Manhattan. “If things go and become horrendous, I can still go out and get more than my fair share of 13 million square feet if I have a better mousetrap.”

Swig saw other things he liked. The retail shops in the World Trade Center area produced “more revenue per square foot than any place in the world;” the number of residential properties were “the fastest growing in the city,” and “for the first time in 150 years, the zip code had the highest per capita income per day and per night,” he says, meaning the zip code led in both categories for the first time in 150 years.

In March of 1998, Swig made his first purchase, beating out 20 other bidders to buy 48 Wall Street for $37.5 million, or $122.55 a square foot. At the time, the Bank of New York was slated to move out in April 1999, and it would take a year to gut the building, giving Swig plenty of time to decide whether to take the property residential, make it into a hotel or keep it a commercial building.

The economics, he says, would have produced about the same rent for all three, so he explored all three options. Swig had feared that the building’s small floor plates would scare away big tenants, making the building hard to manage as a commercial property. But when he commissioned a study, he found that in 2000, more than 34 buildings in Lower Manhattan, representing almost 13 million square feet, had been converted to residential, creating a shortage of high-quality space in smaller buildings.

“If I’m a tenant wanting a full floor, where can I go if I want a really good building?” Swig says. “You can go to a C or D building and have full-floor identification and be in a shitty building, or you could go to a good building with floor plates that are acres.”

So Swig built out the building into an office that was “an A building in every way, but not glass-skinned” like many newly constructed office buildings today. And when he found eager occupants willing to pay $50 to $70 a square foot, Swig had found his sub-niche in high-quality Class B office space.

Then Sept. 11 hit.

“I looked at a massive tragedy and said, ‘I’m down in this area, what the hell is going on?’ I looked at my business plan and said, ‘does it make sense? Yes.’ Perception has gone even further down, and nothing has changed.”

Expecting a huge boom in transportation projects, Swig notes, “I went and bought everything I could. I started in 2003, and bought until January 2006. I bought every single property I could possibly buy.

“I was closing a deal a quarter. I saw this as the greatest opportunity of a lifetime,” he says. “There was low interest, an abundance of money, no competition. Either it was going to make me really good, or it was going to make me look really foolish.”

By the time 2006 rolled around, Swig’s portfolio was impressive. It included 110 William Street, a 32-story, 900,000-square-foot commercial office building; 90 Broad Street, a 25-story, 400,000-square-foot office building; 80 Broad Street, a 36-story, 400,000-square-foot office building; 44 Wall Street, a 350,000-square-foot office building; and 5 Hanover Square, a 320,000-square-foot office building, among others.

It was during this time that Swig began to emerge as a tireless promoter for Downtown.

“He’s one of the strongest advocates on the ownership side of the Downtown market,” says Sheldon Cohen, who runs the Downtown Manhattan office of CB Richard Ellis. “He’s a pioneering landlord.”

“I see him everywhere, and he’s always working the room,” adds Dolly Lenz of Prudential Douglas Elliman, the city’s top-selling residential broker. “Kent is a brilliant guy, obviously born to a great real estate dynasty, which he took to the next level.”

But while Swig has burnished his reputation Downtown, and is known for his skills in the commercial office market, his simultaneous forays into the politically thorny field of residential development have provided different kinds of challenges.

In January, 2005, Swig’s activity reached a peak, with $1 billion in deals in just three months. The capper was the Sheffield — an über-ambitious condo-conversion project that broke all records at the time.

Along with Yair Levy and Serge Hoyda, Swig paid $418 million, or $494,765 a unit, to purchase the 50-story, 845-unit building in Midtown — in a second round of bidding that exceeded even the expectations of the super-broker selling the building, Darcy Stacom of CB Richard Ellis.

It was the start of a major expansion into the residential market, and a new addition to Swig’s growing empire. But the success of Swig’s residential investments are less clear and some real estate insiders wonder if they will pay off in the end.

In March of that year, he also purchased a six-story brick tenement on the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 92nd Street, along with a contiguous building to the north for $54 million, but his plan to add a nine-story condominium on top has yet to materialize. And in July, he shelled out $260 million, a Downtown record, for a residential building at 25 Broad Street. That condo conversion project has faced a number of delays, and just last month Swig was forced to temporarily shutter its sales office while the State Attorney General’s office reviews a revised sales plan.

But Swig and his spokesman downplayed the significance of the delay, though they could not comment on the record since the matter is being reviewed by the Attorney General’s office. The change apparently stems from Swig’s decision to knock down the southern wing of the building to open it up to air and light, and also use the air rights to increase the height of the 62-story glass tower he is constructing on the site next door. It remains to be seen whether the sales office closure — or the fact that those who have bought into the project so far now have the right to exit their contracts — will impact the project’s overall success.

The Sheffield, however — renamed Sheffield 57 — has proved perhaps Swig’s biggest challenge to date. Although late last month, Alan Segan of Rubenstein Public Relations said Sheffield 57 was “over 50 percent sold, and the building is 40 percent occupied,” the road has been rocky.

Given its proximity to the Time Warner Center and stunning views of Central Park, the partners had big plans. They capitalized the project at $545 million and announced plans to convert the residential apartments into condos averaging $1,100 per square foot.

But then trouble with the tenants began. Many had heard tales of amazing deals where insiders had been offered their apartments at half the market price. “We were all excited,” Nancy Rovelli, the president of the tenants’ association, told the New York Times. “We thought we’d be able to buy our homes. We had no idea.”

But at the Sheffield, only about 95 of the 845 units were stabilized, and Swig Equities saw little reason to bargain. According to press reports at the time, one rent-controlled one-bedroom on a top floor was offered at $1.9 million.

Within two months of the purchase, press reports appeared quoting tenants complaining that Swig was not renewing leases and had begun neglecting maintenance issues.

By February 2007, the residential tenants had launched a full-scale war. Twenty-three market rate tenants took Swig to court for not renewing their leases. In March 2007, a housing court judge ruled Swig could not kick them out. (Swig is appealing the decision.)

Then came a broadside from the rent-stabilized tenants, who were already protected under the law. They hired three outside consultants, who came forward with asbestos samples from the Sheffield’s floor tiles and ceilings, and claimed it had been disturbed during the renovations.

City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, State Senator Tom Duane, Congressman Jerry Nadler, and Assemblyman Gottfried all either attended or sent representatives to a tenants’ meeting. Protesters called in the cameras, then gathered outside the Sheffield waving posters of a smiling Swig with a black X through his face. In April, city inspectors found asbestos in the ceiling coating, and ordered work stopped.

Swig maintained that the asbestos was under the legal limit, but agreed to air-monitoring tests and hired an asbestos abatement firm to clean it up nonetheless.

The situation reached a nadir with the marching band incident and an exchange of charges and countercharges in the New York Observer.

In a letter to the Observer this past November, Gottfried, Nadler, and Duane wrote, “Tenants have documented complaints of harassment, stalking, floods, cut phone lines, and workers barging into tenants’ apartments without permission.”

The letter continued, “it is telling that Mr. Swig says he learned so much from his father-in-law, developer Harry Macklowe. Mr. Macklowe is “infamous,” as the New York Times called him, for his midnight illegal demolition of two buildings on West 44th Street in 1985.”

Swig maintains to this day that he has no regrets. He contends it is he — not the tenants — who has been victimized.

“I was very straightforward with the tenants, and told them ‘I’m not going to buy you out. I’m going to renovate the building and it’s going to be dusty and noisy, but when we’re done, you’re going to have an incredibly valuable apartment at a way below market rent,’ ” he says.

“A couple of attorneys came in and said, ‘they’re going to have to buy you out, you’re going to get a whole lot of money.’ And then things started to get invented.”

Swig still downplays the amount of asbestos found, arguing that “if you open a window and take an open-air sample, you will have asbestos.

“All of a sudden everybody started writing about this happening, and I cannot fix something that doesn’t exist,” Swig says.

That’s a claim Gottfried, the tenants and their lawyers still dispute. Swig responds with dismay. “I would like to think that when you do work and bring integrity, honesty and openness, people would not take advantage of that,” he says. “I guess I was a little naïve to think that people would not resort to less-than-right ways of doing things in order to try and apply pressure. It was very disheartening. It was shocking, frankly.”

Yet some real estate insiders shake their head at Swig’s tactics in the battle, noting that the Sheffield has clearly been a public-relations fiasco.

“Kent Swig,” says one who did not want to be identified, is “a charismatic guy. But it’s just unreal that Jerry Nadler would put something in writing like he did.”

“The fact that Kent got so many people so angry, whether it’s the Sheffield, whether it’s the unions, is a problem,” the insider says. “If he had asbestos, he should have spent the money to correct it properly, and not make it seem like it didn’t exist. A third-generation real estate person should not behave like this. It’s not responsible.”

Swig says he’s expecting the converted apartments to bring in $848 million, a 55 percent return. By the end of September, Swig had completed sales of more than 40 percent of the Sheffield’s units, and some of those buyers were already moving in. And late last month, Swig and his representatives had said the project had reached the 50 percent sold and 40 percent occupied mark.

But critics say that residential closings are running six months to a year late and to have only half of a building acquired in 2005 sold is not a big achievement.

“I would definitely not put that deal on the list of ‘highly successful’ projects,” said one developer. “I would put it on the endangered list. These deals are usually underwritten under a four- or five-year term. And you basically have three to five years to execute your business plan, which would mean construct and sell and close.

“The projects that don’t execute during that time period certainly don’t make any money, let alone get refinanced.”

Whatever the outcome at the Sheffield 57, Swig’s reputation as a magnate in other areas has continued to grow.

In the coming weeks, Helmsley-Spear will move into his office tower at 770 Lexington Avenue and 60th Street. Swig plans to centralize the information technology, marketing, and other functions of Helmsley-Spear, just like he has done with Terra Holdings’ affiliated companies, and offer an incentive plan for brokers.

He’s got his work cut out for him: The company famously owned after the death of Harry by the late Leona Helmsely, aka “the Queen of Mean” was once a formidable presence in the industry. Today, however, it is largely regarded as neglected, outdated and run down by many in the industry. Swig is confident he can capitalize on the name, and use the skills he developed at Terra to change that.

Overall, he says, “We’re fairly uniquely positioned in the market, with residential and commercial, through to operating properties. We can now go in and lease it, sell it, manage it, built it.”

Though the real estate market as a whole has begun to look rather precarious, Swig may be better prepared for the rocky times ahead than some. In 2006, he brought his acquisitions spree to a screeching halt, to catch up his “human resources infrastructure” and refinance.

“I was at a floating debt rate, Alan Greenspan had made a fortune for me, and all of a sudden I got very nervous,” he says. “If interest rates are at 40-year lows, by definition, I would be in my 70s before I see them this way again. So I said ‘we’re stopping everything.'”

Any investment offering that came in, Swig says, he ordered thrown away “because we’d be tempted.” He began refinancing, using raised property values to lock in long-term rates by borrowing 70 percent to 80 percent of value, instead of the 90 percent debt-to-equity rate of short-term financing. Swig didn’t predict the capital markets would freeze; he was simply worried about interest rates rising. But his actions have insulated him to some degree nonetheless.

“Now my buildings are all leased, all performing well, all safe and secure with a nice cash flow,” he says.

For the years ahead, Swig’s got plenty of ambitious ideas — among them a private real estate investment fund under the Helmsley-Spear name. But when asked where he sees himself in the future, he turns philosophical.

“My goal would be peace of mind more than anything else in the world. A nice happy work environment with financial stability.”

Should he ever forget what’s most important, he can always look down at his wrist. Underneath his cufflinks, there’s the brown beaded bracelet from Nevis in the Caribbean, the blue beaded surfing bracelet from Brazil, and a red Kabbalah string.

Finally, he’s got a red string from a bottle that contained the tequila he used to toast his best friend Jim Runsdorf with Runsdorf’s wife, after the 43-year-old father of two died in a rowing accident in 2005.

“I’m running around all the time, I’m looking at my watch,” he says. “This sort of reminds me what I should be thinking about when I’m running around trying to get to meetings: friends, family, good times.”

Note: Corrections appended

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