The Real Deal New York

The Closing: Nathan Berman

The mega developer on Trump’s Russia problem, his taxi driving days and converting Lower Manhattan into rentals
By Katherine Clarke | July 01, 2017 01:00PM
Nathan Berman

Nathan Berman (Credit: Studio Scrivo)

Nathan Berman is the managing principal of the Manhattan-based Metro Loft Management, which he founded in 1997. The developer — who’s been called the King of FiDi — has been a pioneer in Lower Manhattan since then, converting more than 3 million square feet of office space into residential rentals. Those properties have included high-profile buildings like 63 Wall Street, 67 Wall Street and 20 Exchange Place. More recently, Berman tackled his first condo conversion — an old book bindery at 443 Greenwich Street, which has a penthouse listed for $55 million. The 53-unit building has drawn celebrity buyers such as boy-band phenom Harry Styles, actors Jennifer Lawrence and Jake Gyllenhaal and Hollywood power couple Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds. Berman is also in the midst of renting out units at a $350 million conversion at 180 Water Street and spearheading the redevelopment of 20 Broad Street — a 500,000-square-foot office building next to the New York Stock Exchange — into rentals.

DOB: August 17, 1959
Hometown: Mukachevo, Ukraine
Lives in: Upper East Side
Family: Married; Two Children

Where did you grow up? Western Ukraine — or what used to be the USSR — in a very provincial small town. I left when I was 14.

Why did your family come to the U.S.? My father was a World War II concentration camp survivor. The rest of the family was liberated by Americans and wound up in the U.S. After the war, my father wanted to find them. It took him 15 years. In the late ’50s or early ’60s, he found his two sisters and his father in New York and we managed to get visas in 1973.

What do remember about arriving in New York? I was blown away. What impressed me most were jeans and dungarees. And I couldn’t believe the tube socks. How could they be so white, so clean? They didn’t have Tide in Russia.

What did your parents do before you came to New York? My dad was a tailor and my mom was a housewife. I think of my dad laying out patterns on cloth and trying to find the most efficient layout to reduce waste. When we came here, he got a factory job as a cutter.

Where did you live as a kid? Kew Gardens. I became a paperboy. I worked in a candy store assembling the sections of the New York Times. I would get paid $20 for the weekend.

Where do you live now? I’m finishing a new townhouse on the Upper East Side. My wife and I also have a place in Majorca, Spain. We go there every summer. We also have a place in North Haven, near Sag Harbor.

Did you go to college? I went to Queens College and studied accounting while driving a taxi. My family invested in two taxi medallions — it was our biggest investment. I was focusing on that a lot more than on college. I dropped out with 110 credits, short one semester. I couldn’t see myself being an accountant for the rest of my life.

How did you meet your wife? On a blind date. She was also a Russian émigré. I was 20 when we married and she was 18. We were absolutely kids, but it felt right.

You didn’t get your start in real estate until your 30s. What did you do before? My father-in-law had a Russian art gallery on Madison Avenue. He represented émigré artists. I started helping and did that for about 15 years. It wasn’t all that glamorous, because I was dealing with artists who weren’t really known in the west. We were not Leo Castelli.

Why did you leave the art world and get into real estate? Unless you’re at the very top echelon of the art world or in a certain clique, you couldn’t do as well as I wanted to.

How did you get started in real estate? I liked the idea of real estate — the idea of collecting rent while you’re not there. Even if you don’t show up, you’re making money. My first really major deal was in 2003. I partnered with Ronnie Bruckner on 63 Wall Street, a 400,000-foot building vacated by Brown Brothers Harriman. I started as a minority partner with a promote. If it was not successful, I would have made nothing and wasted two or three years.

A few years ago, Crain’s dubbed you the King of FiDi. What did you think about that? I don’t know how the writer came up with that. If I could have stopped him, I would have. Ego is the most expensive thing that most people can’t afford.

What’s been your most extravagant purchase? A 40-foot VanDutch yacht. I just bought it. My wife likes the idea of my letting loose, because I’m always preoccupied with work.

You’ve had a bunch of celebrity buyers at 443 Greenwich. Is it hard to keep it all quiet? The number of celebrities is amazing. We won’t comment on who they are. I don’t need to proclaim it to the world. I take pleasure in knowing that these well-known people, who have homes all over the planet, appreciate something done by some kid from Ukraine.

You have Russian investors there, right? My two partners there are also my partners at 20 Broad and 180 Water. They are Russian émigrés — the fourth-largest oil traders in the world based in Zurich. We met through mutual friends.

Do you know Russian President Vladimir Putin? No. I’ve never met him.

What do you make of the Russia talk surrounding the White House? It’s total nonsense. I think that’s going to be gone when [President Trump] is tougher with Putin than Obama was. If they were somehow connected at the hip, that would not be the case.

You’re a Republican. Did you vote for Trump? I absolutely did. I don’t know him, but he is doing much better than people give him credit for. He bluffs and does whatever he needs to do to get something done, like a businessman, but the ultimate goal isn’t something evil. … Somehow, the country thinks he’s against gays and lesbians and blacks and minorities. I don’t know where that’s coming from.

What about his so-called “locker room talk”? Yes, he did say that stuff. Women are protesting Trump, but why are they not protesting the treatment of women in the Middle East? Trump grabbing girls is the big outrage of the century? Come on.