World on fire: Brokering deals at ‘Burning Man’

Apr.April 01, 2012 07:00 AM

The Robert Buchholz sculpture on the roof of 305 West 16th Street

Some view it as an art-filled escape from reality; others, a massive party. Either way, the annual Burning Man festival doesn’t usually bring to mind the words “real estate.”

But the event, which attracts more than 50,000 people to the Nevada desert every August, is drawing a growing group of New York attendees, including real estate pros. And some say it builds bonds that can lead to business relationships.

Burning Man is essentially a city unto itself in the middle of the desert. Nothing can be bought or sold at the site, so participants bring everything they need for a week: food, water, generators and whatever materials they need to create art projects (or throw parties).

Developer Harlan Berger, CEO of Manhattan-based Centaur Properties, a festival devotee since the late ’90s, said, “You have to really want to do it, and it builds trust.”

“It’s a short amount of time [to] … develop close relationships,” said Oren Alexander, a Prudential Douglas Elliman broker, who’s attended for the past few years.

As a result of Burning Man friendships, Alexander said he’s sold apartments in Soho and one on the Upper East Side. “I don’t go there looking for clients, but it can lead to business,” he said. “There are lots of New Yorkers at the event.”

But Burning Man isn’t just about relationships; it’s also a fertile ground for exchanging ideas. Berger, for example, put a 6,000-pound sculpture by Burning Man artist Robert Buchholz on the roof of a new condo he developed at 305 West 16th Street. He’s also planning to display the work of festival artists at 609 Greenwich Street, a commercial building he’s redeveloping.

Lionel Ohayon, founder of Manhattan-based design studio ICRAVE, gives his staff a paid week every year to attend and soak up new ideas. And he hired Burning Man artists Yarrow Mazzetti and Joe Schneider to install a chandelier sculpture at the Hotel Gansevoort.

Berger and Ohayon, who sometimes collaborate, have even extended the spirit of Burning Man to upstate New York, where both own properties and have installed sculptures by festival artists. “We’re going to have an annual event there called Burning Lamb,” said Ohayon.

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