This month in real estate history

<i><i>The Real Deal</i></i> looks back at some of New York's biggest real estate stories

The first foreclosure in recent decades of a Manhattan co-op building was ordered 20 years ago this month against a sponsor who failed to convert rental apartments in Lenox Hill.

The sponsor, Robert Ettinger’s White Rose Associates, borrowed $2.5 million in a mortgage financed by the seller of 145, 147 and 149 East 61st Street.

But White Rose, which bought the attached four-story buildings in 1986 from Angela De Santis, only closed seven co-op apartment sales, and defaulted on its loan from De Santis in May 1990. A Manhattan judge signed the foreclosure action against the sponsor in February 1991. De Santis bought the property back in May 1991 for $450,000, and today it is a rental property.

While there were a handful of co-ops that were sold in foreclosure auctions following the Great Depression, most in the intervening years were resolved before a sale.

1971: Lindsay saves Fifth Avenue shopping strip

New York City Mayor John Lindsay proposed a special district on upper Fifth Avenue 40 years ago this month to preserve the shopping character of the stretch where banks and travel and airline agencies were gobbling up pricey retail space.

To keep an active shopping environment, he proposed a special district on the city’s most expensive retail stretch from 38th Street to 59th Street, which required developers to reserve the first two floors for retail uses and provided a bonus if they added extra retail space. In addition, under the special zoning, passive retail users such as banks and travel and airline agencies could only occupy 15 percent of the building’s ground-floor space, although existing tenants could remain.

At the time, active retailers like clothing and jewelry stores had just a bit more than half the frontage from 34th Street to 59th Street, and office towers were planned for three major sites. Without a government fix, Lindsay said, “Fifth Avenue could be transformed from an international boulevard into a street lined with anonymous office buildings.”

Approved later that year, the Special Fifth Avenue Zoning District brought residential towers and glass-curtain-walled buildings with more retail than they might otherwise have had to the prime shopping stretch.

The first building to take advantage of the new law and its incentives was Arthur Cohen’s $30 million, 51-story, mixed-use Olympic Tower at 641 Fifth Avenue, between 51st and 52nd streets. Shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis — husband to Jacqueline Kennedy — was a co-owner of the project, which was named for his airline, Olympic Airways.

1929: Development firm General Realty launched with bevy of building buys

Development firm General Realty and Utilities, which counted as founding board members Robert Lehman, head of Lehman Brothers, and David Tishman, chairman of Tishman Realty and Construction, was formed 82 years ago this month.

The firm began with a $42 million war chest and a rush of acquisitions, including Upper East Side buildings. It was considered a historic start-up during the boom of the 1920s.

It is “one of the most ambitious projects involving public utility, construction and realty interests ever undertaken in the United States. Ö [It] will conduct realty operations on a vast scale,” a report from the New York Times gushed, announcing the venture.

The firm went on to acquire major skyscrapers such as the 200,000-square-foot 1384 Broadway in December 1930, through the purchase of Lefcourt Realty, which at the time owned eight recently constructed office buildings.

While it did expand during the Depression, it failed to complete one of its most ambitious projects, Battery Tower. As the leader of an investment syndicate, in 1929 it purchased land at West Street and the Hudson River, where it planned to build a $50 million apartment complex near what is today Battery Park City. Construction started, but was halted as the economy collapsed.