Trumping the Soho skyline

<i>Jaw-dropping prices at controversial hotel-condo top $3,000 a square foot</i>

The Donald appeared to lead with his chin at the press conference for the launch of sales at the 46-story Trump Soho Hotel Condominium last month, a red-carpet event with nearly as much hype and security as a Hollywood movie premier — plus a small army of protesters on the street a half block away.

“I want to thank the protesters outside for helping to make this job so successful,” Trump said, congratulating them for creating the buzz that helped put 3,200 names on the waiting list for the project.

Hardly a way to win friends and influence people.

“There’s no controlling Donald,” said Julius Schwarz, executive vice president of the Bayrock Group and managing partner of Trump Soho. Not that any of Trump’s partners in the project would want to try. Nobody ever went broke letting Donald be Donald.

Bottom line: “That line did bring a lot of press,” said Schwarz.

But the real shocker at the Trump Soho opening was the price of the apartments: $3,000 a square foot, which would put a modest, if royally appointed, 422-square-foot studio at more than $1.25 million.

Not a problem, said Schwarz. “Look at the Plaza, which is going for $5,000 a square foot. This [Trump Soho] is the highest-end luxury. Not just the services and the amenities, but this building is going to have unparalleled views.”

The altitude of the views will match the jaw-dropping prices. Trump Soho will be the tallest structure between Lower Manhattan and Madison Square Park, towering over everything in sight. And the developers have made sure it’s going to stay that way.

“Shortly after we bought the land,” said Schwarz, “we bought the air rights so that we could build higher, and also so that no one around us could build higher.”

When Bayrock first saw the site, a former parking lot at 246 Spring Street at Varick Street, in September 2005, it “had 48 hours to put this property under contract and put up a multimillion-dollar non-refundable deposit,” recalled Schwarz, before a competitor could scoop it up.

Schwarz said almost immediately, Bayrock persuaded two different potential capital partners to wire their share of the deposit into an attorney escrow account. One, he said, was “a multibillion-dollar European company,” and the other, the winner, was the New York-based Sapir Organization. Bayrock and Sapir secured the 25,000-square-foot site for $72 million. Then they got a little star power and clout, bringing in Trump.

From the beginning, said Schwarz, the plan was to build a hotel-condominium.

“We have found that the condo-hotel product works successfully in major destination locations, and New York has never had an all-condo hotel before,” he said.

“Hotels are in such huge demand,” Schwarz added. “You can’t get a hotel room in New York.”

So why not a straight luxury hotel? “It’s a financing mechanism,” said Schwarz, who added that financing is tough to come by. “You can’t model it out 10 years. Right now, there’s a shortage of hotels, so people are going to be building hotels, and the rates will eventually come down.”

Hotel rooms will always be in high demand, said Schwarz, “but you can’t rely on the $1,200 a night rates. Even with a very high-end luxury hotel like this, where rates are going to stay high, you have to convince a lender. That’s the most important thing; otherwise, the deal doesn’t get done.”

After securing the site, the next order of business was shoehorning the hotel-condo concept into the tight zoning restrictions governing the Hudson Square area. Primarily a manufacturing zone, the site is not approved for residential buildings, but allows for a transient hotel.

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After intense negotiations, the developers and the New York Department of Buildings hammered out a “restrictive declaration,” which allows Trump Soho to sell its units but forbids owners to occupy them for more than 29 days in any 36-day period or for a total of more than 120 days per year.

Community groups resisting the project, including the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, were offended by its sheer, neighborhood-altering size. They contend it acts too much like a residential condominium and that Trump Soho was conceived as an end-run around zoning restrictions.

“I had to fight for so long against the notion that this is somehow a disguised residence,” Schwarz said. “It was never a residence. It was designed as a five-star hotel. If you step into the lobby of this building, you would never know it was anything but a hotel.”

The Rockwell Group designed the lobby and interiors; Fendi Casa collaborated on the furniture, carpets, draperies and lighting in the suites.

The long rectangular lobby will be more than double height, with massively high wood panels and center columns accentuating the verticality. A second-floor lounge elevated above the lobby looks into the building, onto the lobby bar and the street as well.

The glass-sheathed building was designed by Handel Architects. “The base of the building houses most of the amenities,” said Gary Handel, “including the lobbies, lounge, meeting space and upper story of the restaurant. It’s 70 feet to the top of it, on the street wall along Varick Street. We wanted to do that in an interesting way, so we created the idea of this floating glass box, which would be cantilevered over the sidewalk at Varick, creating an arcade underneath coming out to the property line.”

His team is working with the developer right now, he said, “to come up with draperies behind the white glass and to have light in between the white glass and the red drapes — have these brilliant splashes of color on the façde. It allows us to have the purity of the white box floating above the street with splashes of color behind the glass.”

Handel and partner Frank Fusaro will get to admire their work firsthand from the windows of their offices at 150 Varick Street. “The view from my window will be blocked by the building,” said Fusaro.

Handel is more sanguine. “I actually have a view over the low roof to the pool deck and to the Woolworth Building. I was looking at a parking lot, and now I’ll be looking at the scene on the pool deck.”

Handel, also the architect for two other Hudson Square condominiums, 505 Greenwich and 255 Hudson, says the new construction in the area will give it a vibrancy it lacks at present. Even while it is at the intersection of the West Village, Soho and Tribeca, he said that “right now, Varick Street at 10 o’clock on a Wednesday night isn’t that lively. The new projects will add things to do, people on the street.”

“The nice thing about hotels,” he added, “is that they invite the population into them. We have a public park at the back of the project that connects Spring Street to Dominic Street. The restaurateur is doing a little take-out, like the Shake Shack at Madison Square Park.”

Other public spaces include the SoHi rooftop restaurant, which will have 270-degree views of the Hudson River, Statue of Liberty, Soho and Wall Street.

In addition to being a partner in the project, the Trump Organization will manage the hotel. Owners can put their units into the Trump hotel program to rent them while they’re vacant. Other rental programs are being developed to offer alternatives.

The 400 condo suites at Trump Soho range from approximately 422 to 905 square feet and include 253 studios, 141 deluxe suites, five penthouses ranging in size from 1,600 to 10,000 square feet and a presidential suite.

Schwarz said that in the first week that sales opened, 15 to 20 percent of the building had been sold.

Some brokers reported resistance among clients to the asking prices. Kent Pahlajani, a sales associate at DJK Residential, said he’d had 10 people sign letters of interest, non-binding commitments to purchase units at Trump Soho.

“We were told they would be about $1 million a unit,” said Pahlajani. “But now, it came out to be around $1.3 million. It went up 30 percent from what we originally anticipated.

“They’re asking me to look for something else a little less pricey.”