Chinese developer kicks tires in NYC

Dai Zhikang, chairman of Shanghai Zendai Investment Group

The young founder of a massive real estate development firm based in Shanghai, China, is visiting New York City this week with a hope to build a mixed-use project here sometime within the next 10 years.

While Dai Zhikang, chairman of Shanghai Zendai Investment Group, has not bought any property and has no project plans, he already has set himself apart from most Chinese real estate executives touring the city these days: he wants to build his own project, not just invest in something.

“I have no interest to buy [exclusively as an investor]. I just want to develop,” he said in an interview yesterday in a representative’s office overlooking Union Square.

Dai was ranked 127th richest person in China with a net worth of $410 million, according to a Forbes ranking of the wealthiest 400 Chinese in 2008.

Real estate experts said very few China-based builders are touring the city to develop; most are looking to make investments as partners or to buy existing buildings.

Dai, 45, launched Zendai in 1993. The company has grown to hold $1.46 billion in assets, with developments in a number of Chinese cities, the firm says. The company holds a number of subsidiaries, including Shanghai Zendai Property Limited, which is listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. It showed revenues of $935 million Hong Kong dollars, or $120 million, in the most recent report for the first half of 2009.

This is not Dai’s first trip to New York. He’s made about a half a dozen trips before, and even sketched out a massive 3 million-square-foot mixed-use development project in Staten Island that never got off the ground.

While he said land prices seemed pretty good now, having fallen significantly, he is not waiting for them to come down more before putting in offers. He is waiting for the dollar to fall against the Chinese Yuan, which will make property relatively cheaper to snap up.

“If the dollar devalues, it will definitely attract more investment from China,” he said.

He has an expansive vision for a development, a “city within a city,” that would include residential, commercial and Chinese cultural facilities, similar to a massive mixed-use project slated to open in 2010 in Shanghai called Himalayas Center. But such dreams often take decades, such as in Battery Park City.

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He was not deterred by the legal and permitting hurdles facing him.

“I am not nervous, but I still need time to research,” he said.

Although Dai has visited the outer boroughs, he has his eyes fixed on Manhattan for a transformative development.

“Manhattan is more international. I want to have something that can be shared for all over the world,” he said.

While he hopes to build sometime within the next 10 years, he would not be tied down with a start date.

“Maybe next year. Maybe not,” he said. But he said the city needed a shot of new construction. “New York has become old. It needs something to refresh it,” he said.

To find additional builders to work with, Stroock & Stroock & Lavan partner Leonard Boxer has been introducing Dai to local developers. Boxer met Dai through the China-U.S. Real Estate Council, on which Boxer serves as an American co-chair.

“I have introduced Mr. Dai to certain developers in the New York area,” Boxer said.

Ety Lee, senior director at Eastern Consolidated with a focus on Chinese investment, said about 10 to 15 Chinese investor groups were actively looking to buy in New York. She is not working with Dai.

“Right now they have a great return in China but everyone wants to diversify and New York is really the best place to put your money. So I really do expect money to come here but I can’t say how soon,” she said.

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