When is a penthouse a penthouse?

As luxury development accelerates, term takes on new meaning

From left: 56 Leonard, 293 Lafayette Street and 432 Park Avenue
From left: 56 Leonard, 293 Lafayette Street and 432 Park Avenue

The crème de la crème of Manhattan’s residential real estate scene — the penthouse — was once an exclusive, rare domain, a perch atop the city’s finest buildings.

Puck Building penthouse at 293 Lafayette Street

Puck Building penthouse at 293 Lafayette Street

But these days a broker can hardly swing a set of keys without hitting a “penthouse.” Metro Loft’s 443 Greenwich has eight. The Puck Building, with its six penthouses at 293 Lafayette Street, will have no other type of unit on offer. The ten penthouses at Alexico Group’s 56 Leonard are “glass houses in the sky.” At 432 Park Avenue, developer Harry Macklowe, not content to settle for a single $85 million penthouse topping the 1,396-foot tower, wants to build a penthouse on top of a penthouse. And the Apthorp at 390 West End Avenue will gain four rooftop penthouses, should the property’s developers get their wish.

An onlooker could be forgiven for assuming the penthouse has lost its distinction and is slowly overtaking New York City housing. But are there really so many more “penthouses” than there used to be? Or has the definition of penthouse changed in the eyes of developers, brokers and buyers?

In 2008, there were 174 listings for units in elevator buildings in Manhattan with “PH” in the number, according to data compiled by StreetEasy for The Real Deal. By 2011 that number grew to 256 – a 47 percent increase. Thus far in 2013, 112 units dubbed “PH” have been listed.

The numbers, however, do not account for smaller walk-up buildings that may label units “penthouses,” nor do they include properties that by all appearances are penthouses but simply eschew the PH.

What then, exactly, is a penthouse?

Penthouse unit at 56 Leonard

Penthouse unit at 56 Leonard

The textbook definition points to an apartment or dwelling on the roof of a building, or any specially-designed apartment on an upper floor – especially the top floor – of a building. In 1980s New York, most penthouses fit that bill in terms of geography but otherwise bore little distinction from their more humble counterparts elsewhere in a building.

“Back in the ’80s there were a lot of sponsors that tried taking basically the top three multiple levels of the building that were no different than the other units below,” Jonathan Miller, president and CEO of real estate appraisal and consulting firm Miller Samuel, explained. “They had the same line, no outdoor space, no change in amenities.”

Some so-called penthouses in the Osborne co-ops at 205 West 57th Street and the famous Dakota at 1 West 72nd Street were once maids’ quarters, since converted to apartments that don’t offer the same amenities as the rest of the building, Miller said.

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What has changed dramatically since then, and only accelerated in the last year or two as the city’s high-end housing market has rebounded, is the proliferation of luxury properties in general. Accordingly, developers and brokers are using the moniker not just to communicate uniqueness in terms of location, views and space, but also to signal a kind of rarified living that goes beyond a top-floor apartment, sources said.

“Now there is luxury living that feels like a penthouse even if you’re not on the top floor, so in order to fall under that [penthouse] category you need breathtaking views and amazing amenities,” said Douglas Elliman broker Vickey Barron, who is marketing Walker Tower’s newly released Penthouse One, which hit the market for $55 million this week. “They can all be of quality but this has something extra.”

Calling a unit a “penthouse” can also be a snappy marketing gimmick, enabling brokers to reel in the subset of buyers who confine their searches to penthouses alone, Miller said.

“Most penthouse buyers are only interested in penthouses,” he said.

Interior of a "mansion" at 36 Bleecker Street

Interior of a “mansion” at 36 Bleecker Street

Aside from Penthouse One and the forthcoming Penthouse Two in Walker Tower, for instance, the “penthouse” units more closely resemble townhouses, Barron explained.

Of course, using appealing (but not strictly accurate) terminology to market properties is endemic across the industry. Think “garden level” for “basement” or “cozy” for “small.” The so-called mansions at Stillman Development’s 36 Bleecker, for instance, would normally be called maisonettes, noted Donna Olshan, president of Olshan Realty.

“I think ‘penthouse’ carries the appeal always – it’s a great marketing tool to be able to say penthouse,” Olshan said. “But we even see brokers with co-ops relabeling a floor and calling it a Penthouse 19 or something, and they’re taking liberties with it.”

“Just because you say it is doesn’t mean it is,” Miller agreed. “A lot of this is, you know it when you see it.”