Back in the “Bronx is Burning” 1970s, few could have imagined what New York would eventually become — a city with a Starbucks on every corner, super-tall luxury towers and an area literally known as Billionaires’ Row.
Gentrification has been especially turbo-charged in the last two decades. For a chronicle of how the urban transformation happened — and a look at the colorful personalities that drove it — there’s “The New Kings of New York: Renegades, Moguls, Gamblers, and the Remaking of the World’s Most Famous Skyline” (The Real Deal ) by Adam Piore.
“While the pandemic was catastrophic for small business owners, those owners aren’t the ones who bought condos in places like Time Warner Center, 15 Central Park West and One57. Lots of people made a lot of money during the pandemic — in May 2022, Oxfam issued a report noting that a new billionaire was minted every 30 hours as Covid surged,” says Piore. “And New York City real estate still remains the ultimate amenity. So in the second half of 2021, there was a surge in the sale of ultra-luxury real estate, with the city seeing the most activity in five years.”
We asked Piore to pick five buildings that are most representative of the city’s 21st century shift. Take a look.
The Time Warner Center
The mixed-used building on Columbus Circle was the one that started it all. Piore describes it as a “seminal building,” because, as well as helping drive the mall-ification of Manhattan, it was one of “the first instances where expensive real estate with park views was the ultimate amenity.”
When plans were coming together for the complex in the late 1990s, Columbus Circle was a gritty no man’s land populated by prostitutes, the homeless and drug dealers. The state, which controlled the derelict convention center, the Coliseum, occupying the site, chose five finalists in 1997 to rebuild.
Among them was a developer who’d opened a building across the street, Donald Trump. The Donald brought his trademark bluster but interrupted his pitch to officials in order to take a phone call from Bryant Gumbel, who was looking for divorce advice, according to the book.
The contract was awarded to Steve Ross, a veteran developer and owner of the Miami Dolphins. Ross had a vision for a high-end facility, with retail on the bottom floors and luxury living up top.
“People thought he was crazy, that a mall would never work,” says Piore.
But the developers knew that luxury brands and food would drive interest, so they secured what they considered the world’s top hotel name, The Mandarin Oriental, as an anchor tenant and brought in world-famous chefs to open restaurants.
The Time Warner Center, now called the Deutsche Bank Center, opened in 2004. It was generally well received.
“People were glad for New York to come back, for crime to go down and to have all these amenities,” says the author.
15 Central Park West
The 35-story luxury tower adjacent to the park has become known as one of Manhattan’s toniest addresses, with residents that have included Denzel Washington and Alex Rodriguez. It sits on the site of a former hotel and was developed by Arthur and William Lie Zeckendorf, brothers in a powerful real estate family.
The family owned brokerage Brown Harris Stevens and so had access to on-the-ground data that other developers did not. They sensed a growing demand for housing for the ultra-rich.
The brothers had also learned from developing previous sites to dispense with co-ops and their notoriously demanding boards and build condos instead. The only thing you needed to get in was lots and lots of money.
“It was a decision that helped set off the wave of ask-me-no-questions deals by superrich buyers that would come to dominate Manhattan,” the author writes.
The developers purchased the 15 Central Park West site for an exorbitant $401 million in 2004, and in order to make back their money they had to “shoot for the moon” by asking a ridiculous $2,000 per square foot.
They ultimately got it — and then some. Deals signed in 2006 and 2007 broke records.
Then in 2011 a Russian fertilizer billionaire named Dmitry Rybolovlev paid a jaw-dropping $88 million to buy an apartment in the building for his college-aged daughter.
The deal marked the most expensive apartment purchase in city history at the time and “wreaked havoc” on the market, Piore says.
“These sites around the park suddenly skyrocketed,” the author says, “And the only way to make those work economically [for the developers] was to build for the ultra-rich.”
One57 is a 75-story, blue glass hotel and condo built by Gary Barnett. But as rival developer Steve Ross snipes in the book, it was “an ugly f—ing building” with “no sense of taste.”
“It was the first major construction after the Lehman crash [in 2008],” Piore says. “It was backed by foreign money which allowed Barnett to build it after the banks were frozen. A lot of people followed that business model.”
Barnett also had the idea to build from the inside out, imagining every over-the-top amenity the superrich might want, then designing the interiors first around them.
“Then he’d go to the architect and say, ‘Here, do something with this,’” the author says. “It’s a pretty ugly building and we have to look at it from the park.”
Critics savaged the building for its design, as well as what it represented.
“People were so irritated by One57 that when Bill de Blasio was swept into office, he attempted to build a homeless shelter next door,” Piore says.
The shelter opened last year after a multi-year legal battle.
The 50-story tower at 322 W. 57th St. is “indicative of the battle between landlords and tenants,” says Piore. It was purchased by developer Kent Swig and his partners in 2005 with the aim of converting the rental building into condos. But Swig soon ran into trouble with the 95 units (out of 845) that contained rent-stabilized tenants.
The residents were expecting big payouts, as tenants in other buildings had gotten, including the rumored $1 million each three stubborn holdouts had gotten in the conversion of 15 Central Park West. But Swig and his partners dug in, offering the tenants few concessions. The tenants soon rose up, and began pushing back, including staging a sidewalk protest in April 2007. Swig, having gotten wind of the action, hired a large marching band to play for four hours and drown out the protesters.
The protesters, however, would have the last laugh.
“They ended up delaying the construction, and when [the 2008 financial crash] happened, the building wasn’t done,” says Piore. The project put so much strain on the relationship between Swig and his partners that at one 2008 meeting, Swig’s investor reportedly hit him with an ice bucket.
The building was sold to an investment group at a foreclosure auction in 2009 and Swig — for a moment, at least — hit hard times. At one point, Swig got a call from his banker demanding a meeting. Swig showed up expecting the worst, only to have the banker hand him a credit card and invite him to head into a nearby Trader Joe’s to buy groceries.
The author says the sprawling, multi-use complex on Manhattan’s West End acts like a bookend to the second Gilded Age era. “When Time Warner happened, people liked it,” he says. “By the time we got here, hyper-gentrification got so out of control that there was a total backlash.”
The first phase opened in 2019, and noticeably absent from the lavish kick off ceremony were New York’s City’s then-Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “Nobody wanted to be seen there,” the author says.
The complex quickly came to represent everything bad about Manhattan’s direction. Its mall was filled with global luxury brands and its housing was far beyond the reach of average New Yorkers. Developer Steve Ross had been forced to sink so much money to get the project built that, yet again, the only way to recoup his investment had been to cater to millionaires and billionaires.
“People described Hudson Yards as turning its back on the city and that it was this vision for the gated community for the ultra rich,” Piore says.
The author says the last two decades won’t necessarily define the next few, and that things “are changing a little bit.”
“Thoughtful people are working on how to overcome this problem,” he says.
The solution could involve building more affordable housing or closing money laundering loopholes so it’s not as easy for the wealthy to stash their money in real estate.
“The city has always gone through cycles,” says Piore. “And it will again.”