David Levinson’s Home Runs

david levinson David Levinson’s Home Runs

The Commercial Observer:

Tell me how Eataly, Mario Batali’s new food emporium, came to lease space at the former Toy Building at 200 Fifth Avenue? From what I understand, they were originally looking for a significantly smaller space.

Mr. Levinson: They were in the market for a while, looking to develop something in New York along the lines of what their financial partner had developed in Turin and Japan. They had an Italian connection, an operator that was there, and, I guess, somewhere along the line they hooked up with Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich to be the operator.

We had a lot of people looking at that retail space. A lot of them were event operations, because that was there. We had Cipriani 23. There were a lot of catering operations, and all the catering operations came to us and wanted that location, but that’s not really what we wanted. We actually had a vision to animate the space, and we wanted some kind of restaurant. It was really quite amazing how this worked out, because we actually had a vision very similar to what Eataly is. We didn’t think about a market where you could buy the food, but we thought about a multi-restaurant complex where someone would also exploit the roof.


Who else was looking at the space?

There were a couple of big-box retailers who looked at it. There’s some appeal to that on the economic side, but it doesn’t do anything for the building itself. It does something for the bottom line, the cash flow, but some of the great places to go … I mean, think of the Time Warner Center. It creates value upstairs, for the residential there, for the hotel and the office space; and when you have an exciting venue that the tenants can go to eat, it adds a lot, and the roof space will be fantastic. They’re going to put a brewery up there.


How have the negotiations been to bring Tiffany & Co. to the building?

We’re comfortable, and it’s in its final stages of negotiations. When we conceived of this building, we knew it was going to be solely for a tenant thinking about the future, a Gold LEED-certified building, a place where you wanted to go to change culture, where you want to be youthful, dynamic and a forward-thinking culture. We didn’t think we would be competing with the typical glass box in midtown or downtown because there’s plenty of that—small commodity space—but that a tenant would come here because he really wanted an impact on his culture. And, as I understand it, Tiffany also wanted to have a significant impact on that culture.


Were there others competing for that space?

Yes, there was. We were sort of limiting the amount of activity right at the moment because we think the leasing market is getting better, and will do better later on. But they were media and entertainment-type companies. I don’t think there was one tenant that went through that building that it wasn’t their first choice. But we held out. We wanted much higher rent than most every place else.


What kind of rent are we talking about?

More than what you would expect in midtown and certainly the highest rents achieved in the midtown south market. And we’ll maintain that. This is a premier, one-of-a-kind building, and it deserves to have that kind of recognition.


Will you have to build out that space?

No, they’re going to do it. They’re going to build their space. We did a major alteration on the building and transformed the building with the gardens in the center and the glass curtain wall and the Gold LEED certification. As far as the tenants, that’s their responsibility, and we just kind of cooperate.


How did the so-called Great Recession affect you?

It did a couple of things. One, if you were in the business and had assets—what we call legacy assets—the value of those assets in the initial phase of this recession was seriously impaired. Rents have gone down. Cap rates, which helps create the value of the building, not only went up, they were almost nonexistent. It was very, very difficult. So, fortunately for us, we’re not a public company, we’re not a fund.


L&L is a partner with Lehman Brothers on several properties. How did the company’s bankruptcy affect the company?

Well, it certainly impacted us because they were partners of ours. They were not lenders, but they were partners of ours-and are today-and partners of ours in some major properties. For the first couple of months after the Lehman bankruptcy, it was very difficult to deal with them and communicate with them because they were sort of just pulling the bodies out of the wreckage.

But I would tell you that in two cases we have been dealing with Lehman, it’s been very good. It’s been very fortunate that the Lehman estate has done everything they were supposed to do as a partner, and, over time, it’s gotten much easier to work with them. Now it’s sort of settled down to normalcy. Obviously, there are huge challenges with them, but in our partnerships with them, it’s been quite good.


I understand that you invested in gold.

Yes. The bullion purchase was back in those moments where in the recession we didn’t know how far things were going to go. We called it bullets and bullion-B&B. [Editor’s note: Mr. Levinson furnished a cell phone picture of three bars of gold bullion.] Each one of those bars is 27 pounds.


How many bars of those do you have?

Not enough.



You have a close relationship with News Corp. head Rupert Murdoch. Care to comment on The Wall Street Journal‘s new metro section, which hit the streets Monday?

The Wall Street Journal section is going to be exciting. The transformation of The Journal at the time Rupert bought it has been terrific. It’s evident, if you look at it, when you see the numbers. More and more people read it, so it’s great to see that happen. Having a New York section is really exciting. They put a lot of money into it.




You have a 10 percent stake in the New York Yankees. Care to handicap the season?

Number 28 for sure. This will be another championship for us.


I presume you’re a Yankees fan, right?

To be an owner, you have to be. It’s a requirement. In fact, I just filled out the papers for my ring size so I’m excited about that.


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