The First One Into the Pool
Jotham Sederstrom April 12, 2010, 3:28 p.m.
Back when Times Square was still a no man’s land of strip clubs and rough-around-the-edges video game arcades, Benjamin Fox was there, dreaming a dream in which Mickey Mouse and girlfriend Minnie walked arm-in-arm along family-friendly, neon-lit streets. No pimps, no hookers, no problems.
A decade earlier, he was in the Flatiron district before the Flatiron district had a name, and these days he’s all over the far West Side, Williamsburg and one other locale that cartographers have yet to discover. That last one, he’s keeping to himself.
“We’re there way before it ever even shows up in The New York Times or The New York Observer or New York magazine,” said Mr. Fox, a retail titan who these days sits as president of Winick Realty. “We’re down there early, and we’re street urchins to an extent. We’re always on the street, always looking, always exploring. A lot of us are looking for new markets.”
As an old journalism yarn goes, a New York Times editor once boasted, “We have a man at every rat hole,” to which a New York Herald-Tribune editor countered, “Well, we have a rat at every manhole.” Mr. Fox is more man than rat, to be sure, but one thing is certain: At the age of 60, the Riverdale, Bronx-residing retail broker sniffs out emerging neighborhoods as well as, if not better than, any broker currently working in the city, not to mention the youthful trailblazers he looks to for direction.
Be it the meatpacking district, where he inked one of the first deals as the area was shedding its dry skin as a bastion for butchers, or on Mulberry Street, where he was the leasing agent for John Gotti’s former social club—which he turned into a boutique—Mr. Fox has rested his reputation on an uncanny ability to spin gold from silk. “Talk about changing the guard,” he laughed during an interview last week, when asked about the social club lease.
Indeed, Mr. Fox has represented retailers as varied as Hard Rock Cafe, Starbucks, Dean & DeLuca, Ann Taylor and Equinox, ushering each of them into neighborhoods once thought undesirable but now considered chic. But among all his real estate moments, the 180,000-foot deal he secured for the AMC Movie Theaters chain on West 42nd Street ranks among his proudest, Mr. Fox said.
That deal, along with a separate deal to bring in the Madame Tussauds wax museum, helped convince the Walt Disney company to take up residence in Times Square, which city and state officials had been pushing for in a bid to clean up the neighborhood’s reputation as a den of ill repute.
“At the time, Disney had just announced a deal to take over the New Amsterdam Theater,” recalled Mr. Fox of the push to clean up Times Square in the mid-1990s. “The city and the state were giving them very cheap money, very low interest, and that was going to be the anchor. But then the next day, the New York Post had a cartoon of Mickey Mouse on the arm of a hooker walking into the New Amsterdam. Michael Eisner then said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. I think I want company,’ and that’s when we brought AMC Movie Theaters to the area.” (He also brought the now defunct H&M Records to the area in a subsequent transaction.)
But don’t label Mr. Fox an agent of gentrification, a term that he believes conjures up negative images of poor families being pushed from their long-held neighborhoods. Instead, he sees neighborhoods such as Harlem and Williamsburg as being remade, a process essential to the city’s own revitalization efforts.
“People use the term ‘gentrification,’ and gentrification has always had a negative connotation,” said Mr. Fox, whose son, Zach, 25, also works at Winick, and has done some retail deals on the Lower East Side, among other areas. “I don’t use that word. I use the word ‘regeneration.’ I think neighborhoods remake themselves.”
MR. FOX ORIGINALLY WANTED to be an architect, but he instead started his career in real estate in 1973 at Garrick-Aug, the legendary starting point for many of the city’s top retail brokers. Like many of his peers, he found retail transactions more interesting than the comparatively bland office leases he and many of his colleagues were then brokering across New York City.
“When I started with Charlie Aug, I started as an office broker, when he was still an office-leasing firm, and I failed miserably,” Mr. Fox said. “I just didn’t get it. To me, every office looked the same and had fluorescent lighting, a recessed ceiling and elevators.
“In the streets, I used to tell people that I window-shopped for a living, and that I got a nosebleed above the second floor. I had to retract the second part of the statement when multilevel retailing started to come into fashion.”
Mr. Fox left Garrick-Aug and later co-founded New Spectrum Realty in 1987, turning it into one of the city’s leading retail brokerage houses until Newmark acquired it, in May 2000. In the company’s first few years, Mr. Fox and his colleagues took an aggressive shot at the Flatiron district, eventually brokering deals in the area for Pier 1 Imports, Hallmark, the Gap and Citibank, among other businesses.
As for the next dream locale in his cross hairs, Mr. Fox believes the yet-to-be-named neighborhood may, indeed, grow to become the city’s next big thing. As for a hint of what to expect, Mr. Fox says only that it’s in Manhattan.
“I’m not going to tell you where it is,” he said, his lips totally sealed. “I got a chunk of turf that I’ve been working on and, like I said, I enjoy walking in a neighborhood where I look behind my shoulder and don’t see any other brokers, as opposed to nine brokers. So, for as long as I can keep it that way, I’ll be happy. But I recognize that isn’t going to last for very long.”