Who’s Afraid of Gary Barnett? Everybody!
Matt Chaban Sept. 28, 2010, 7:37 p.m.
The Real Estate Desk has closely followed the career of developer Gary Barnett since he first arrived on the city’s streets in the ’90s. Well, returned to the city’s streets from Belgium, where he had been dealing diamonds. The Lower East Side-born, Monsey-bred, Queens-residing man keeps a relatively low profile, especially considering his big buildings and brash business style. New York mag scribe (and Observer alum) Gabriel Sherman takes the long view in a must-read piece in the magazine’s current don’t-call-it-a-power issue that basically reads like a Barnett hit list. “Barnett’s lone-wolf style has not exactly endeared him to his peers,” Mr. Sherman writes. To wit:
- Bruce Ratner
In 2001, Bruce Ratner and the New York Times were maneuvering to buy a plot of land on Eighth Avenue and 41st Street to develop the Times’ Renzo Piano-designed headquarters. Barnett, who owned a parking lot on the site, tried to organize surrounding landowners. “I said, ‘Let’s all join together and we’ll be in control of the site, and if the New York Times really wants it, they’ll pay us more,’ ” he told me.
Owing to their prior battle over The New York Times headquarters, the real-estate press jumped on the feud [for Atlantic Yards], portraying Barnett and Ratner as bitter rivals once again at war over prized development rights. Advisers in the Ratner camp certainly viewed it that way. “It was an effort to throw a wrench into the process, given what happened earlier,” one person close to the process told me. Barnett downplayed the whole matter when I brought it up. He told me he’s never met Ratner and insisted his bid was strictly about business.
“He was trying to get the city to almost pay for [The International Gem Tower],” Kahn says. Tensions between Kahn and Barnett were ratcheted up after Barnett poached Kahn’s tenants. “He’s making them real-estate deals they can’t refuse!” Barnett, not surprisingly, believes it’s all fair play. A few months ago, he even approached Kahn about buying 580 Fifth Avenue and converting it into a hotel and condo, but Kahn turned down the offer.
- Donald Trump
On the morning the [Riverside South] deal was announced, in June 2005, Donald Trump was in his office overlooking Fifth Avenue when one of Cheng’s representatives walked in and informed him that they had sold to Barnett. Trump went ballistic. “What development? Our development?” he snapped. He believed the Chinese had gotten far too little for such a prized Manhattan development site. “I’ve always felt it was undervalued,” Trump told me recently. […] “This guy is a total gross incompetent, he’s an arrogant fool.”
[But he love him, too:] “A lot of guys, I call them the Rendering Boys. They come in with renderings. They’re always showing renderings but never get them built. He gets them built.”
Some brokers who deal with Extell bristle at Barnett’s hard-knuckle tactics. “He’s tough as nails,” says Upper East Side broker Larry Kaiser. “The brokerage community, whether you like it or not, can make you or break you. His relationship with the brokerage is controversial.”
New York real estate has long attracted players who view business as both a commercial and a civic pursuit. Jerry Speyer, the co-CEO of Tishman Speyer, is perhaps the most famous archetype of the New York macher, serving as a confidant to mayors and governors. Inside the fishbowl of New York real estate, Barnett has few friends. He’s a subject of fascination and derision, a combative figure who is unafraid to challenge the industry order.
[I]n an act of either extreme confidence or epic folly (or both), Extell recently started construction on a project called Carnegie 57, a 1,000-foot-tall, $1.3 billion condo and hotel designed by Christian de Portzamparc and backed by the investment arm of the Abu Dhabi royal family. When completed in 2013, Carnegie 57 will top Trump’s U.N. Plaza tower for bragging rights as the city’s tallest residential building. “There’s a resentment that he’s able to still build and doesn’t give the appearance that he’s affected by this market,” says Stuart Saft, a partner at Dewey & LeBoeuf.
The resentment is tempered by the fact that many of his peers expect him to fail. “You have to bet that the peak will be higher than it’s ever been,” one incredulous real-estate banker said. “It’s a huge bet.”