The Model Broker: Newmark’s Workaholic Amira Yunis
Jotham Sederstrom May 17, 2011, 10:36 a.m.
From her enviable perch above Park Avenue, Amira Yunis enjoys a perfect view of the Chrysler Building and, in particular, its iconic art deco spire. For the executive vice president of Newmark Knight Frank, the towering beauty serves as a constant and daily reminder of one of the more laudable achievements of her career.
It was within the building’s pyramid-like, glass Trylon Towers, in fact, that Ms. Yunis inked a 14,896-square-foot deal on behalf of Capital Grille, a chain of steakhouses frequented by power brokers with a taste for $45 rib-eyes on someone else’s dime.
Competitors were surprised by the deal, not only because it was signed shortly after 9/11, but also because it seemed unsuitable for a restaurant of Capital Grille’s size and grandeur.
“When I leased that space, everybody told me that it was a crazy deal, that it would fail and that it would never do well,” Ms. Yunis recalled last week. “At the time, it was too far east and people didn’t think it was good for a restaurant.”
The transaction paid off not only for the restaurant, which soon became a lunch draw for the city’s elite but also for Ms. Yunis, who went on to ink two more deals for The Capital Grille: one at the Time-Life Building and another location near Wall Street. The success of those assignments led to others at the Scribner Building on Fifth Avenue, where she acted as an agency representative, and the Fred French building on 45th Street, where she leased 8,500 square-feet of space to Tommy Bahama in early January.
If it seems like a pattern, it’s no coincidence. Since Ms. Yunis’ emergence more than a decade ago as a retail broker–after years toiling in office and residential brokerage–the agent has become something of an expert on the city’s landmark assets.
“I’m really an architecture buff,” said Ms. Yunis, who estimates that she has done about 10 deals at landmarked buildings in the city. “Every single time I walked past those buildings I would dream of leasing those iconic spaces to tenants who could then enhance their beauty.”
At the Scribner Building in particular, Ms. Yunis earned a leasing assignment from then-owner Benetton in early 2003. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the 118-year-old building’s ground-floor retail space had been vacant for several years by the time she was tapped to find a tenant.
The asset’s designation as a landmark posed several problems for retailers, not least of all a clause that barred so much as affixing mirrors to the walls. Nonetheless, Ms. Yunis successfully leased space to Sephora, a cosmetics company that had little presence in New York at the time. The company apparently didn’t seem to mind that it could not hang racks from the walls. “I was in love with that building. I’ve always been in love with it. I wanted that agency very badly,” Ms. Yunis said. “And I believe that it’s still the most beautiful store in New York.”
None of which is to say that Ms. Yunis deals only in landmarked buildings. In a transaction inked last month, in fact, the broker worked on behalf of Party City, the country’s largest party goods chain, to close a 13,000-square-foot lease at 100 West 93rd Street. Unlike the art deco and pre-war beauties that she typically deals in, the luxury condo near Columbus Avenue has yet to see construction.
MS. YUNIS WAS born in Minneapolis to a Chilean mother and Lebanese father, who was a pioneer in cancer research. And while both parents had family ties outside of the United States, it was Ms. Yunis’ career as a fashion model that allowed her to see the world as a teenager.
She snagged a coveted contract with Ford Models, the agency that launched the early careers of Bar Refaeli and Twiggy, among others. Photo shoots and magazine covers followed, and, before long the young model was traveling to Paris and Milan. New York, however, stood out as her favorite destination. “I felt it the day I got off the airplane the first time I was ever here,” said Ms. Yunis, who modeled for about 10 years. “When I got off the airplane and got in the cab, when I was driving in and coming over the bridge, I told my mother I would move here. I was 18 years old and I said, ‘Mom, I’m moving to New York,’ and she said, ‘Amira, you haven’t even got into Manhattan yet.'”
When Ms. Yunis did arrive in New York in 1996, her parents urged her to find work. With little hesitation, she accepted a job renting apartments in Queens and the Bronx, among other places not usually visited by models. Before long, however, her attention veered to office leasing and, finally, retail brokerage.
“I had an interesting beginning, doing residential apartments in Queens and Long Island City and the Bronx,” said Ms. Yunis, who worked at LTD Real Estate, among other small firms. “It wasn’t glamorous. It wasn’t like I was renting apartments in Manhattan. I paid my dues for a very long time.”
The accolades followed after the shift to retail. And while she would not reveal her age, the broker’s inclusion five years ago in Crain’s annual “40 Under 40” issue of New York’s business leaders hints a fast rise at a young age.
“I work a lot–a lot,” said Ms. Yunis. “I mean, most of the time I’m working. And if I’m not in the office I tend to be looking at spaces. And on the weekend I travel, looking at other markets. But that’s because I love it. I love my job.”