Winick Realty’s Far West Side Shepherd
Jotham Sederstrom Nov. 22, 2011, 2:30 p.m.
Steven Baker built a life, and staked his career, on the Far West Side of Manhattan at a time when the High Line still languished as an abandoned freight track and nearly every block west of Ninth Avenue included a warehouse, garage or parking lot.
While other brokers followed dollar signs in Midtown and across Madison Avenue, Mr. Baker, then a young broker living in a Ninth Avenue bachelor pad, saw potential in the dusty warehouses and loading docks he walked past in the summer of 2000.
“I knew I wanted to control the neighborhood,” recalled the 40-year-old Mr. Baker, now a managing partner at Winick Realty, who has played a leading role in transforming the area.
From his earliest deals with Payless Shoe Source and John Jay College, which created classrooms on 10th Avenue where a boarded-up retail space once shriveled, Mr. Baker has helped change the Far West Side from a ghost town of dreary industrial buildings into a pedestrian-heavy attraction for city trendsetters and tourists alike.
Earlier this year, in fact, he inked yet another deal in the area that has triggered a wave of new business, all geared toward the Far West Side’s revitalized landscape.
At the TF Cornerstone-owned 505 West 37th Street, where Mr. Baker serves as the leasing agent, Ark Restaurants, the national group behind the Bryant Park Grill and Sequoia, inked a long-term, 10,350-square-foot lease for an upscale eatery on the building’s ground floor. Add to that the fact that Ark convinced former Chanterelle chef David Waltuck to create the menu and lured Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne into designing the restaurant and the message snapped into focus: lease now.
“It helped spur other deals in the buildings,” said Mr. Baker, referring not only to 505 West 37th Street but to other properties that TF Cornerstone owns in the area. “It helped people realize it won’t just be a destination—it will be a hip destination.”
Within days of the news, calls from prospective tenants jammed the line. A catering hall targeting young sophisticates inked 10,000 square feet around the corner. After that, a wine store committed to 2,200 square feet at 455 West 37th Street, another TF Cornerstone property Mr. Baker oversees. Of the 28,000 feet he was tasked with leasing at those TF Cornerstone properties, less than 6,000 remains, he said.
And while the repercussions of the mortgage crises and ensuing economic collapse still linger in most real estate markets, the Far West Side has benefited from news of an extended 7 train to 11th Avenue by 2013, development of the Hudson Yards by the Related Companies, earlier rezoning efforts and, farther north, Riverside South.
“When times are tough, landlords need our services more than ever,” said Mr. Baker. “It’s like that Honda commercial—“They sell themselves.”
As the Far West Side has evolved, so too has Mr. Baker’s career. While he now counts the Brodsky Organization and TF Cornerstone as two powerful clients, his earliest contacts, such as a Ninth Avenue landlord for whom he has inked seven deals since their relationship began in 2000, remain nearly as vital to him as the big shots.
It was Mr. Baker’s familiarity with so many clients, in part, that persuaded Winick Realty founder and chief executive Jeffrey Winick to name the broker as one of the firm’s two partners two years ago. Indeed, following Mr. Winick’s decision in 2009 to dedicate more time to brokerage activities—and less to managerial duties—at the firm, Mr. Baker added partner to his co-president title. Despite growing pains, he’s learning.
“I want to grow as a manager,” said Mr. Baker, whose entire career has been spent with Winick, which has divulged that future plans for the company include launching an investment-sales division. “I want to make this company more entrepreneurial.”
“They are two completely opposite skill sets,” he added, referring to the distinction between brokers and real estate managers. “It’s very difficult to be a player-coach.”
In his brief tenure as a manager, Mr. Baker has spearheaded a drive to hire younger brokers, many of them recent college graduates, whom he believes are among the most passionate of the city’s pool of potential new real estate professionals.
As Mr. Baker sees it, the industry’s most talented brokers exhibit three strengths, with fundamental knowledge of the business and personality lagging behind what he defined as the most crucial of skills for young brokers trying to break in.
“Mental IQ is in there, but I certainly wouldn’t say that I’m the smartest person in the room,” said Mr. Baker. “The most important thing is the burning desire.”
Weathering the economic downturn is one of a real estate manager’s most difficult tasks, and when it became clear that business would be affected by the collapse, Mr. Baker extolled the young brokers on his team to stop worrying. “We said, ‘Guys, wake up! This is the best time to be a broker,’” said Mr. Baker, who defended his stance by talking up existing capital and rock-bottom interest rates.
Still, there is at least one thing Mr. Baker is not entirely confident about. Despite his early years as a resident of the Far West Side, the broker left the city recently, opting instead for a suburban existence with his young family.
But while soaring rent and cramped housing most certainly can take the broker out of Manhattan, taking Manhattan out of the broker, he said, is a totally different story.
“I reluctantly live in Scarsdale,” acknowledged Mr. Baker, who last week said he was considering a return to the city. “We are Upper West Siders, through and through.”