“We’re Like The Avis Guys:” An Afternoon With Gary Barnett

In the world of Gary Barnett, everything is the best.

The president of Extell Development, a company he launched in the 1990s following a stint as a diamond trader in Belgium, made this plainly clear during a recent tour of One57, his 1,005-foot-tall tower near Carnegie Hall on West 57th Street. When completed, the building will rank not only among the city’s tallest properties, but, with its views of Central Park, among its most luxurious as well. In other words, the best.

On the One57 amenities: “This will be the best amenities package in the entire city. All the others are good. But they don’t have everything.”

On the One57 finishes: “Look at this kitchen. Where will you find a kitchen anywhere like this? It’s the best, and we have two of them.”

On the One57 floor plans: “We have the best floor plans on the market.”

barnett gary We’re Like The Avis Guys: An Afternoon With Gary Barnett

Gary Barnett, No. 2.

On the One 57 views. “That’s a killer view. There’s nothing as good as this. All the other buildings, they say the have a view, but it’s on an angle. This is dead center.” (Having been up on the 68th floor, as of two weeks ago the highest, there is something to this claim—the views are spectacular, and already exceeding the Top of the Rock.)

On One57’s astronomical prices: “Look at this, and it’s six-something a foot. If this was one of the other buildings, it would be closer to 10,000 a foot. And in this building, it’s not even the best views. I think it’s one of the best deals in the building, in the city.”

On One 57’s architect, Pritzker Prize-winner Christian de Portzamparc: “We hire the best people so we can do the best work.”

Increasingly, however, it isn’t just the amenities or the $115 million price tags on his penthouses that are being described as the best, but the developer himself as well. Long considered a lone wolf for his tendency to ruffle the feathers of his contemporaries—he famously clashed with Bruce Ratner after making a last-minute bid for control of the Atlantic Yards—the developer is beginning to be taken more seriously by his peers.

But if Gary Barnett truly is the best, at least in the eyes of some real estate analysts, he quickly dispelled such a characterization earlier this month when approached by The Commercial Observer about meeting for this story. Indeed, the anti-establishment developer wondered aloud what such a laurel would do to his reputation.

“Two things,” Mr. Barnett said, when reached before the tour. “One, how would you like to go up in the building?” Very much so. “The other thing is, I hear these profiles are for the people at the top of the list.” How could he know? “I want to tell you, I’m not cooperating if I’m No. 1. Because I’m not. I’m not No. 1, I don’t want to be No. 1. We’re like the Avis guys. We’re No. 2, and we try harder. Got it?”

As is increasingly the case these days, Gary Barnett got just what he wanted.

“You have to be willing to take risks, to lose money and to walk away from something,” Mr. Barnett said by way of explaining his success, as the rickety lift made its way up the eastern flank of the concrete shell that is One57, looming over Essex House. “You also have to be patient.” He pointed out that this project began in 1998. “There have been 15, 20 transactions to get to this point,” he said, buying everything from buildings to air rights, and bringing in new investors, among them the royal family of Abu Dhabi. At one point, Mr. Barnett was close to buying a neighboring plot that would have squared off what ended up being an unusual L-shape site. When that did not materialize, he went ahead and built anyway.

“Sometimes you have to work with what you have,” he said.

There is something to that beyond bluster. The first thing one sees upon entering the One57 showroom is an Oscar-worthy marketing film, projected inside a wide black granite hallway. (“These are actual lobby finishes,” Mr. Barnett notes.) In the video, the wall, displaying the One57 logo, transforms into an iridescent moon pool, which the viewer realizes is actually a bead of dew or a rain drop on a leaf of grass in Central Park. As the camera pulls out, the droplets are sucked skyward, we get our first glimpse inside the apartment, of a willowy woman standing before floor-to-ceiling windows, gazing out at the park. Now a shot of the skyline, those droplets are swirling, shooting, cascading down the steeply sloping facade of One57.

The waterfall, oft-invoked by Christian de Portzamparc, the project’s architect, is a more than apt metaphor for this aquapomorphic building. Indeed the unusual site and the challenging setbacks help create, rather than hinder, the artistry, and it is these unusual shapes that help create the perfect layouts.

This is what Mr. Barnett said drew him to the business. “I like the creativity of the work, from assembling the site to picking the architect, the finishes, coming up with the marketing,” Mr. Barnett said. “It’s headache after headache after headache, so if anything, the design process is the enjoyable part. I like to build.”

“He’s probably the best marketer in the business,” said Adam Schwartz, Angelo Gordon’s head of real estate and Mr. Barnett’s partner in the Carlton House.

Mr. Barnett might deserve pride of place were it for his singular One57 alone, but he has so much more going on, it is amazing he, or anyone, can keep track. While some of his rivals and compatriots might have bought and sold more in recent years, no one is building more, and more different, projects. “He’s very focused on what he does, more than some of the others,” REBNY president Steven Spinola said. “Not that they don’t focus, but he seems to focus in his own way.”

The Rushmore and the Aldyn, two developments at Riverside South, finished just as the market was headed south, along with the Lucida on the Upper East Side and the mock-historical 535 West End Avenue on the Upper West Side. Yet they have attracted the likes of David Wright, Robin Williams, Tyson Chandler and Mr. Real Estate himself, Alex Rodriguez, who flipped a Rushmore penthouse for a 50 percent profit after owning it for less than a year. Like One57, the neighborhood transforming International Gem Tower is finally rising on an otherwise dowdy 47th Street. A new Hyatt is headed skyward nearby, in Times Square, harkening back to Mr. Barnett’s early days in hotels. Another luxury building on West 43rd Street is in the works, as well as one downtown—Mr. Barnett would not say where—and the Carlton House is well underway. Certainly something has been forgotten.

And, according to sources outside the developer, Mr. Barnett has tapped another Pritzker firm, Herzog & de Meuron, of 40 Bond fame, to build a 1,250-foot residential tower at Broadway and 57th Street. Yes, One57 was not enough. When it stops being the best, this project, and so many others, will be ready to carry on the legacy. When asked about the project, Mr. Barnett did not deny it, though he noted that, “Nothing had been settled, not the height, not the architect.” So be it. Perhaps now that Harry Macklowe’s 432 Park is climbing toward 1,395 feet, maybe Mr. Barnett wants to build a 1,400-foot tower.

Even when Mr. Barnett struggles, he does so spectacularly. The Rushmore may be the perfect case. Bad brokers, four lawsuits, perhaps some 40 or 50 over one project or another. He has missed his fair share, from Atlantic Yards to Hudson Yards to Brooklyn Bridge Park. A comptroller’s report from a 2007 bid for the Aqueduct casino reveals a man, who, while he may fill out his own questionnaire, was for once less exacting than usual, leaving many questions blank and giving the state a general impression of untrustworthiness—not a good thing when betting on a casino project.

And yet would there really be room for more work? Actually, there probably would be. “I don’t have time to think about the ones that got away, thank god, because we’re busy doing what we’re doing, and there’s always more to be done,” Mr. Barnett said.

Following the tour of the One57 showroom, Mr. Barnett headed outside and down three blocks to Lexington Avenue. Asked he really did not believe he was No. 1, he made it abundantly clear yet again.

“There are so many more powerful people than us, the REITs and the families,” Mr. Barnett said. “Being No. 1, everyone’s watching you, talking about you. I don’t need that, I don’t want that. My ego is still normal, I think. Let’s keep I that way.”

Maybe he meant it. Or maybe he was trying to psyche us out, get inside our heads and make us make him No. 1. Whatever Mr. Barnett was doing, it was working—he is not one of the foremost marketers, as well as builders, in the city for no reason. Before we could collect ourselves and ask what the truth was, Mr. Barnett got into a cab and was gone.

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