Retail Comes to Murray Hill Properties
Billy Gray April 16, 2013, 9 a.m.
David Greene had retail brokerage on his mind, and he didn’t want a lone wolf.
Mr. Greene, the president of brokerage services at Murray Hill Properties, was assembling a retail team at the firm, which had gone without one for nearly four years.
He was drawn to Christine Emery and Yair Staav, who had formed a partnership at The Lansco Corporation in 1999 and proceeded to build the New York presences of tenants including Uniqlo, Hermès and La Maison du Chocolat. A long courtship followed and has now culminated in Emery-Staav Retail at MHP.
“We spoke about this for 16 months,” Mr. Greene said. “I had never waited this long or had longer ongoing talks with people about deals at or positions within MHP. There was a mutual respect and they had a collaborative view. I mean, look at how they finish each other’s sentences.”
The mutual respect and affectionate banter between Ms. Emery and Mr. Staav was forged in part by their divergent backgrounds. She is a born and bred New Yorker who was raised on the Upper West Side and began her retail career in the mid-1970s with a marketplace near what was then the Fulton Fish Market. He was raised in Tel Aviv and came to New York as a representative of his family’s diamond business around the time Ms. Emery opened the market.
“When you’re of a place, you tend to have kind of fixed ideas about things, about neighborhoods, the geography of the city,” Ms. Emery said. “Yair, on the other hand, even though he’s lived here for 40 years, this is not where he grew up. So he has a completely different perception of the town.”
Mr. Staav’s earliest perceptions of New York coalesced around Soho, which he has since transformed from a scrappy artists’ frontier to a luxury retail juggernaut; he and Ms. Emery focus a good deal of their work with landlords and tenants there.
“I got an understanding of the retail business as a manufacturer,” Mr. Staav said. “On the other hand, I love cities and streets. In my spare time, I would walk the Soho streets and look at stores. That’s very European and Mediterranean, to go window-shopping after dinner.”
Ms. Emery and Mr. Staav share a certain worldliness, and they have brought several high-profile European and international retailers—Camper, Cotélac, Etro, H&M, Maison du Chocolat, Uniqlo—to New York, a reflection not only of Mr. Staav’s foreign upbringing but also of economic fundamentals. “We have done a lot of foreign work, but everyone does,” Ms. Emery said. “Because New York is an absolute magnet. People have to be here. They have to spread their risk.”
Is one of the brokers more likely to take risks than the other? “I’ll see a strip—for example, Broadway between 23rd and 34th Streets 10 years ago,” Ms. Emery said, “and say, ‘Are you kidding? That’s Little Korea. It’s a bunch of schmattas.’ Yair will say, ‘No, it’s ready to happen.’ And it’s true.”
Barrett Friedman, who with Maël Mitterrand completes the new MHP retail team, agrees that Mr. Staav’s faith in unproven submarkets is critical to the group’s success. But he also lauds Ms. Emery’s grounding pragmatism.
“I think Christine’s more analytical,” Mr. Friedman, a recent Tulane graduate, said. “Yair is very creative with locations and geography. And he can seize an area that probably isn’t there yet. Christine is always the one where, if it’s a little far-fetched, she can bring him back down to earth.”
“I compare it to a world wrestling tag team,” Mr. Staav said. “We jump in and out of situations on the same deal sometimes. It’s almost synchronized by now.”
Their complementary approaches to retail real estate paid off when Ms. Emery and Mr. Staav brought the French clothing and accessories line Hermès to 15 Broad Street in a lease that the Real Estate Board of New York recognized in 2007 as the Deal that Most Significantly Benefits Manhattan. The Financial District was more of a retail backwater then than it is now, and the brokers had to fight for the tenancy to happen.
“If it wasn’t for us, it would have been a bank,” Mr. Staav said. “We had to twist the landlord’s arm.” When asked if the trepidation stemmed from geography and a location relatively untested for luxury retail, Ms. Emery offered a more practical explanation.
“No, it was pure money,” she said. “M-O-N-E-Y. And Hermès paid as much as a bank was willing to pay, period.”
After the Hermès deal, Ms. Emery and Mr. Staav came close to another landmark lease in the Financial District when, on the eve of the recession, they showed 23 Wall Street (which, with 15 Broad Street and 35 Wall Street, is known as The Corner) to executives from Ralph Lauren. “Ownership killed everything and they sold it to the Chinese,” Ms. Emery said, citing the $150 million sale in 2008 of 23 Wall Street to China Sonangol, a joint venture between Angola’s state oil firm and a Hong Kong company that a Congressional panel reported has “possible” ties to the Chinese government.
“Look it up on the State Department website,” Ms. Emery said.
(In 2011, a team from Cushman & Wakefield took over the leasing assignment for 23 Wall Street, but attempts to lure a department store or other large-scale retailer have stalled thus far. Entertainment and office tenants are now being considered.)
Although Ralph Lauren fell through, Ms. Emery has high hopes for lower Manhattan. “In two years it will be fabulous,” she said. “Give it time. The dust has to settle.” Mr. Staav agrees. “The infrastructure is there, and you can get to the cool part of Brooklyn very fast.”
Looking north to Soho, where the brokers in 2006 landed the Japanese retailer Uniqlo—a signature and “nerve-racking” account since 1999—its first American store, Mr. Staav sees “the Madison Avenue of Downtown.” Ms. Emery concurs, saying “people will always be drawn to Soho. I think it’s truly about the architecture and the aesthetic experience that people have inside those spaces. But I think it has a more universal draw than Madison Avenue. Madison is a little stodgy.”
“I was talking about the luxury part of Soho,” Mr. Staav said, “the exclusive part of Soho.”
“Ah, he’s talking about money,” Ms. Emery said with a laugh.
I asked them if they argue. “We constantly disagree about food and movies,” Ms. Emery said. “But I don’t think we disagree too often on business deals, except that Yair has been known to kick me under the table, which he is forbidden to do ever again. If he does, I will humiliate him publicly.”
“We have terrible, terrible disagreements, like in a good marriage,” Mr. Staav said. “But we always know the bottom line: we can rely on each other and we care about each other. It’s like working with family. I think we have a friendship, don’t we?”
Their affection and nurturing extends to the junior half of their team. “I think they are not here to teach us or to give us a how-to,” said Mr. Mitterrand, who with Mr. Friedman is also making the jump from Lansco to MHP. “They are trying to reveal who we are and what we are doing. They’re giving us the confidence, strength and knowledge to speak for ourselves and reveal ourselves.”
Ms. Emery and Mr. Staav have both seen whole swaths of New York, from Soho to NoMad, reveal themselves and, against all odds, become fashionable. Does Mr. Staav, the constant flaneur, have a neighborhood in mind as the next big thing?
“Nothing is under-the-radar anymore …” he said.
“ …. in the entire town,” Ms. Emery added, finishing his sentence.
“It’s more surgical now …”
“… there are pockets.”
Ms. Emery and Mr. Staav will continue to dig deeply into those pockets as they bring their extensive tenant and landlord relationships with them from Lansco to MHP. Mr. Greene sought the brokers for their proven track records and compatibility. Why did they want to make the leap?
“We were looking for a home,” Mr. Staav said. “We didn’t want another desk and another telephone in another real estate company. That’s why it took so long. We wanted to build a home together.”
Mr. Greene said that Ms. Emery and Mr. Staav are “building a brand” at MHP. And the family, fresh off a move, may be looking to expand.
“I want a girl,” Ms. Emery said. “I already have two boys and I want a girl. And I’ve got my eye on one.”