A Star Is Horn: How Ken Horn Redeveloped the Woolworth Building

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Alchemy Properties President Kenneth Horn has been a lawyer, a gelato maker, and, in his most high-profile gig to date, a developer who’s transforming the upper half of the iconic Woolworth Building into condominium units.

SEE ALSO: What’s It Woolworth?: A Brief History of the Iconic Woolworth Building

His 28-year-old firm has spent six years and more than $90 million converting the top 29 floors of the former “cathedral of commerce” into 33 luxury apartments, and the work is nearly complete. Alchemy is responsible for more than 30 developments around the city, but the Woolworth Building—the 58-story, 791-foot-tall skyscraper at 233 Broadway between Park Place and Barclay Street—has been one of the firm’s most challenging projects to date.

Because workers couldn’t attach a construction hoist to the building’s landmarked facade without damaging it, they have had to navigate around both the active office tenants on the lower floors and the public tours that regularly pass through the lobby. They painstakingly repainted and replaced 3,500 terra cotta tiles lining the building’s arched windows. And Alchemy had to create beautiful apartments to justify the sky-high cost of the conversion, which demanded a lengthy design and approval process with the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Horn, a 62-year-old Upper East Side resident and married father of three, is also working on three other ground-up condo buildings in Manhattan. Alchemy is wrapping up construction on the Noma, a 24-story, 55-unit glassy high-rise at 50 West 30th Street on the border between Chelsea and NoMad. On the Upper West Side, the company just started demolition at 378 West End Avenue, where it plans to erect a 19-story residential building designed by CookFox and combine it with a neighboring structure at West End Avenue and West 78th Street. And a few blocks north, at 250 West 81st Street, the real estate firm is teamed up with Robert A. M. Stern to construct an 18-story, 32-unit condo clad in limestone. Buyers are expected to move in next spring.

Commercial Observer sat down with Horn last week in a $20 million model condo unit on the 40th floor of the Woolworth Building to talk about the complex conversion of the iconic office tower, the gelato business he started in his mid-20s, and the softening of the luxury residential market. (We also spilled a half-full cup of coffee on the unit’s carpet, which the Alchemy guys were really sweet about.)

Commercial Observer: What have been the challenges of renovating and converting this historic, landmarked building? And can you talk about why the project has taken so long?

Kenneth Horn: Well, we’ve done 33 buildings in New York City and this is by far the most complicated building we’ve done. So why is it complicated?

When we bought it, unlike a lot of transactions that you buy, you sign a contract and you have a certain time frame in which to close. Here, we signed a contract and closed in 46 days, which was almost unheard of. And we didn’t just buy the building—we bought [only] the upper portion of the building. We really had to form two different condominiums. The lower portion, which was owned by [Witkoff Group and Cammeby’s], and the upper portion, which was residential. Then we had to put our team together. And for a building of this nature, it’s a landmarked building and one of the most revered buildings not only in New York, but in the world. You really want to choose your team correctly.

So, we spent 11 months just choosing our team—interviewing architects, bringing in historical consultants, bringing in the right people to look at the facade. And then we had to start our drawings. And remember, the drawings couldn’t just be submitted to [the New York City Department of Buildings], they had to go through Landmarks approval. In a typical transaction, even if you closed immediately, it would probably take you between nine, 10, maybe 11 months to get your drawings done and approved by the DOB. We didn’t have our team put together. Once you got the team put together, you had to get them to coalesce on what the vision was and how you were going to design the building. The reason the building has taken this long is that we literally didn’t hit the ground until 18 months after we closed.

Number two, if you look at new construction in New York, most new construction has exterior hoists. This building did not. [With] a landmarked building, you could not put a large hoist on the outside of [the] building. It was impossible to do because it would hurt the building.

This building really had two vertical methods of transport. And those were shafts that had been cut by the previous owner, because the previous owner had actually vacated the upper portion of the building. It sat vacant for about 10 years [because] they were uncertain about whether to make it a hotel, condominiums, a residence, etc. Ultimately, we began to build and construct an elevator simultaneously with only keeping one hoist operational to bring supplies vertically. Remember, the supplies that were going vertical were going through space that we didn’t own to our space. So, the vertical transport here was enormously challenging.

The other thing of course when we began to renovate, we were very careful about the exterior. We made a determination fairly early on that if you’re sitting in apartments like this and you’re looking outside, you want to make sure the terra cotta looks good. We actually had 21 hanging scaffolds off this building at one point. We broke the building down into two-foot-by-two-foot dimensions and made a determination as to which pieces we were gonna replace and which pieces we were gonna repair. That process, from beginning to end, took 21 months.

Construction probably started 20 months after we closed. So, the actual construction period in this building will mirror the construction period that we’ve done on a lot of other buildings, 36 to 39 months. But the reason the process seemed so much longer to the press and to people out there is because no one really understands the fact that we couldn’t really get started until 18 months into the process.

What’s the deal with the pinnacle of the Woolworth?

The pinnacle is really volume. There’s nothing in New York like it. I know it sounds like hyperbole and a tad bit of boasting but it’s true. You can have beautiful duplexes and beautiful expansive views on glass towers but there’s nothing like this. This is literally like a castle in the air. As of now there are obviously some floors that are filled in but it’s really going to be up to the imagination of the buyer to make a determination of how he or she lives in it. The views are incredible; you’re literally in the clouds. The upstairs has an outdoor terrace. I’m not sure how you guys feel but every time I go up there I feel like I’m literally on top of the world.

Who’s gonna buy it? We’ve had interest. It’s a unique unit. Someone is gonna buy it who understands there’s nothing like this in the world. You can’t duplicate that space. It entails a lot of creativity and a lot of vision. We’ve had interest from people who have that creativity and have that vision. But it’s not a flat apartment like this. Here you can walk in and you can make that determination—I have my bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens. Someone is going to walk in there and really understand there’s nothing like this anywhere and want to own it.

Are you leaving it to the buyer to build it out how he or she wants?

We’re going to help them move their creative process forward. Just because someone could afford it and bring in architects and engineers etc., doesn’t mean that they’ll necessarily have the creativity that we have. So, we’re coming up with methods of moving people in the right direction to see how they would live in such a phenomenal space. It was kind of like the last thing that they got to because we had to finish everything in the building. And people actually live in the building now which is great.

The asking is $110 million and that’s a bargain, relative to the type of space. The space just knocks your socks off.

Can you tell me how many condo units you’ve sold at the Woolworth?

We’d rather not for privacy reasons. For some reason over the summer when a lot of people’s volume went down, our volume went up.

Every building in New York is building-by-building in terms of when it sells and how it sells. I know the press likes to look at generalities. There are no generalities. It all has to do with buildings and location. I have a building at [250 West] 81st Street. We only have five units [out of 32] left; we’re 85 percent sold [since February]. And why is that happening? We happen to deliver a unique product in an area that was starved for new development, but that’s an anomaly in the market as you can well imagine. You can attribute it to the fact that the building is gorgeous and there’s a lack of supply in the area.

primaryphoto 12 A Star Is Horn: How Ken Horn Redeveloped the Woolworth Building
The Woolworth Building at 233 Broadway Photo: CoStar Group

How far along is construction at 250 West 81st Street?

Should be done by February or March by the latest. Building is all closed up; we’re just doing interior finishes now. What’s particularly interesting in that building is how many people are combining floors.

What about the Noma at 50 West 30th Street?

It’s probably 97 percent finished. We have a temporary certificate of occupancy for the entire building. We’ve had 30 people move in already and we’re just finishing up the last 20 units or so. What ended up happening is that we finished the lower portion of the building because the building goes up and then sets back and then goes up again. The lower portion sold out. And then we finished the upper portion and it sold. We’re probably over 60 percent sold there already.

I never ever come up with a methodology that’s foolproof for every building. It has to do with the market, who you’re selling to, what you’re selling. If you look at the three buildings we’re doing now, they’re all totally different demographics. At 50 West 30th, your prices are between $1.4 [million]   and $3 million with the exception of three penthouses. We have some investors and some folks are not.

On 81st Street, 80 percent of our buyers come from a 10-block radius. [It is a] totally neighborhood building. It’s 100 percent people who are living there.

[The Woolworth] is attracting people from all over, but mostly New Yorkers. People always think that units of this size are going to attract people from out of the country, but I don’t think we have one foreign buyer.

The people who are buying here are people who have multiple homes. What we’ve found in the market today is that people are buying with a shorter fuse. People are buying knowing they want to move in now. Eighty-first Street is an anomaly because there was not a lot of product in the marketplace. There was rehab product, but [not] new product, because of the landmark constraints and inability to find new spaces…We happened to enter at the right time.

The building at 250 West 81st Street is a Robert A. M. Stern project. There’s been criticism recently that all of Stern’s condo projects in Manhattan look the same. What do you think about that? Developers also argue his designs sell condos and that’s why people hire him. Do you think his design gives you a special edge in terms of selling?

I think his design is perfect for the Upper West Side. The content of what he does is a variation on a similar theme, that’s undeniable. But it’s a theme that’s beautiful. Would we necessarily use Robert Stern for other geographic areas? Probably not. But we thought he was extremely well-suited for the Upper West Side based on the success of the buildings he’s done up there—15 Central Park West, etc. His work is impeccable; it’s clearly a definitive style and a definitive design.

Is it dilutive because he’s done so many buildings in New York? I think that’s for the public to decide. But he’s a brand and dealing with him was an absolute unequivocal pleasure. Someone of his firm’s reputation and standing, you’d think there would be a lot of ego, but they were flexible, understanding and understood budgets.

Are you concerned about the slowdown in the luxury condo market?

The luxury market is not as robust as it was two years ago. Are we more content in the Woolworth than we would be on 57th Street? You betcha. There’s nothing like this. Not taking away from the architectural integrity of the buildings on 57th Street, [but] you can always build another glass skyscraper. You can’t build another Woolworth Building. And the people who are buying here understand that.

Another reason: we’re Downtown. People who are looking at 57th Street or other theoretical luxury buildings on Park Avenue, this is an entirely different avenue. This is an entirely different buyer who understands you’re near Tribeca; you’re near Downtown. This is changing more than any other area of New York. But are we concerned? No, because we know we have a great product.

We know the more complete we are the more we’re going to sell out. We’re pragmatic, we understand we’re people who were going up in a construction hoist until four months ago. It wasn’t exactly a great way to show luxury real estate. There’s always an apprehension with people buying ultra luxury units that everything isn’t 100 percent finished.

One of the reasons we were so eager to do 378 West End Avenue is that we believe that over the next two to three years, all this new product is going to be eaten away. There’s just not a lot of new condominium starts for 2019, 2020 and 2021 because new developers are precluded from entering the condominium market. They won’t be able to get equity and they certainly won’t be able to get debt. We look at that as the ideal time to develop. You want to start developing in a market today so in two years you can deliver product onto the market.

So, you think that the slowdown and nervousness about the high-end condo market is actually going to benefit you?

This is an anomaly in terms of the type of product we’re delivering, so even at West End Avenue and even at 81st Street, our average purchase price is $7 million. Would we enter the fray to do units that were $15 million? Probably not.

What did you do before you founded Alchemy in 1990?

Before I started Alchemy, I worked for a real estate developer [LMS Equities] for four or five years. And before that I was an attorney; I practiced [real estate] law for about four years. And in between being a lawyer and being a real estate developer, I started a gelato company. I did that for two years and sold it. And I was nearly thrown out of my family from my wife’s side. She had married a big Fifth Avenue lawyer and then I went into the gelato business. My father-in-law used to refer to me as the Good Humor man. I was young; I was 26 when I did that. I got out of law school and I was 22. I realized I didn’t want to be a lawyer and I said I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. I hooked up with some folks from Cadbury-Schweppes, and they funded me. And I started this company and we got written up as the best ice cream in New York. And then we sold it to an experienced buyer in the frozen food business.