The Art of the Deal with Aby Rosen

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Aby Rosen is a superstar developer, with projects in New York , Miami, Frankfurt, Tel Aviv and Brussels, and a penchant for acquiring architectural touchstones. His other love? A contemporary art collection.

By Julie Earle-Levine
Photography by Yann Dandois


  “I have to say, all of my deals have been pretty good. I’ve done 40, 45 different deals and based on recognition, it is definitely Lever House and Seagram that got attention.”

Aby Rosen, the German-born, New York real estate mogul and contemporary art collector has the most cutting-edge projects in each market, whether it is Miami, New York or Tel Aviv. He owns New York’s most prestigious buildings, including the luxurious Lever House. Rosen and his gorgeous wife Samantha Boardman are boldface names on the Manhattan social scene and entertain at their swank townhouse, where art by Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat among others adorns every wall.

Rosen is a tycoon, but he is an artist at heart. “I don’t look at real estate as making a quick buck. I want to build beautiful buildings and leave something behind that will be remembered,” he told Haute Living in an interview at his commanding Lever House offices, with sweeping views of Park Avenue and another of his landmarked Park Avenue office buildings, the Seagram. Rosen has achieved enormous success in just 20 years in America. Everyone wants to know this super hot developer’s next conquest.

Rosen is not a household name in Manhattan like Donald Trump, mostly because he prefers to fly under the radar and is not branding his name. But his success is staggering. Rosen owns 21 offices and nine residential buildings, mainly in Manhattan, totaling about nine million square feet. His impressive track record of acquiring important buildings including Lever House, the Seagram Building and the Gramercy Park Hotel in Manhattan, and fabulously re-inventing them– rather than simply tearing down the old to build the new– has elevated him to superstar status. His buildings like 40 Bond and Miami’s new W Hotel & Residences South Beach are the talk of the town. As well, he is a prolific contemporary art collector with more than 450 works in his collection.

Rosen discovered his passion for real estate at a young age. As the son of survivors of the Holocaust, he is widely admired. “I am not afraid of anything,” he says. “I grew up as a Jewish child in Frankfurt, Germany with kids telling me, ‘They forgot to gas your father.'” His father became a developer in the early 1960s. “I learned that when he was down and had lost everything, he could still make it work. I must have inherited that from him, and that resonates with my business.”

A friend of more than 20 years, David Edelstein, CEO of New York-based Tristar Capital LLC, co-developer of the W Hotel in Miami calls him a “business genius.” “I relish working with him because of his brilliant aesthetic for design as well.”

Rosen got involved with property early on when his father retired. “I was 18, and started law school when I was 19, so I ran the company with my dad while I was doing my studies.” Rosen finished law school and headed for America. He liked New York in particular and arrived in Manhattan in 1987. Rosen apprenticed at a brokerage firm, selling properties to German investors. In 1991, he co-founded RFR Holding LLC with his best friend, Michael Fuchs. Rosen said he had big ambitions for a developer career in the world’s richest city. “I knew it was for me. I had always dabbled in real estate. I love renovation, the construction side, the smell of concrete. It turns me on.”

Rosen, who has casually swept back silver hair framing a handsome, youthful face, likes all of his projects. His blue eyes ignite as he recalls his ‘best’ deals. “I have to say, all of my deals have been pretty good. I’ve done 40, 45 different deals and based on recognition, it is definitely Lever House and Seagram that got attention. A lot of people see trophies and they usually don’t have great returns, but my trophies have been extremely successful.”

Steve Roth, a friend and chairman of Vornado Realty Trust, the second largest real estate company in the US, said Aby focuses only on ‘the bulls eye location’ and on bulls eye fixer-uppers. “He gets the timing right. Aby is very intelligent with a dose of boldness and irreverence, all very attractive characteristics. All in all, Aby is a very interesting and very talented man.”

cott Resnick, president of Jack Resnick & Sons, Inc, real estate owners and builders backs that view. He says Rosen is an excellent developer and at the top of the field in real estate and art. “Regardless of the trappings of his success, he is down to earth, a generous host at his homes, and a good friend with a great sense of humor.”

Rosen’s first Manhattan deal was buying a vacant building in 1991. He leased it within six weeks to an Iranian bank for eight years, and that gave him capital to invest in New York. “I didn’t start with a lot of money. I started with a credit line and borrowed against two buildings of mine in Frankfurt. We were able to buy really great assets at great locations, at cheap prices. Then we hired great architects.”

Rosen built his first high rise building in 1994, establishing himself as one of the earliest players in that market. ‘No one was doing anything. It was on 64th street and with condo qualities. I bought the land at $19 a square foot which shows you at that point how low the market was.” His acute sense of timing couldn’t have been better.

The condo market has since boomed, and now there are a huge number of high quality condos all over town, spreading from Tribeca to the Meatpacking District and Chelsea.
“What has happened is that people have started to build better quality buildings, livable buildings that suit both family and single life. Not the high rise monsters, the 500 unit buildings but really, high quality living that had been missing in New York.”

Rosen credits accomplished architects for New York’s incredibly changing skyline, including Robert Stern and Michael Graves. “Then, the Richard Meier tower showed up. When you bring in superpower architects, they are very, very good and more daring than what we had seen.” Previously, it was more about building “very profitable but very boring, cookie cutter buildings.” He believes however, that New York has grown into a more international city, with a keen interest in design. “Sophisticated buyers are in New York, and are going to Miami, and shopping all the way up the coast.” Finally the pricing in New York has caught up with European prices. He says that happened when New York prices jumped to $1,600 per square foot, then $2,000, and now, $3,000 or $4,000 per square foot is the norm. He enjoys Manhattan’s changing scape. Sadly, he says there are a few buildings that do not look as presented in the renderings. Some ‘one project only’ developers could do this, but Rosen is here to stay. “I have a long term plan, 30 to 40 years.”

When it comes to impressive buildings, few rival the Seagram at 375 Park Avenue, and Lever House at 390 Park Avenue. Both have been there since the 1950s, but they did not become super hot properties until RFR Holdings bought them in 1999 and 2000 respectively, and restored them. At Lever House alone, Rosen spends more than $150,000 a year on landscaping and several million dollars a year for original artwork. Their prestigious locations are favored by ultra-wealthy financial boutiques and deliver top rents.

Rosen is rumored to be a tough negotiator but he says it’s not true. “I’m just not afraid of losing a deal. If I want it, I want to get it more or less on my terms and conditions. Maybe that makes me a tough guy. But I’m a compromiser too.” Rosen aligns himself with significant talent, in particular, Ian Schrager, a friend of more than 20 years. They started a business relationship when they first worked on Miami’s Delano hotel and since Schrager turned his attention to upscale luxury residential developments, have since worked together in redeveloping other projects including the stunning Grammercy Park Hotel. It is a friendship and business relationship that clearly works. “I love Ian for his vision and energy level that is infectious. He works even harder than me,” says Rosen, who admits he is not always in the office but he’s always somewhere talking to people. He takes weekends off to spend with his children. He has three boys, aged 10 and 12 with his fist wife, and a new, six month old with his second wife, the psychiatrist and socialite, Samantha Boardman, whom he married in October last year. (2005).

Rosen is obsessed with work, but he also knows how to have fun, and to relax. Today he is feeling a little tired, having spent an evening with friends that ended with a bottle of 1848 cognac – “It was actually fantastic,” he recalls with a smile. “But I don’t go out like I used to, to say 4 or 5am and then turn up for work at 8.30am.” His enthusiasm never wanes, especially talking about his ‘gems’. The Seagram and Lever House make him a leader in commercial real estate. His next goal is achieving that in residential. “That is always a bit more difficult, to create something in that league, but that is now what is expected of me. We set all our bars high and in the long term, the developer benefits and the neighborhood benefits.”

He is currently working on the W South Beach Hotel and Residences (part hotel, part condominium), and on redeveloping a 500,000 square foot Las Vegas shopping mall. Rosen is enthusiastic about his Miami project, his first with W. The property, a 18-story modernist glass tower with black ceramic floors in the rooms and a Bliss spa, will replace a Holiday Inn. “It will be mostly condos with lots of outdoor space right on the beach, at 22nd. Miami is so vibrant, and a mix of contemporary and modern design. When the Delano opened up people said Miami would be over, but 18 years later, it is just warming up,” he said. Rosen spends several weekends a year in the Miami area, mostly in Palm Beach and “wouldn’t miss an Art Basel…It’s such good energy, and I like to observe the market so combine buying the art with work.”

In Vegas, Rosen will help the owners of the Shops at Desert Passage re-brand to become the Miracle Mile Shops as part of a $50 million makeover.

Rosen’s Manhattan projects have also been also keeping him busy. Gramercy Park is among his favorites and one he hopes will change the industry. He believes the newer design approach is cozy with great, quality materials. “Ian calls it the bohemian aesthetic, or ‘the long term experience’ – you can stay five nights and it is comfy.”

Having sold most of the condominiums at Grammercy Park, Rosen and Schrager have moved on to Noho’s Bond Street, where they have hired Herzog & de Meuron to create gorgeous living spaces for design conscious downtown loft buyers at 40 Bond, a 14 story blue-glass building, comprising five townhouses and 23 apartments.

The union of luxury and lifestyle also come together at his 425 Fifth Avenue condo development. “Here we have well- designed, light-filled homes but also, exclusive resident services and amenities.” Rosen has also been spending time on his proposed 30 story glass tower atop a 1950 building at 980 Madison Avenue, at 76th Street, designed by Norman Foster.

His personal art collection is an impressive 450 works, including 80 Warhols. A tour of his Lever House offices shows art at every turn. A 35-foot painted bronze sculpture of a naked pregnant woman by Damien Hirst is in the courtyard. Rosen paid $2.5m for it a few years ago.

Dam Lindemann, an art collector and friend of Rosen for ten years recalls the Hirst sculpture being delivered for a show at Lever House. “Aby said, I like it, just leave it there. He didn’t need to take a poll of how many people liked it, or whether it was appropriate. He just went for it and bought it.. That is what I admire about him, his freedom and open mindedness. He is a risk taker and he goes with his gut.”

Marc Glimcher, president of Pace Wildenstein in New York describes Rosen as a standout collector. “When you hear about these new art collectors, hedge fund managers, real estate people who are cut throat, and have an unintelligent approach to art…That is not Aby. Every real estate client calls and wants us to lend them art but when it came to Lever House’s art program Aby never called for a loan.” Glimcher says Rosen told him he was going to buy these changing exhibitions for Lever. “The artists went nuts. I don’t know how much more old fashioned it gets than doing that, and for young artists it was just the ultimate. Aby is the real thing. He has passionate abandon and knows when to do something for no good reason, except his love of art.”

Rosen’s 1870s townhouse on 80th Street also has art in every room. “I’ve always loved art. I love photography, and have a huge collection of American art from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. I believe you have to have great art in buildings and great flowers.” Can he recommend a florist? He has his own team that does floral arrangements. “I like flowers. It’s true! Especially orchids, and white flowers like Calla lilies.”

Other than Manhattan, Rosen also owns properties in Frankfurt and is growing his portfolio there. Rosen is planning developments in Brussels and a Four Seasons in Tel Aviv, where he has opened an office and will complete three hotels.

Rosen wears the luxury lifestyle well and is a real consumer. He rarely wears suits, preferring jeans and t-shirts but today he is dressed in a crisp, blue shirt and suit for the interview and a meeting that afternoon with a politician. His open neck shirt reveals a black silk cord, looped around his wedding ring. “I don’t wear rings, they bother me.” He adores fashion, and often buys clothing he does not end up wearing. Still, it is fun to shop. “I’m a really good consumer, I believe in recycling money back into the world.”

A tour of his third-floor office reveals a private terrace, on which he likes to have business lunches in summer. He calls his two boardrooms ‘the red room’, and ‘the black room’. The red has a glossy, red Italian 1980s, circular table, the first they ever bought. “It is like our Buddha, our good luck charm. We touch it every morning and it gets refinished each year for a crazy amount of money.” There are a couple of Warhols in the red room, along with a Tom Friedman sculpture, made of food cartons. In the black room, photographs by Garry Winogrand line the walls. “It’s just part of the environment and what we live with each day.”

For Rosen, fashion and art and luxury are all connected. “That is why people want to have great residences, then want great art, and great furniture- it all goes hand in hand.” Rosen is thankful for his success and for people “sticking with me.” “I’ve made a lot of money and investors who worked with me made alot of money. I have very few enemies. My kids respect and love me. I have a great wife and I am a very lucky man.”

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