Extell Development President Gary Barnett has quietly amassed one of the biggest portfolios among New York developers, climbing into the heavyweight ranks with the likes of Donald Trump and William Zeckendorf. Not yet a household name-though he soon he will be-Barnett is considered by many to be the New King of New York real estate.
By Benjamin Minkus
One of the most luxurious features is the Extell Choice, which allows for buyers to customize their residences to their exact specifications, giving each unit its own unique character.
By now, we should have all heard about the deal of the millennium. Extell Development buys an enormous swath of land in the Upper West Side from a group that included Donald Trump. Gary Barnett, the president of Extell, is currently in the process of transforming Riverside South with the Avery and The Rushmore, two high-rise residential condominiums with family-size homes. This is not the first time that Barnett has affected a total transformation. Starting with a $15 million bargain in 1994 that landed him a full city block at Broadway and 86th Street (the Renaissance Revival-style Belnord Apartments), Barnett began on what is, for him, a common trend: bolstering the 1908 building with, you guessed it, more money-to the tune of an additional $16 million, which led to creation of a courtyard garden and interior frescos, aesthetic touches that mirror Barnett’s attention to detail.
Barnett, a former diamond merchant, knows a thing or two about a diamond in the rough when he sees one. And now, with approximately 12 million square feet of prime, waterfront real estate, Barnett and Extell are competing for a true jewel, one of the most ambitious mixed-use development proposals in history: Hudson Yards.
“It’s a major undeveloped site of the city-probably the last, largest, undeveloped site of the city south of 96th Street-and it’s a wonderful opportunity,” Barnett says about the unique situation. “It’s very challenging because of the complexity of it and the cost of infrastructure and everything else, but it’s certainly an opportunity to try and design and develop the last great piece of land in Manhattan. We have a very special plan using bridge technology to span over the railroads, which will be less costly, and almost non-interfering. I can’t emphasize that enough – to think of what the potential consequences are of anything going wrong over the Long Island Railroad track, one of the lifelines of the commuters into New York City. So our plan has the benefit that we’re not interfering.”
The project proposal, presented to the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which currently owns Hudson Yards, will essentially transform the Eastern Rail Yards and Western Rail Yards into one of the most self-sufficient (thanks to geothermal exchange and gray water recycling, which should make the Hudson Yards project the first development to meet the visionary standards of the City’s PlaNYC well before 2030), mixed-use developments in the world. Moreover, as Barnett said, the suspension deck design-“which has been patented and nobody else is using this kind of application,” he tells us-will not just avoid complicating the railroads, it will allow for a landscaped public realm that is to the benefit of the surrounding community.
The plan is breathtakingly thorough. The Eastern Rail Yards plan calls for a concert hall and performing arts school, a full-block park and amphitheater, with three towers each to the north and the south. The Western Rail Yards, meanwhile, would encompass a sculpture, a floating pier on the waterfront, six thin “Sun Slice Towers”-non-intrusive residential buildings that allow more direct sunlight to fall into the park, as well as a loft-like building raised on peristyle columns that could house a convention center or trading floors. Extell Development enlisted the help of Olin Partnership (for landscape), Bovis Lend Lease (for construction), and Steven Holl Architects (for design), and the finished product exceeded even Barnett’s high standard for excellence.
But Barnett’s magic touch doesn’t stop there. In the superbly ambitious Riverside South project, Barnett is showing how his methodical approach to development is paying big-time dividends. Out of the 75-acre neighborhood, Barnett was able to get a jaw-dropping 27.5 acres, in the process of being rezoned, for Riverside Park South. At the time of the announcement for construction, Barnett said, “Riverside South will have the flavor of the Upper West Side and a tremendous sense of luxury and individuality because it is on the waterfront and on Riverside Park South, the centerpiece of the neighborhood.
“Our waterfront property has increased in value more than anything else, so if you look at the trend, building by building, the values have gone up, and that’s a good trend that a lot of people are recognizing, and they are buying into Riverside South.”
The Avery, which is readying for its grand opening, is a 32-story building with 274 residences and a partnership with the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, which, along with Riverside Park, forms a border around the residential tower. Specifically, the partnership entails special ticket privileges, performances, and “meet the artist” programs at the Avery’s in-house theater. The Rushmore, still under construction, will feature a 16-story base, with two 43-story towers holding 289 residences, with completely unobstructed views of the Hudson River. Both were designed with the help of renowned architecture firm Costas Kondylis and Partners and SLCE Architechts.
One of the most luxurious features is the Extell Choice, which allows for buyers to customize their residences to their exact specifications, giving each unit its own unique character. The concept allows for purchasers to choose entirely different floor schemes for the kitchen, bath, and hardwood flooring, ranging from traditional or classic to modern. Armenian Oak and Brazilian Cherrywood are floor options, with countertops that combine elements of marble, granite, wood, porcelain, and glass.
Then again, the real “Extell Choice” might be which of Barnett’s fantastic buildings is ideal for your next home. And one fantastic choice is the environmentally-friendly, but no less luxurious, Lucida, a 21-story architectural triumph, located at 151 East 85th Street-which makes it the first completely “green” structure in the Upper East Side, according to the U.S. Green Building Council. A customized ventilation system that circulates fresh air is one of the most innovative features that will benefit the environment and the residents of these two- to five-bedroom homes, while the building was granted registered L.E.E.D. certification for its use of sustainable woods, and its ability to recycle construction waste efficiently. The Lucida also offers the Extell Choice to its elite buyers, with interior design by world-famous S. Russell Groves. The resulting options, such as rosewood, mahogany, and bamboo, spare no expense.
And, while the Lucida is a true Barnett masterpiece in the Upper East Side, Barnett isn’t exactly ignoring the West Side.
“We’ve done the Avery, which is almost sold out, and people are beginning to move in next month and maybe even this month. And The Rushmore, which is a very beautiful, twin-tower building, has great amenities, beautiful finishes, and that’s under construction now, and we anticipate the first move-in in about a year or so, and that’s also selling very well,” Barnett boasts. “Beyond that, we’re beginning with the next building on the line, and that’s going to have a very beautiful sporting club, bowling alley, basketball courts, and all kinds of amenities there. This next phase will rely heavily on La Palestra, a spa and fitness center on the Upper West Side, which we are also providing for our residents at the Lucida.”
Barnett is quick to mention that, much like the Avery and the Lucida, sales are brisk for Ariel East and West (a two-tower building located conveniently on Broadway between 99th and 100th streets) and 995 Fifth Avenue (formerly the Stanhope Hotel.) This is Barnett’s Trophy Property, as it is one of the most unique buildings under development in New York City.
“995 Fifth Avenue is of the highest quality,” Barnett says about his class endeavor at Fifth Avenue and 81st Street. “It has extraordinary beauty of quality and that’s what we strive for. We don’t always get that kind of quality in every building, but each building is at the top of the class, and that is what we aim for. Beautiful design and superb quality, delivering a wonderful product to a buyer-that’s what it’s all about.”
Barnett might be making the understatement of the year, as 995 Fifth Avenue offers a unique combination of tremendous location and amenities, all within an immaculately-designed , classic-and we do mean classic-building.
“The last possible chance to develop above 60th Street and Fifth Avenue, let alone a Rosario Candela building, it’s the dream of a lifetime,” Barnett said about the opportunity to develop a building originally designed in the early 20th century by Rosario Candela, whose influence is obvious in the Upper East and Upper West sides. 995 Fifth Avenue holds 26 units across its 17 floors, all priced in excess of $10 million.
“I myself am happily surprised, throughout this financial crisis that we’re going through, that the residential sales are still strong. Bottom line, it shows the depth of the demand for New York City,” he exhorts.
And, Barnett adds, the U.S. economy, at least on the high end, is not feeling the market’s pinch at all: “People have money, all our buyers are closing, and they’re able to get mortgages.”
“We are selling the bulk of our product to Americans, many in the New York area, and many from the suburbs, too. Upper West Side, Upper East Side people recognize a really beautiful product, a superior product, great amenities, beautiful finishes, and great layouts. The market in New York is vibrant and great in demand, not a lot of supply, and going to shrink even further.”
Which is why Barnett, while holding the city he loves near his heart, has branched out to sunny Miami, where his Avenue on Brickell site, a two-building development that features 570 residences spread across both a 35- and a 47-story tower, is quickly gaining steam with Brickell’s up-and-coming clientele. While the real-estate market in South Florida isn’t what it is in New York, Barnett is confident that, when everything is said and done, his product will weather the storm of uncertainty.
When asked if he was worried if the contracts would not close, we were surprised by Barnett’s answer: “I sold the units so cheap, at about $300-320 a square foot. If the people don’t close, we will keep the deposits, and raise the prices to over $500 a square foot. So, in reality, we are not in as bad a position as most developers are in Miami.
“I think Miami is a major international city-not like New York, of course-but still, there is a lot of interest, and Miami’s market is going to recover, sooner rather than later. It has a deep and long-lasting pool of demand, but the oversupply has been so great, and the speculation so significant,” Barnett says. But, he also knows that “we have delivered on exceptional quality and design-I mean, look at our buildings-so that every time I drive around and look at the product I delivered, I can be proud of it. It’s not about making money, it’s about building something that you can be proud of.”
In a world of corner-cutting , Barnett succeeds by staying true to his principles, which are stronger than any foundation laid for one of his new developments. You can blame it on his New York state of mind.