For a hedge fund manager known for his highest self-confidence, Bill Ackman was uncharacteristically caring – almost humble – as he addressed the crowd.
The veteran of corporate raids and brutal short-selling campaigns did not speak to a shareholders’ meeting or make a public case against an overvalued share. Rather, he was trying to persuade a more contentious crowd: the seven members of community council living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Ackman desperately wanted them to support a Norman Foster-designed renovation of his penthouse in West 77th Street.
“We love the website. We love the Upper West Side. And my wife and I wanted to raise our new family here. We have a two-and-a-half-year-old child, ”he explained during a virtual public meeting last week, and it sounds like any other father with a great need to build a nest.
This particular nest requires the demolition of the penthouse on top of the 1927 building, which overlooks Central Park and stands next to the New York Historical Society. Instead, Foster would erect two modernist glass boxes, one stacked on top of the other.
Depending on who you ask, it’s either a sublime work of architectural genius or, as one resident remarked: “[It] honestly looks like a flying saucer that ended up on the roof. ”
The dispute, which is now entering a critical phase after two years of maneuvers, is another Manhattan real estate drama that pits the wealthy against the hyper-rich and raises familiar questions about whether the city’s historic buildings like fossils are preserved in amber. must be or can be improved with thoughtful additions.
Ackman surprised some opponents last month by getting approval from the community council’s conservation subcommittee, with five members voting in favor and three abstaining. “We did not get our ducks in a row, but Ackman had his ducks in a row,” says novelist Mary Breasted, who has lived in the building with her husband, Ted, since 2008. “It is one of the most beautiful blocks in the city, we think.”
Breasted considers Foster’s proposed penthouse not so much a spaceship as a “Malibu house on top of our building”.
She and other opponents fear the renovation could pave the way for striking imitators who would erode the character of a historic neighborhood. They are worried that New York may have lost its appetite to resist developers after being hammered by pandemic, which scared the city of losing more affluent residents to low-tax Florida.
Last week’s community council meeting was just one obstacle for Ackman to eliminate. A longer test awaits on November 16 when the city’s powerful Landmark Conservation Commission takes up the case. If Ackman wins his blessing – hardly assured – the project will then go to the cooperative building’s secret council for final approval.
The project has already aroused “an atmosphere of fear and mistrust” among the residents of the 16-storey building, according to a note circulated by concerned tenants. Some like Ackman’s plan, some hate it, and some wonder why he felt the need to buy a penthouse in a pre-war building and turn it into a glass box while the city already has a remnant of outside-the shelf glass boxes in the new super high towers at Billionaires row.
Ackman, founder of Pershing Square Capital, carved investment win who relied on big bets, as well as his ability to convince the market that he was right. Among them: a successful activist campaign at Canadian Pacific Railway and its bet against the Municipal Bond Insurance Association. He also missed big, including a fatal investment in Valeant, a drug maker that exploded, and a years-long short-selling campaign against Herbalife.
This is not the first time he has stepped into the mud of New York’s landmark politics. The Howard Hughes Corporation, of which he is chairman, bought a parking lot in the South Street Seaport’s historic district for $ 180 million in 2018. Earlier this year, the company received the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s approval to erect a luxury building where other developers have failed. (A $ 50 million donation to the neighboring South Street Seaport Museum seems to have helped the cause.)
The penthouse is small in comparison, but evokes no less emotion on the Upper West Side, where it is known as “the Nancy Friday apartment” for the author on female sexuality who put it together over the years from three separate units . It went on the market after her death in 2017 for $ 22.5 million.
Ackman bought it and, along with his second wife, MIT scientist and architect Neri Oxman, began building a dream home. A first design – with three glass boxes – was considered too visible. Then came the scaled-down version.
The Ackmans believed they had the board’s support to renovate the penthouse when they first applied to buy the property, and that their opponents were a rogue minority who feared any change. The penthouse, they note, is a former servants’ quarters that has been adapted over the years by Friday without any official approval.
Their refurbishment was the marquee tent item on the agenda at last week’s Zoom-casted community council meeting, which also included a lengthy discussion of rising crime and a warning that homeless people could soon take over the neighborhood’s outdoor eateries.
Reverend K Karpen, co-chair of the community council’s conservation subcommittee, sought to alleviate the tension over the glass box. “In case you were wondering if the petitioners are really doing everything in public, the answer is’ no ‘,” he said, noting that the Ackmans’ property is part of a third, hidden floor under the proposed glass quarters. include.
Then the debate began. It seemed ominous to Ackman after Jonathan Weiner, a resident for two decades, said the proposal “collided with” the building’s dignified norms, and that he believed a majority of residents were “strongly” opposed to it. A neighbor threw Ackman’s wealth back at him, complaining that his design used the beloved building as a mere “platform for a temple for a titan”. Roberta Brandes Gratz, author of several books on urban development, slammed Lord Foster’s arrogance.
But Paul Goldberger came to the rescue. He introduced himself as follows: “I am here as both a resident of 211 Central Park West and as the former architectural critic of both The New York Times and The New Yorker.” Those credentials border on royalty in a cultivated enclave delighting in its bookishness.
“I strongly support the design,” Goldberger announced, arguing that it was an inspired blend of old and new. “Although small in scale, it holds the promise of being one of the firm’s best pieces of work.”
Eventually, Ackman, who said he never practiced a presentation, made his case. His blue dress shirt unbuttoned, he began by establishing his ties with the neighborhood. He has lived on the Upper West Side since 1992. “I looked at this building for years, this pink penthouse,” he recalls, with Gatsby-like longing.
It was now crumbling, and no one would take better care of it than he and his wife, he promised. Therefore, they hired the best architect and builder. He also offered to pay for a new elevator.
“In my opinion, the reason why people in the building object is not because they are concerned about architectural integrity. This is because they would rather there be no construction and no project on the roof, “Ackman said, adding:” We want to live peacefully with our neighbors. We do not want them to be upset with us. ” Asked about environmental impacts, he was enthusiastic about solar panels. “We love birds too!” he promised.
After a virtual show of hands at the end of the community meeting, Ackman’s dream appeared a step closer to reality: 25 members endorsed the renovation; only seven opposed it; and two remained out of the vote.
But his hope for neighborly happiness seemed more remote. “I think the guy is overplaying his hand, but that’s how he always is,” said one resident, who studied the hedge fund manager carefully. “He is nothing if not persistent.”