Stephen G. Kliegerman
President of Development Marketing
By CANDACE TAYLOR
The occupants of a newly renovated Greek Revival townhouse in the West Village will enjoy something few New York City homeowners have: the benefits of owning a house without giving up the luxury of condominium-style services.
A new company, Aberdeen Townhomes, is buying up historic townhouses in the city and outfitting them with virtual doormen, concierge services, and air-conditioned storage units for grocery deliveries. Because the homes are coming on line during one of the worst nationwide housing slumps since the Great Depression — the first to be completed, at 24 W. 11th St., will hit the market at $17.5 million next week — the sales will be closely watched by real estate professionals.
"This is the only segment of the market that I would be truly comfortable in today — the ultra-luxury townhouse market," the owner of Aberdeen, James Cummings, said. At a time when condominiums on the Upper East Side are selling for as much as $48 million, this segment of the market is the "least affected" by the housing slowdown, he said.
Mr. Cummings has so far acquired five townhouses that he is rehabbing, and he said he has "several more" in the pipeline, declining to elaborate. Townhouses at 41 W. 74th St. and at 33 Charlton St. are scheduled to come on the market later this fall. Working with a combination of private equity and debt financing from Aberdeen's longtime banker, Wachovia, Mr. Cummings said these houses will sell for between $10 million and $20 million.
Behind the restored red-brick façade of the West 11th Street home, a white-oak-paneled entrance hall leads to a glass wall overlooking a patio, while an elevator travels between the 1,000-bottle wine cellar in the basement and the fourth floor. Potential buyers may be more interested in the service entrance beneath the brownstone steps, where the package delivery room is controlled remotely by a virtual doorman, who monitors the building from the Aberdeen management offices. An owner of an Aberdeen home will also have access to a super, who will shovel snow and repair light fixtures, and a concierge service run by Abigail Michaels Concierge. The concierge will book facials, make restaurant reservations, and find Broadway show tickets. These services are free for the first year, and afterward will cost a fee that is yet to be determined.
A broker at Prudential Douglas Elliman who is overseeing the Aberdeen sales, Leonard Steinberg, said making condominium-like amenities available in a brownstone are "a New York first."
The lack of a doorman is one of the most common complaints from brownstone buyers, according to the founder of Vandenberg Inc., Dexter Guerrieri, a specialist in townhouses. "Every buyer asks, 'What do I do about packages?'" he said.
That's a weakness Mr. Cummings, a partner in Manhattan builder Solomon Equities before launching Greenwich, Conn.-based Aberdeen Properties 15 years ago, aimed to address when he envisioned the new venture in spring 2006. "No one was renovating old brownstones as a business," he said. "This was an underserved niche in the market."
Mr. Cummings does acknowledge the risk of his venture. "In a challenging market, you can't be cocky," he said. Still, "we're not selling to a financially sensitive marketplace. Our customers aren't people who need Fannie Mae mortgages."
A real estate lawyer that represents lenders, Marc Shapiro, said projects that appeal to high-end buyers are more attractive candidates for loans. "What lender would not be interested in a real estate opportunity that falls outside of the weaknesses in today's market?" Mr. Shapiro, who is a partner in the Real Estate Group at the law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, said.
For now, at least, there appears to be a deep market of very high-end buyers for Manhattan real estate. The recently completed, Robert A.M. Stern-designed 15 Central Park West racked up some $2 billion in sales, while 823 Park Ave., where sales have averaged about $3,469 a foot, has sold all of its units.
Still, very wealthy buyers also are known to be picky about location and quality, and aren't swayed by gimmicks. The butler-equipped $40 million penthouse at One Madison Park on 23rd Street, for example, has sat on the market for a year. Meanwhile, three high-end apartments at 11 Spring St., including a $17.95 million triplex penthouse with a private elevator, have failed to sell since going on the market in July 2007.
To appeal to buyers in the $10 million-plus market, "it has to be the best of the best," the developer of 823 Park Ave., Elliott Joseph, a principal at Property Markets Group, said.
Many involved in the market are hopeful that the combination of condominium services with the benefit of owning a home will make the Aberdeen townhouses a success.
"There are definitely buyers out there" for the project, the executive director of development marketing at Halstead Property, Stephen Kliegerman, said.
Thursday, September 11, 2008