Billionaire’s row, a stretch of midtown Manhattan now dotted with exorbitantly priced, starchitect-designed residential highrises, has officially arrived with a sky-high record: a condo in Christian de Portzamparc’s One57 recently sold for $100 million, the highest sum in the city’s history.
Indeed, international billionaires are currently pricing out the mere millionaires who formerly called the area below Central Park their home. It’s fairly well-known that these newcomers will use these new luxury properties as pied-à-terres — more asset than residence — but where did this practice originate? In the New York Times’s new “Towers of Secrecy,” an 8,000-word investigative masterpiece (à la “Snow Fall“), the answer comes down to the shady dealings and real estate blinders that started in Columbus Circle.
The Time Warner Center. Photo by Björn Söderqvist
The tenants of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill’s Time Warner Center towers include run-of-the-mill New York City elite, according to the Times: finance guys, top art collectors, celebrities, lawyers, and Tom Brady. Tenants also include:
- 25CC ST74B L.L.C., a “secretive entity” linked to Vitaly Malkin, a former Russian senator and banker barred from entering Canada due to his “extended association with persons suspected to be involved in organized crime and money laundering,” including corrupt members of the Angolan government.
- Columbus Skyline L.L.C., owned by Chinese contractor Wang Wenliang, fined on multiple occasions for housing illegal Chinese workers in slum conditions in New Jersey
- Amantea Corporation, mining magnate named Anil Agarwal, who has in the past poisoned Zambian residents by pouring pollutants into a local river
The Times reports that in 2014, 80 percent of Time Warner condos had been bought by shell companies like these — inactive entities that serve as a windowless front for unsavory dealings. And with the help of both the public and private sector, these shady individuals slip in and out of their pied-à-terres with relative ease. Realtors turn a blind eye to the illegible signatures on the dotted line, and anonymity is even embedded into the design of the building itself. The dark glass façade is ominously opaque to the inside (“the complex’s dark glass exterior offers a sheen of both exclusivity and secrecy”); there are no markers on the mail slots or buzzers on the doors; multiple entrances that lead to secured elevators abound.
If this southwest corner of Central Park is the epicenter of the phenomeon, the new Viñoly or de Portzamparc are outward ripples of it — easy metaphors for ever-higher pinnacles of wealth. We don’t yet know what percentage of these new tenants will be slumlords, Captain Planet villains, or Russian gangsters, but we can be fairly sure of the consequences. They will raise the prices of real estate in the entire area with the added complexity that these non-residents pay no city income taxes and don’t exactly shop or eat local. Rather than make financial contributions to the city, they take them in the form of hefty property tax cuts: the new owner of the de Portzamparc condo is only paying $17,268 in property taxes this year, the Times reports, a savings of more than $359,000.
Photo by Todd Heisler for the New York Times
The Time Warner Towers, erected in 2003, have precipitated a real estate trend that will dramatically alter the landscape, both literally and figuratively, of New York City. But in New York, where illegal real estate exists on the highest and lowest extremes, it’s business as usual. “The building doesn’t know where the money is coming from,” Rudy Tauscher, a former manager of the condos at Time Warner, tells the Times. “We’re not interested.”
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