Bruce Eichner, the developer who added City Spire, 1540 Broadway and hundreds of luxury condos to the New York skyline in the 1980s and ’90s before decamping to South Beach and Las Vegas, where he did much of the same, struggled to sit still in his office chair on the 26th floor of a midtown skyscraper.
Eichner, 64, has a polished white smile, the energy of a much younger man and the charisma of 10 average men. That would help explain how, over the past three decades, he’s convinced one banker after another to part with billions of dollars. Now’s he back in New York. And after two years of quietly assessing the market, he’s hatched a mysterious plan, one that he’s loath to describe in anything but the most opaque of terms.
“I’m going to use my real estate expertise, which allows me to be a thoughtful buyer of dirt—land … and apply it to operating businesses in the New York metropolitan area.”
Even better, “I am ensconced in buying X number of sites, which I guarantee The New York Times and Wall Street Journal will be interested in, because that’s what I do.”
This month, he says, he’s entered into contract for two development sites in the New York metropolitan area. By year’s end, he wants to have acquired between eight and 10. While he will develop these sites, real estate development is no longer the end goal.
Two real estate sources said that Eichner was planning to do something related to senior housing. Eichner declined to confirm that.
“To do a real estate project is like riding a bicycle,” Eichner said. “The idea of coming up with some operating business and doing this and that and doing some prestidigitation …” at which point he crossed his forearms back and forth above his lap, like a human windshield wiper. “That’s cool.”
“We’re not talking about money,” said Eichner, who had just finished expounding on the thrill of the hunt. “We’re talking about 221B Baker St.”
221B Baker St.
This is the first-floor Victorian flat where the fictional Sherlock Holmes kept his pipe rack, and where he labored over stubborn mysteries with the help of the loyal Dr. Watson. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is one of Eichner’s favorite writers. Eichner’s office has a creative disorder similar to Holmes’ study, with a dollop of master-of-the-universe grandeur and family-man sentimentality thrown in. Eichner decorated it himself.
“I think Bruce is a very, very smart guy,” said James Kuhn, the president of Newmark Knight Frank who in 1992 sold the Times Square skyscraper at 1540 Broadway to Bertelsmann after Eichner’s development team, which erected the tower, declared bankruptcy. “I think that he has vision. He was certainly ahead of his time with the 1540 Broadway building. But he’s a huge risk taker, and when you combine those two and you miss the market, it’s unfortunate, but that’s what happens.”
That Eichner should grow weary of real estate and want to dabble in something like senior housing is not, in and of itself, surprising. Not only did Eichner recently lose his $3.9 billion Las Vegas development, the Cosmopolitan, to his Deutsche Bank creditors, but he’s been playing the real estate game since the 1970s, when, as a government attorney, he wanted to supplement his income. First, he bought a four-story building on Montgomery Place in Park Slope. And then he bought a building on Seventh Street. Later he took on Brooklyn Heights, purchasing the old Hotel Margaret in Columbia Heights and converting it into apartments. When a fire destroyed the hotel, Eichner sought to rebuild it to 15 stories, shorter than the historic hotel but still too tall for the Brooklyn Heights Association, which proceeded to sue, arguing that the development’s height was out of keeping with the character of the historic neighborhood. Eichner ultimately won. That wasn’t enough.
“I don’t believe in getting angry,” Eichner said. “But I do believe in getting even.” And so he did. When the appeals court dismissed the case, Eichner sold the building to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, then a new presence in Brooklyn Heights that residents feared would usurp the neighborhood.
Soon, Eichner moved on to Manhattan, building condominiums like the Kingsley and the America. They were followed by City Spire, a 72-story condo and office building, and then, perhaps most famously, 1540 Broadway, a development chronicled from start to finish in Jerry Adler’s book High Rise: How 1,000 Men and Women Worked Around the Clock for Five Years and Lost $200 Million Building a Skyscraper (Harper Perennial, 1994).
As the title indicates, Eichner ended up losing 1540 Broadway, now known as the Bertelsmann Building. He also lost City Spire to bankruptcy.
Eichner didn’t let that get him down. He’s wont to attribute his loss of those buildings to the early ’90s real estate bust. Similarly, he says his loss of the Cosmopolitan on the Las Vegas Strip was an inevitable result of the Great Recession.
“Just about everyone who was in the middle of a development project in Las Vegas got wiped out,” agreed Dan Fasulo, managing director of Real Estate Analytics. “It’s not like this is a singular example. When you’re investing in a multibillion project and the debt markets dry up, you’re just out of luck.”
Overall, Eichner says, he’s fared extremely well, thanks to a lucrative settlement with Cosmopolitan lender Deutsche Bank and his wildly successful investments in South Beach.
Not only does he claim to have ample money in the bank, but he also claims to have ample access to lenders. “I have several sets of friends that I’ve done business with and who would do something with me in a nanosecond,” he boasted, naming Fortress as an example.
But to what end, Dr. Watson? Eichner hinted that his Big Idea was inspired by his experience with the Cosmopolitan, which he designed as a lifestyle-oriented condo hotel, one that catered less to the gaming community and more to those taking in the shows. According to two real estate executives who asked to remain anonymous, Eichner’s end goal is to get into the lucrative assisted-living business.
To which Eichner demurred. “I can’t comment.”
For sure, Eichner isn’t particularly bullish on the office market, which he predicts will ultimately be hobbled by technology and the growing trend toward working remotely. As far as residential real estate is concerned, Eichner said banks will for the next couple of years only finance small “dumb rentals.”
Whatever Eichner’s personal goal, he does seem destined to enjoy the process. During his interview, Eichner was so animated that he kept cutting himself off mid-sentence just so he could start on the next one.
“Sometimes it will rain on your birthday,” Eichner said. “Sometimes it won’t.” He leaned forward in his seat and held out his palms like the scales of justice. “But it’s in the dream that you find the balance to deal with the disappointing and to pat yourself on the back and say, ‘Nice job, Brucie.”
He patted himself on the back.