New York Times

January 16, 2003
There Goes the Nabe: Up, Up, Up

WHEN Alyssa Shelasky, 26, was apartment-hunting earlier this month on West 78th Street near West End Avenue, the owner of a property she didn't find especially captivating shared some news he thought would help seal the deal.

"He said, 'Britney Spears is buying the brownstone two blocks down,' " she said, "like that was supposed to make up for the fact that it was a fifth-floor, 400-square-foot one-bedroom walk-up renting for $2,500 a month."

In New York, one runs across celebrities at the swing sets and in the deli. But it is far better to run into them in the elevator. For some people, especially the insecure, knowing that they share Carnegie Hill with Woody Allen ratifies their decision to move there; hearing that Conan O'Brien has been approved by the co-op board at the Majestic, on Central Park West, makes the view of the park that much greener.

Having a celebrity in your building — depending, of course, on whether her credits include a shoplifting arrest — can increase the value of your apartment, according to brokers at half a dozen Manhattan firms. "Once the celebrity moves in, the value of everybody's apartment goes up, without a doubt," Barbara Corcoran, the real estate executive, said. "It's not only an endorsement, but a shining Hollywood endorsement."

Madonna, for example, remains money in the bank when it comes to pumping up real estate prices. Her home, Harperley Hall, 41 Central Park West, was not one of the area's more notable buildings until she put down roots there in the early 1990's. "After she moved in, it added great value to the building," said Scott Durkin, a Corcoran executive who did not sell her the apartment but estimates that her presence added 25 percent to the worth of others in the building, partly because she souped up her duplex with a gym and a private beauty salon.

Of course, her neighbors had to pay a price for their rising net worth. "There used to be 15 to 20 kids, let alone the paparazzi that camped outside," said Phil Singer, Madonna's former chauffeur. The doorman warned that Madonna's neighbors were growing cranky; eventually she began using a back entrance.

Beyond bragging rights, do celebrities really add anything to the value of a street? And given the fact that they have been known to pack up and move on at the drop of a wife, what happens when they do?

That depends on the neighborhood — and the star. "If you had Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins across the hall, your apartment would definitely be worth several hundred thousand more," Mr. Durkin said. Being able to stare into Harrison Ford's Chelsea windows from across the street would add only nominal value, he said. As for moving into Mariah Carey's building, Franklin Tower on Church Street, he said, "so many young, single investment bankers would pay a lot to be her neighbor."

But adding another glamorous name to the roster at the Beresford or the San Remo on Central Park West (or losing Dustin Hoffman) probably wouldn't make a difference. The Upper East Side is already rich enough, so having Spike Lee, his wife and two children living there in their four-story town house doesn't cause much of a splash. And on East 79th Street, Michael R. Bloomberg is just another rich guy with a town house. (Although his presence means higher security, and higher security means higher values, brokers said.)

Knowing that Sarah Jessica Parker lives in the West Village might persuade "Sex and the City"-obsessed women to look there. And hearing that Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and Jennifer Lopez are living in the same building on Jane Street in the West Village would be, for some couples, like hitting a kind of celebrity royal flush.

Jonathan Wells, a publishing consultant who lived two doors down from Woody Allen on East 92nd Street before moving recently to Aspen, Colo., said he did very well selling his brownstone, which shared a garden with Mr. Allen's and Eli Zabar's. "That might have had some motivating impact," he said. "You're not just going to be living between seven cloying investment bankers, but you're in a community of thinkers."

Of course some people might prefer cloying investment bankers to, say, a clarinetist. And sometimes neighbors who are not used to celebrities don't know where to draw the line. New York magazine reported recently on contented voyeurs in Chelsea who watched Harrison Ford, still buff in his pajama bottoms, in the penthouse he shares with Calista Flockhart. Patricia McQueeney, Mr. Ford's manager in Los Angeles, said that people in Chelsea "could use their consciousness raised," but that Mr. Ford loves it there and plans to remain. Will he now get some blinds? "I'm sure he'll do it posthaste," she said.

Ms. Shelasky, a publicist who was shopping for an apartment with her fiancé, did not take the Upper West Side apartment, despite the Britney Spears connection. It wasn't her first brush with celebrity real estate — she lost a Gramercy Park apartment in a bidding war that would have put her in the same neighborhood with Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke, Mike Piazza, Winona Ryder, and, until she moved to lower Fifth Avenue, Julia Roberts.

Gramercy Park is perennially desirable, but not because of celebrities, Hall Willkie, the president of Brown Harris Stevens, pointed out. "It's much more important to have a key to the park than to have Mike Piazza living next to you."

Developers, like real estate brokers, often use celebrities to promote the value of new buildings — David Bowie was dangled as bait at 285 Lafayette Street, for example. Of course, it's never wise to become too attached to your local celebrity, because he, like Jean-Marie Messier at Vivendi, might lose his job or she, like the previously unassailable Martha Stewart, might become tabloid fodder.

But some people believe that Robert De Niro single-handedly put TriBeCa real estate on the map, by buying an apartment there, starting a production studio and backing neighborhood restaurants like Nobu and Tribeca Grill. Celebrities beget more celebrities — it turns out they are impressed by big names, too — creating a snowball that either keeps on growing or suddenly melts when the critical mass moves on. Nathan Lane, Ms. Carey, Christy Turlington and Edward Burns have all followed Mr. De Niro to TriBeCa.

Indeed, Kirk Henckels, the director of Stribling Private Brokerage, thinks celebrities deserve some credit for keeping TriBeCa afloat after the World Trade Center attacks; he cannot think of any who have abandoned ship.

The celebrity effect is less pronounced uptown, where movie stars share elevators with captains of industry, fashion designers and heiresses, and the bigwigs on Central Park West include the likes of Sting and Donna Karan. Jerry Seinfeld moved into the Beresford, but it was already home to Tony Randall, John McEnroe (who occupies the northeast tower) and Helen Gurley Brown (who, with her husband, David Brown, occupies the southeast tower). The San Remo is home to three Steves — Martin, Spielberg and Jobs — as well as to Dustin Hoffman, whose triplex is on the market for $25 million. Phyliss Koch, the broker who is selling the apartment, said she would not focus on Mr. Hoffman's fame, but instead try to draw prospective buyers' attention to the apartment's excellent condition. "There's always a housekeeper there, even if he isn't," she said.

But some real estate brokers believe they would be fools not to point out the Oscar in the bathroom. "The provenance of a property, just like a work of art, has an impact in generating more interest and therefore can result in getting a price in the higher end of its value range," said Hall Willkie, the president of Brown Harris Stevens.

He offered Woody Allen's town house on East 92nd Street as an example. "When that house becomes available," he said, "even if it sold three times since then, to say, `10 years ago it was Woody Allen's' helps."

How far would the Allen sphere of influence extend? "It doesn't extend far beyond the walls of the building," Mr. Willkie said. "If it's right next door, it's of interest. If someone lives down the block, it doesn't help." With New York as densely populated as it is, "down the block" equals approximately 953 degrees of separation.

Brokers say that Sean Combs, the recording and clothing mogul who has a way of ending up in the hot seat, might be wise to stay put in his brownstone at 813 Park Avenue rather than try to crack a conservative co-op board on Fifth Avenue. Ms. Carey was rejected by the board at 91 Central Park West (70th Street), brokers said, for fear that her bodyguards were too big and her skirts too small. "She didn't get into a lot of buildings," Mario Buatta, her decorator, said. "The poor thing. It was because she was a `theater person.' "

Given the flash factor in the public mind, Ms. Lopez, who is currently subletting on Jane Street, might not want to tempt the fates with a Park Avenue board when she and her fiancé, Ben Affleck, go hunting for their first luxury-appointed nest. Residents of such buildings pick their heroes from the business pages. "It's more important if the chairman of Merrill Lynch or someone who is a solid New Yorker owns in that building," said Kathy Sloane, a Brown Harris Stevens broker who caters to that rarefied clientele. "It's proof this is a blue chip."

Farther uptown, in Harlem, a celebrity may carry more weight. Knowing that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Maya Angelou and Roberta Flack have moved there has not particularly influenced real estate purchases among blacks, said Willie Kathryn Suggs, a broker specializing in Harlem properties. But she said it has strong appeal to white buyers. "It says someone who's worth more money than God lives in Harlem," she said. "It can't be a slum if Kareem lives here. He had a house in Beverly Hills. And where did Roberta live? Did you say the Dakota?"

If Madonna or Seinfeld groupies occasionally interfere with what Hall Willkie called the typical high-end Manhattan co-op owner's "quiet enjoyment" of his property, the commotion they cause is nothing compared to what happens when someone in line for the presidency, or a member of his immediate family, lives in the building.

Karenna Gore Schiff, Al Gore's oldest daughter, took great pains to minimize the impact her father's presence had on her neighbors when he attended family get-togethers at her apartment house in the East 60's during the 2000 campaign. "She was adamant she did not want to freeze the block," said Detective Steven Petrillo, the community affairs officer in the 19th Precinct. "There were times her father would walk down the block with security in tow while his motorcade would wrap around the corner. The Secret Service wasn't pleased with the arrangement. They said they couldn't protect him properly."

But sometimes the commotion is worth it. Scott Durkin, of Corcoran, lists Nicole Kidman "at the top of my list" right now. Second, he said, is Rudolph W. Giuliani, who now lives on the Upper East Side with his new fiancée. But Frederick W. Peters, the president of Ashforth Warburg Associates, warns that a property's value "goes back to `George Washington slept here.' " Martha Stewart, for example, is trying to sell her apartment in the Richard Meier project on Perry Street, where she has never actually lived. "If Martha had actually redone her place à la Martha and then lived there for a while, that might have made a difference," Mr. Peters said.

Ann Sommers, a public relations executive at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, confessed to a certain frisson of excitement when she heard that Julia Roberts was moving in nearby. She even studied a photograph of Ms. Roberts and her husband, Danny Moder, packing up a car outside their apartment to see if she could recognize the grillwork on the building.

But she concluded that having Julia Roberts live a block away from her own $500,000 two-bedroom apartment was not going to do much for her standard of living. "In my price range," she said, "a movie star doesn't add as much as extra closet space."


Nicole Kidman bought her Perry West apartment for around $8 million.

The former Mrs. Cruise purchased the duplex in the unfinished 4,000-square-foot raw space building architect Richard Meier had originally planned for himself.

One of her high-profile neighbors will be Calvin Klein, who paid a reported $14 million for his 8,000-square-foot triplex. Martha Stewart also has an apartment there, but has put it on the market for about $8 million.

When completed, the 15-story building with two towers will include a restaurant, spa, gym, and full security.

The Perry Street condominium's raw space was sold out through the Sunshine Group over a six-month period in the latter part of last year. Toward the end of the sales period, prices reached $2,000 a square foot, he said, comparable to what buyers might pay for finished space on Park Avenue. The average price was $1,480 a square foot.

The celebrity effect is less pronounced uptown, where movie stars share elevators with captains of industry, fashion designers and heiresses, and the bigwigs on Central Park West include the likes of Sting and Donna Karan. Jerry Seinfeld moved into the Beresford, but it was already home to Tony Randall, John McEnroe (who occupies the northeast tower) and Helen Gurley Brown (who, with her husband, David Brown, occupies the southeast tower).

The San Remo is home to three Steves — Martin, Spielberg and Jobs — as well as to Dustin Hoffman, whose triplex is on the market for $25 million.