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A Former New York Bank Building Brands Itself as a Luxury Good

By Brian M. Carney
From The Wall Street Journal Online

In a different age, in a different city, the former Chase bank building at 20 Pine Street in New York's financial district would not exist. It would have been demolished long ago to make way for yet another gleaming glass tower.

It's an old, undistinguished office building, a 38-story set-back tower in the style of bad Beaux Arts, all stone and gables and dull decorative carvings. It is hemmed in by larger, newer buildings on every side -- flashy structures that can easily offer the high-speed computer hook-ups and other modern amenities that corporate occupants expect from their landlords these days.

But instead of facing the wrecking ball, this relic from the 1920s is going condo. It is also becoming, according to the developer's promotional materials, "20 Pine -- The Collection."

What could that possibly mean? Well, pretension, for one thing. According to press reports, 20 Pine's launch party earlier this month featured Collection cookies. When I visited last week I received a bottle of water with a Collection label on it and a glossy color catalog titled "20 Pine -- The Collection," both tucked neatly into (you guessed it) a "20 Pine" shopping bag.

The faux-magazine included computer-generated renderings of the apartments and communal patio -- spaces that do not yet exist. These still-imaginary spaces are populated by real but superimposed supermodel-like women. Among the pages of 20 Pine views were product shots of the sorts of luxury goods -- Ferraris, Bulgari cufflinks -- that residents ought to own or at least aspire to own.

This obsolete bank building is clearly meant to be seen not merely as the inspiration for luxury buying but as a luxury good in its own right. Thus members of Giorgio Armani's in-house interior-design team -- known as Armani/Casa -- were hired to give the building's new incarnation panache. According to the catalog, they will be using "the world's finest and most durable materials" to underscore "a resistance to the ephemeral, to easy ornamentation."

Some of this pablum is standard real-estate hype. But the building's moniker and its catalog (cover price, a facetious $500,000, alluding to the cheapest apartment available at 20 Pine) go well beyond the standard "southern exposure, great views" pitch of the past. When I arrived for the sales pitch, I was even issued a membership card, as if by merely showing up I had joined an exclusive club.

It is all aura at the moment: "20 Pine -- The Collection" is still just "20 Pine -- The Construction Site," mostly a hollow shell. None of the apartments are complete or viewable. What a visitor gets instead is a series of video presentations on flat-screen TVs in a ground-floor sales office, plus a chance to walk through a mock-up of a model bathroom and kitchen.

A word is in order about the kitchen. The video tells you that "in our contemporary lifestyle, cooking has simply become part of our social fabric," by which I think they mean "simply superfluous." The kitchen, you see, has been reduced to a wall of cabinets in the living room, with a stove and sink on a counter in the wall -- "The Kitchen as Custom Cabinetry," as the catalog explains. For the folks who live in such a building, cooking is apparently a quaint habit from an earlier era, to be attempted rarely if at all. But if you have to have a kitchen, it might as well be encased in "exotic Brazilian wood" and high-tech composite stone.

The building is 40% sold, according to the developers. I asked when a real apartment might be available for viewing, and I was told, dismissively, that if I waited that long the building would be sold out. Realtors always tell you not to wait, of course. But I wasn't about to buy, even if I could. I doubted that my well-worn couch or favorite armchair would sit well in the midst of all that "design." Nor did I see any sign that my children would fit into The Collection. But with nearly half the apartments allegedly taken sight-unseen, someone was doing something right. I called an expert.

"It's no longer enough to just build a building -- even a high-end building -- in Manhattan," explains Lockhart Steele, publisher of the snarky New York real-estate blog Curbed.com. These days, you need to "brand" it too. According to Mr. Steele, this trend started a few years back with a wave of buildings designed by big-name architects to give them cachet -- think the Richard Meiers towers in the West Village or Charles Gwathmey's "Sculpture for Living" on Astor Place. After that got old, developers moved on to interior branding.

Real estate in New York has always been a status symbol. Just the names "Park Avenue" and "Central Park West" connote something ineffable about their residents. They are brands, in a way. Pine Street connotes nothing at all; most New Yorkers probably couldn't tell you how to get there. Still, there is only one place -- for now -- where you can become part of a Collection. "Calling the thing a 'collection' is crazy genius," Mr. Steele remarks. Maybe. But I think I'd rather just have a home.


Reprinted with permission.



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