Life on the top just isn’t what it used to be.
Once synonymous with status, penthouses seem to have lost their cache. Everyone from bold-faced billionaires to wealthy Joe Shmoes are falling out of love with Manhattan’s trophy properties in the sky. As aspirational towers get taller and taller, the new sweet spot is the middle of the line.
“A lot of my clients find new penthouses to be too high,” said Herbert Chou of Christie’s International Real Estate. “The perspective is actually a little better in the 28th-to-40th-floor range, depending on the neighborhood. From a penthouse, you are looking down. You are so far up that you are detached from your surroundings.”
Take the priciest home ever sold in the United States. In January, Citadel CEO Ken Griffin paid $238 million for a multi-floor spread at 220 Central Park South, the city’s toniest new tower. Price was obviously no object.
But “he looked at the top and chose [lower],” said a broker familiar with the deal for Griffin’s 23,090-square-foot pad, located on the 50th to 53rd floors of the 65-story tower.
“He wanted to feel more in touch with the city,” the familiar broker added. “It’s because he had lived at the top of 820 Fifth Avenue. Nothing on Fifth Avenue is that tall and he was used to [his old] view.”
A classic penthouse on Fifth or Park Avenue tends to top out at around 250 feet high. On Central Park West, the twin penthouses at the San Remo are about 400 feet above the park. But 111 West 57th is 1,428 feet, One57 is 1,004 feet and 56 Leonard (aka the Jenga building) is 821 feet.
Developer Michael Stern transformed “starchitect” Ralph Walker’s 29-story tower at 212 West 18th Street into downtown’s most successful luxury building and, according to a building insider, could have set aside any unit, including its $50.9 million penthouse, for himself. Instead, he chose an apartment on the 15th floor with sweeping horizontal views of Chelsea.
Power couple Alex Rodriguez and Jennifer Lopez similarly shunned the “penthouse collection” of upper-floor units at 432 Park Avenue, choosing the 36th floor of the 96-story tower in 2018. (They recently sold it for $17.5 million.)
“I got super-nauseated when I toured the penthouse of 432 Park,” said one visitor to the 95th floor of the luxury tower that opened in 2015. “Buildings that high sway. I was freaked out by the swaying.”
Coming across the Williamsburg Bridge at morning rush hour reveals another disadvantage: You can’t even see the tops of many of these new Central Park towers, so clouded are they by the elements. The park is under at least 80 percent cloud cover for 122 days a year, or roughly four months, according to the National Climatic Data Center.
Compass real estate agent Vickey Barron often works with buyers who, she said, “could buy anything.” But for many of her clients, “being high in the sky isn’t their ticket to luxury.
“They actually want to relate to what’s outside their windows: the trees, charming townhouses and people walking by.”
And then there’s the fact that the air is literally different up there.
“If you are too high up, it doesn’t matter if the unit has a terrace, because it’s too windy to use,” said Barron, citing Tribeca’s 56 Leonard (57 stories) and Flatiron’s One Madison (50 stories) as examples. “You’ll get blown away.”
For some wealthy apartment shoppers, buying a penthouse right now telegraphs a message of entitlement and privilege they don’t want to send.
“I don’t even like the word ‘penthouse,’ ” said a bank executive who recently moved to the 16th floor of a 28-story Upper East Side high-rise.
When he was looking for a place, he told Douglas Elliman’s Georgia Kaporis he had one rule: No penthouses.
“It’s about values,” the bank exec said. “For me to even be quoted in an article about penthouses goes against my style. It’s like buying a McLaren [automobile]. It’s flashy. It’s something I am never going to do.”
But, he admitted, there was a little more to it: “As silly as it sounds, it takes a lot longer [to reach a penthouse] in the elevator.”
Developers are feeling the sea change.
JDS Development recently raised prices for mid-tower units at 111 West 57th, which stands 82 stories tall and where a 42nd-floor apartment is asking $28.5 million.
Meanwhile, penthouses across the city struggle to sell. Harry Macklowe had to chop the 95th-floor penthouse of 432 Park in half to attract buyers. Zeckendorf Development pulled the same stunt after failing to attract a buyer for its $130 million penthouse stop 520 Park Avenue. The 12,398-square-foot triplex is now available as two separate units: a $40 million full-floor apartment and an $80-$100 million duplex.
Of course, there will always be a subset of the city’s most egotistic for whom life on top is better.
Computer billionaire Michael Dell’s $100.5 million penthouse play at One57, purchased in 2014, is a standout example. And developer Stephen Ross set aside the penthouse of the new 35 Hudson Yards for himself — after previously occupying the 80th-floor condo atop the Time Warner Center’s south tower.
“There are definitely Masters of the Universe who will always buy at the top,” luxury broker Ian Slater of Compass said. “But as you get farther from the ground, you lose more and more of the buyer pool.”
He recalls showing the penthouse of Walker Tower to a client with a budget of around $50 million.
“He is in finance and travels around the world staying in five-star hotels where they always put him at the top of the building,” Slater said. “I showed him the penthouse and he said that being able to see the entire skyline made him feel like he was on a business trip. He wanted to be more in touch with the ground so that he felt like he was home.
“It’s lonely at the top.”