Halfway through asking billionaire property developer Harry Macklowe what he thinks of Canary Wharf’s future, he answers his phone. His wife (Patricia Landeau, a French former fashion executive whom he married in 2019), he explains, calling from Paris excited about the imminent arrival of a granddaughter. He warns her he’s ‘extremely busy this morning’ as he promises to call back.
He may be 86, but Macklowe is not reaching for his pipe and slippers just yet. After six decades in real estate, he remains at the forefront of property development in New York.
Climbing the property ladder
He began his property career aged 21 as a real estate broker, but he soon became a developer. His empire has, at one time or another, included buildings such as 432 Park Avenue, at 1,396ft the tallest residential tower in the world when it was built; the Steve Jobs-designed glass Apple Cube at the General Motors Building, a building so iconic it attracts more visitors than the Statue of Liberty or Empire State Building; and the sleek glass-and-steel Metropolitan Tower at 57th Street that was the most lavish building in NYC on its completion in 1987.
Building empires does not come without risk, and Macklowe’s success has not been as smooth as his glass-fronted skyscrapers. In 2007 he owned the General Motors Building and the Credit Lyonnais building. He then bought seven more New York City skyscrapers in a $6.8 billion deal from the Blackstone Group, financed largely by short-term loans from Deutsche Bank and Fortress Investment Group. But then the global financial crisis hit and forced Macklowe to sell off many of his real estate holdings, including the GM building.
Once estimated to be worth £2 billion by Forbes, Macklowe has not been on the 400 list since falling off in 2008.
Harry Macklowe’s Triumph and disaster
In 2021 and 2022, three years after a high-profile divorce from his first wife Linda, whom he had married in 1959, the pair’s art collection, which included work by Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, became the most expensive ever to sell at auction, making $922.2 million. Speaking at the time, Macklowe said he was ‘just so pleased that the paintings have found a new home’.
But he appears to meet with disaster as with triumph, and he returned to rule the Manhattan skyline. His latest development, built with the help of Robert AM Stern Architects, is One Wall Street, the metamorphosis of the iconic Ralph Walker art deco building that housed the Bank of New York for decades into landmark prime residences, part of what Macklowe calls a Downtown ‘renaissance’.
The pandemic and the pivot to working from home accelerated a trend Macklowe had eyed years before when he bought the building in 2014. One Wall Street was ‘an opportunity to create a mini-city within a city’, says Macklowe in his languid New York drawl. It’s also a chance to capitalise on the migration of businesses away from the financial district as they seek to save money by cutting down on expensive office space. But the process hasn’t been easy.
A downtown renaissance
‘As it turned out, it’s very challenging to convert an office building,’ he says. ‘But it has resulted in a splendid building. We have a very elegant building. I think we’ve done a very, very good job.’
Speaking over Zoom, Macklowe takes Spear’s on a tour, starting on the ground floor, where upscale grocery store Whole Foods, a gym and chic French department store Printemps make up part of this ‘mini-city’. A 23-metre indoor pool on the 38th floor and open-air terraces on several floors offer 270° views over New York’s harbour – a view Macklowe compares with Hong Kong. There are also co-working spaces, a club lounge and bar, and what Macklowe calls an ‘extraordinarily beautiful’ restaurant.
The $2 billion project is now complete and 25 per cent of the properties sold – the majority, Macklowe says, to a domestic market. The 556 apartments range in price from a 677 sq ft studio for $1.1 million to the 13,500 sq ft multi-storey penthouse for $75 million that offers spectacular views over Long Island, the Statue of Liberty and New Jersey.
The financial district, sometimes styled as ‘FiDi’, is still at the cusp of changing from a business area to a residential one. Of course, no quantity of luxury retail offerings or high-end restaurants will make it a real ‘neighbourhood’ if not enough people live there. Macklowe says the area has its own ‘drumbeat of excitement’ as he admits the rebirth of this section of Manhattan needs people to move in and buy the apartments, which in a sluggish market is a ‘challenge’, but one he relishes.
Despite his enthusiasm for One Wall Street, it is 432 Park Avenue that remains his standout achievement. ‘It stands alone,’ he says. And it certainly does. The penthouse, with awe inspiring views across Central Park and Manhattan, is up for sale for $130 million. Designed by architect Rafael Viñoly, 432 is a so-called ‘supertall’. Completed in 2015, the spindly skyscraper was not without its critics. Some described it as the ‘middle finger’ because of its dominating presence over the skyline. For Macklowe, the building’s looming presence is a huge part of why it’s so special.
‘The building stands by itself,’ he says. ‘If you see a picture of the skyline, it’s there. I’m so proud of it. I guess it’s a lifetime achievement. It’s funny: buildings are inanimate, 432 is not. It’s filled with life. It’s filled with excitement. It has a wonderful restaurant. It has a wonderful swimming pool. Nobody uses the swimming pool…’
Not everyone shares his enthusiasm. New York Magazine critic Justin Davidson called it a ‘genuine clunker’. There have been allegations of structural issues, with leaks, lift problems and unnerving creaks and groans. All buildings sway in the wind, and a building this tall and skinny (it has an aspect ratio of 15:1) moves more than most. The movement has been enough to stop the lifts, as the New York Times reported in 2021.
Macklowe is used to criticism and unmoved by it. He was once described as ‘Dracula’ by one building site rival, although the man Spear’s meets is affable, generous with his praise for others and with a notable fondness for dad jokes. ‘I think it’s the best building, or it’s among the best buildings in New York. And that’s not simply pride, that’s looking at things objectively,’ he says.
New challenges for Macklowe
Despite his vision punctuating the iconic Manhattan skyline, Macklowe says he does not think about his legacy. ‘People say, “Oh, you’re so legendary and iconic,” and I get embarrassed. Wouldn’t you get embarrassed?’
Despite his advancing years, he keeps a keen eye on developments around the world, from the plans to reshape the abandoned Athens airport to Saudi Arabia’s property boom. He also cites Shoreditch’s transformation to London’s hippest postcode as one of his development highlights of recent years. He also says the redevelopment of Canary Wharf, which owes more than a nod to Macklowe’s One Wall Street, is ‘very exciting’. (‘It will only get better and richer with residential,’ he says of E14.)
He is currently making his first foray into Florida with a large condominium complex in Miami, where the market is ‘healthy and flourishing’, he says. ‘Even though I’m senior I still like working and doing it in that new market.’
Asked which developers he most admires, he singles out Stephen Ross, the man behind Hudson Yards, the multi-billion-dollar redevelopment of Midtown NYC, and Jorge Pérez of Related Florida, which claims to have developed more than 80,000 condos, mostly in Miami, since it was founded in 1979.
‘It’s like making a movie’
Macklowe acknowledges that his profession may not always be viewed in the most positive light. But he is sanguine: ‘I try to deliver a product that is as good as it could be within the constraints of my budget, of course. You might not be able to afford my building, and that’s OK, but I don’t want you to walk out of my building and say, “I would not pay for that piece of crap.”
‘Building is very challenging,’ he adds. ‘It’s like making a movie. There are so many parts: the production, the screenwriting, the grips, the electricians, all of that. It’s very complicated, it’s very daunting. And when it’s done, you turn around and say, “My god, I can’t believe I did that.” And then… you go on to do the next one.’