There's no Plaza like home

Condomania is taking over Manhattan, and landmark buildings are prime targets
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The Independent Online

Manhattan is going condo mad. Not only are developers constructing large apartment blocks from scratch, they're also aggressively convert hotels and office buildings. The venerable, but tired, Plaza Hotel leads a star-studded cast of commercial buildings changing gender.

Enviably located on 59th and Fifth overlooking Central Park, the Plaza has appeared in more than three dozen films, including Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest, and The Way We Were. Neil Simon paid homage to it in his comedy Plaza Suite, and F Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, used to douse themselves in the Pulitzer Fountain at the hotel's main entrance.

Couples who got spliced together there include Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas, and Donald Trump, one of the hotel's previous owners, and Marla Maples. Celebrities and plebeians alike enjoyed cocktails in the Oak Bar and Sunday brunch in the impressive Palm Court.

Built nearly a century ago and designed by Henry Hardenbergh with a French Renaissance exterior, the Plaza has extensive British links. The Palm Court was modelled on the winter garden in London's Carlton Hotel and the hotel has 12 suites replicating English stately homes.

In 1995, the hotel was bought by Millennium & Copthorne and Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. Last autumn, they sold it for $650m (£341m) to Elad, a New York developer. Elad's final bill will top $1bn after an additional $350m finances the conversion. The hotel is scheduled to close on 30 April. Elad intended to convert the hotel's 805 rooms into a new building with 200 luxury condominiums, 150 hotel rooms and upmarket shops, bars and restaurants. But after a barrage of protests from a labour union, preservationists and Plaza fans, Elad agreed to fewer condos (about 150) and more hotel rooms (300-plus).

Although the Condo-Plaza's debut is still 18 months away, prices are certain to be telephone numbers - area code included. Another Elad office-to-condo conversion, the Hugh O'Neill Building on 20th Street, has 49 mostly loft-style apartments. The largest units (3,000 square feet) sell for $4.05m. At the better located Plaza, spacious condos could top $10m, and any apartment with the proportions of the Plaza's 7,802-square-foot Presidential Suite could achieve $20m or more.

Built around the same time as the Plaza, One Madison Avenue is notable for its clock tower, which resembles the Campanile of San Marco in Venice. The clocks are three storeys tall, and above them is a pyramidal roof, topped by a gold-leaf dome. Illuminated at night, the building forms a glittery trio sandwiched between the Empire State Building and another ornate clock tower, the Con Ed building (designed by Plaza architect Hardenbergh). The One Madison architect was Napoléon LeBrun, but the Venetian Campanile idea came from his client, the president of insurance company MetLife, which was to be headquartered there.

SL Green Realty Corporation paid MetLife an eye-watering $918m. In addition to obtaining the landmark 41-storey clocktower, which will be converted to condominiums, the developer also secured air rights over another section of the structure, which will remain an office block. Air rights in Manhattan usually means "watch this space". The MetLife site embodies two condominium towers.

What impact is condomania having on the Big Apple? "No one builds, or can afford to build, for the middle class," says developer Kevin Kelley. "Generally, developers think there is a bottomless market for luxury condos. Even the new stadium, promoted by Mayor Bloomberg for the 2012 Olympics, is dependent on condo development generating huge bucks. In Brooklyn alone, 37,000 luxury condos are supposed to be built over the next three years. I am amazed that there are enough buyers to satisfy that supply."

Much of this market, he believes, is fuelled by a growing number of Americans who enjoy inherited wealth.

"Are these luxury developments the building blocks of a real city or of an urban theme park?" Kelley says. "I'm worried that New York might become a mecca for the fun and pleasure-seeking rich from all over the world - an adult Disneyworld."