Friday Letter The writing on the wall

For good or ill, two subjects seem to dominate cocktail hour and dinner party conversations across New York City. The first is new restaurants. The second is real estate. One’s profession probably comes in a distant third.  

The infatuation with New York real estate can be seen in popular culture. Just look at well-trafficked blogs like Curbed, which tracks exciting and fascinating news from, err, the world of property brokers and real estate agents. At the same time, When Harry Met Sally screenwriter and novelist Nora Ephron recently penned a long ode to her old Upper East Side apartment in The New Yorker.

Even the stodgy old newspaper has not remained untouched. While the grey listings in The New York Times’ real estate section might have sufficed at one point in time, the trend-chasing paper has now launched Key, a twice-yearly magazine dedicated to lifestyle articles about real estate and full-page ads for condominiums.

“Key will showcase residential real estate properties, renovation trends, luxury lifestyle trends in home design and furnishings, investment and financing strategies and more in a revealing manner that reflects the way we live today,” Gerald Marzorati, an assistant managing editor at the newspaper confusingly said in a statement last summer. The final product hit doorsteps in September.

It bleeds over into the world of advertising, as well. As A.A. Gill described in a recent Vanity Fair piece, jumping from new condo development to new condo development, the sparkling new additions to Soho and Astor Place put undue importance on their promotional materials. Like any good advertising, they make the buyer feel a part of something. They make the buyer feel good about parting with his or her cash.

So far, the slowdown in the US residential market seems to be having little effect on the fetish-ization of real estate, particularly in the major urban centers such as New York, where prices have yet to soften significantly.

But there may be trouble in the air. This week, the real estate arm of The Carlyle Group announced that it was selling a Fifth Avenue condominium conversion project to Hyatt. The former office building, which once housed the headquarters of Tommy Hilfiger’s fashion design firm, will most likely be reborn as a hotel.

According to the firm, about half the units in the building have been sold. Marketed as luxury condos overlooking Bryant Park, the building was going to have flourishes by fashion designer Peter Som. Keeping with the theme, the building’s marketing campaign reportedly included coffee table books featuring runway models, as well as fashion-themed sales parties.

“We’re trying everything we can to sell units, pushing every lever we have,” Michael Belfonti told The New York Times in February.

In the end, despite the glossy magazines and flashy promo materials, the real story can usually be found in the fundamentals of the market.