Leonard Quart: Trump the builder: Smoke and mirrors


NEW YORK >> After countless discussions In the media and the daily reams of copy that Republican Presidential candidate Donale Trump elicits daily, it becomes difficult to write anything that doesn't sound either repetitive and hackneyed, or a mere rant attacking the Grand Egomaniac. Trump has only truly entered politics this year, but Trump the New York builder is another story, and though he has dabbled in other businesses, real estate has been the basis of his fortune.

Trump's father Fred was a very successful builder who constructed thousands of middle-class homes throughout Queens and Brooklyn. Building on his father's reputation and money, Donald also went into real estate development.

In 1971 Donald Trump was given control of his father's company, which he later renamed the Trump Organization. His goals were much grander than his father's, and much of his building portfolio was Manhattan-based. Over the years he's owned and sold many of New York City's great buildings, including the Plaza Hotel and the St. Moritz.

Trump in name only

While he has owned pieces of some of New York's most iconic properties in the past, the GM Building and the Empire State Building to name a couple, today his holdings are far smaller. In fact, many of the buildings that bear his name he no longer owns. He builds little these days, merely licensing his name to other developers who know the Trump brand still carries weight with the public.

Yes, Trump has had real business success, but much of it has been built on playing to people's fantasies. In his 1987 book, "The Art of the Deal," Trump wrote: "I call it truthful hyperbole. It's an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion." It's a grifter's ploy.

One of his other strengths was recognizing opportunity where others saw nothing. Trump looked past the bleak Commodore Hotel next to Grand Central Station and realized that many wealthy people passed by it every day. He purchased the hotel from Penn Central for $10 million and began negotiating his first big deal. Trump and Hyatt Hotel brokered a deal with the city, which included critically needed and secured 40-year tax abatements.

Still, Trump's history as a developer has been a turbulent one. He's gained a reputation as one of the most litigious property owners in the city and the country. There are about 3,500 legal actions involving Trump, including 1,900 where he or his companies were plaintiffs and about 1,300 in which he was the defendant.

He also owes at least $250 million to banks for various real estate projects, according to his personal finance disclosure forms. And though Trump has never filed for personal bankruptcy, he has filed four business bankruptcies, all of them centered on casinos he used to own in Atlantic City, leaving many people holding the bag, including unsecured creditors — low-level investors, contractors and small-time vendors.

Two of Trump's Manhattan building projects illustrate the way he operates. Trump's SoHo Hotel is a monolithically ugly 46-story tower built in 2010 in an area zoned for manufacturing, which precluded building permanent residences. Both the SoHo Alliance and Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation energetically fought its construction but Trump prevailed. He did this by creating a condo-hotel model under a loophole worked out by the Bloomberg administration that would surreptitiously allow much more residential use than the zoning allowed.

Nevertheless, the Trump SoHo was a financial failure. The condos were hard to sell, and it is now being transformed from a condo-hotel operation to a traditional pay-per-night transient hotel, which the zoning allows.

Another of Trump's projects, Riverside South, whose lifeless streets and series of sterile, glass luxury towers overlooking the Hudson River, greet people traveling into the city along the West Side Highway with an exemplar of all that I feel is repellent with much of New York's new residential building. Construction started in 1997 over what once was a rail freight yard owned by the New York Central Railroad, located between 59th and 72nd streets, bought by Trump in 1974.

The site went though a few failed development proposals including a grandiose Television City proposed by Trump. It was followed then by the proposal for residential towers that was seen then as a very risky project, and was met with intense opposition from the community.

Gifted con man

However, Trump finally compromised with neighborhood advocates, and preserved the Hudson River waterfront as a new park that slopes down from the towers (it's an extension of Riverside Park), and built a new road, Riverside Boulevard, that took a winding route between 59th and 72nd Streets, resembling Riverside Drive in its design. I should also say that most of the buyers who flocked to the towers don't share my disdain for the development. Still, in 1994, Trump's bankers forced him to give up control of the site to a group of Hong Kong investors. Like many of Trump's Manhattan properties, Trump isn't actually the owner, but the buildings bear his name.

Trump clearly knows how to package, sell, and come out on top in many of his business deals. But most closely adhere to the aphorism: "There's a sucker born every minute." Trump is a con man extraordinaire. As Village activist Andrew Berman scathingly recently commented about Trump's SoHo Hotel: "It was clearly a scam from the beginnin...I don't think anyone involved with this project is qualified to serve as dogcatcher, much less any higher office."

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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