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The Edifice Complex: Two Concrete Studies





By Tom Shachtman

Little Brown -- 354pp -- $22.95



By Douglas Frantz

Henry Holt -- 288pp -- $27.50

The very idea of Manhattan is mind-boggling: a mere 23 square miles of concrete from which mighty towers rise as high as 110 stories. Only a few souls have known the heady rush of erecting those structures. Builder Harry Helmsley, Tom Shachtman writes, turned his back one evening on a gala party at Rockefeller Center's Rainbow Room and gazed entranced at the luminous skyline. Asked what he was doing, he replied: "Just taking inventory."

Shachtman's Skyscraper Dreams: The Great Real Estate Dynasties of New York is a fascinating history, showing how the city has been molded by the edifice complexes of such risk-takers as Helmsley. Author of numerous historical and business titles, including The Day America Crashed, Shachtman has gathered a trove of intriguing tales and oddball tidbits about the rich and powerful.

Given the finite amount of land available on crowded Manhattan island, real estate is a zero-sum game: If someone wins, someone else must lose. Shachtman ably sketches the rise and fall of these family empires. He details how the Rockefeller clan, for instance, got as much of its storied wealth from real estate as from oil. But by 1989, the family's riches had been diluted--there were 89 descendants--and the office market seemed about to decline. So a majority interest in the trust that owns fabled Rockefeller Center was sold to Mitsubishi Estate Co., counting out the Rockefellers as big-time players and jolting many who decried the transfer of an American landmark to the Japanese.

New York's earliest real estate magnate was John Jacob Astor, who succeeded by shrewdly exploiting others' foibles. According to Shachtman's prodigious research, in 1803, Astor was able to diddle Aaron Burr out of valuable land stretching from Wall Street to then-sylvan Greenwich Village. The price was a bargain because the profligate Burr needed cash. The farsighted Astor anticipated that New York, as the hub of a growing nation, would expand north into the countryside above Canal Street.

The feuds of these real estate kingpins are the stuff of grand comedy. William Waldorf Astor constructed the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in the 1890s, Shachtman reports, not because he wanted to enter the lodging business, but to spite his aunt, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, over a petty slight. He put the hotel next to her Fifth Avenue mansion to block her sunlight and commercialize her genteel neighborhood.

Shachtman's book is wonderful fun, marred only by his overly reverential treatment of today's real estate chieftains. At one point, he gushes over "their standards of ethics, decorum, philanthropy, and commitment to the metropolis." No rapacious plunderers here. Shachtman practically shrugs off the controversial doings of Harry Macklowe, who in 1985, allegedly to beat out a proposed moratorium on demolition, tore down two low-rent buildings without obtaining permits--and purportedly without even shutting off gas mains. Macklowe claims a contractor acted without his O. K., but he ended up paying the city a $2 million settlement. Shachtman blithely asserts that Macklowe later rehabilitated himself by opening a first-class hotel on the site.

The author saves his sole harsh words about the living for two easy targets: Donald Trump and Leona Helmsley. Still, the worst he can do is report how other real estate bigwigs regard these upstarts. Trump "was not a mensch, the Yiddish word for a man of good character." Leona, noted for her "bad manners," was "tolerated as Harry's wife, but in private roundly disparaged."

A lot of commercial development, of course, is engineered by people who are neither megarich nor tabloid fodder. And it less often involves a clash of titanic egos than a prosaic exercise in scrambling for financing, enlisting reluctant tenants, and appeasing zoning officials. Douglas Frantz's From the Ground Up: The Business of Building in the Age of Money looks at how a project comes together--or at least how it did in the expansive 1980s. San Francisco's Rincon Center, a 25-story residence-and-office complex that opened in 1988, took four years to plan and construct. Frantz, a Los Angeles Times reporter and author of the highly praised Levine & Co., about inside trader Dennis B. Levine, has chronicled the heartaches and hassles the project entailed.

This is no casual read. The book's many characters consume pages to-ing and fro-ing over such items as an unexpected rise in concrete prices. There's an involved tale of why loading docks had to be moved, adding $1.2 million in costs. But if you want lucid explanations of the nuts and bolts of commercial development, here's your manual. Frantz diligently covers such mind-numbing topics as investment tax laws, historic preservation rules, and architectural planning.

Both Shachtman and Frantz lament the present sorry state of development and usefully point out the cyclical nature of commercial real estate. As Shachtman observes, New York, now suffering a 17% office vacancy rate, has been through hard times before. In the mid-'70s, with the city near bankruptcy and companies decamping for the suburbs, things looked even worse. Then came the `80s boom. History suggests that new fortunes will emerge after today's crunch, and the girders will rise again.LARRY LIGHT

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