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Branding a Building

When the real estate investment firm Palais Partners purchased the empty apartment building at 250 East 54th Street in 1991, the firm's principals had big plans to convert the 43-story, 178-unit structure with the glass exterior into a high-priced condominium.

But first things first. They needed to call it something else.

"It was named for the Grand Palais, which is the ugliest building off the Champs Elysees," says Kirk MacDonald, principal of MacDonald & Cie, the managing entity of Palais Partners. Concerned that the moniker would turn off savvy buyers, MacDonald and his colleagues decided to hold a contest to find a new name for the building, one that would evoke their modernist ideas for their investment, and create a "brand" that would have cachet with New Yorkers.

Ultimately, five brokers came up with the same suggestion: the Mondrian. And a new condominium was born. For MacDonald, the choice dovetailed nicely with both the history of the neighborhood - the Dutch painter, Piet Mondrian, once had a studio two blocks away - "and the red and blue and white aspects of the exterior of the building reminded us of Mondrian." Far from evoking a clunky Second Empire museum, the new name offered buyers a chance to align themselves psychologically with the cool, linear design style of one of Europe's most famous postmodern painters.

What's in a name? A great deal, it turns out, as more and more co-op and condo boards are finding that "branding" their home is becoming an increasingly delicate and important art, often crucial in establishing an attractive identity for resale value.

"The whole process is really a function of many different elements," observes Patrick Lilly, managing director of Coldwell Bankers Hunt Kennedy, a real estate broker. "If the address is Fifth Avenue, Park Avenue, Central Park West, then the address is really the key element. That's what you are selling. If you get extra value with a name like Trump, then putting the Trump name on the building is obviously an improvement over the actual address."

A frequent gimmick of developers is to place buildings under the psychological umbrella of the good neighborhood by naming a building after the neighborhood, even if it's only on the fringe. It makes the apartments that much more desirable, points out Lilly. However, he adds, "when a building reaches a certain level of recognition, like the Dakota [located at West 72nd Street and Central Park West], the building is so special and has such a long history that the name really adds an aura that Central Park West doesn't give it."

When looking to brand a building, "You want something that speaks of the character of the building and that's memorable," offers Jed Walentas, a principal in the real estate development firm Two Trees, based in Brooklyn. While no one ultimately buys an apartment based on a name, believes Walentas, "I think the name helps in getting press, helps in terms of brokers, and it probably gets it out there a little more in popular discourse."

But sometimes, a well-known name can become a liability when you are trying to sell units. When news of an ugly battle between the co-op board and the building's leaseholder started to spread on the broker grapevine, Elayne Reimer, the exclusive broker for the Excelsior, 303 West 57th Street, dropped the name of the co-op in her advertisements. Once an evocation of luxury and exclusivity, it was now a distinct liability.

"Brokers were following the lawsuit and when people would ask to see the papers on the lease, and see litigation pending, word spread," recalls Reimer. To attract potential buyers, Reimer started highlighting the building's luxury in her ads: the marble floors, crystal chandeliers, and country-club-style health club on the fifth floor. "I had to emphasize the apartments and not the area, period," recalls Reimer.

Today, that's all changed. With the lawsuit resolved in favor of the board, clients are anxious once again to know what's available in the building. Prices have shot upwards and the name once again is "just as big a draw" as it always was, says Reimer.

While that broker was able to walk the line between marketing her co-op based on the name or the location, for the unit-owners of one Union Square condominium, ditching the building's name in favor of emphasizing its address means betting that the ongoing rejuvenation at Union Square will continue to increase the value of the units.

Board members, past and present, at One Irving Place say there were two reasons to get rid of the moniker Zeckendorf Towers. "Clearly, the neighborhood was up and as the renovation came to an end, we saw it as an opportunity to make ourselves look more important. We wanted to be part of the whole Union Square renovation," Judith Zupersmith, treasurer of the board, notes. To that end, the building renovated its lobbies, built a website,, and redid the lettering over its main entrance at East 15th Street to emphasize the building's location.

Then there was another reason. The board was engaged in a series of battles with Zeckendorf Realty over who was responsible for repairs in the property, recalls Philip Hackett, a former treasurer, and when the threat of a lawsuit didn't stir the sponsor, the board members finally threw up their hands and dropped the issue - completely.

But that didn't end it. "We were finally like, 'Fine, you want it your way, we're changing the name,'" the ex-treasurer says. And so it was out with Zeckendorf Towers, and in with One Irving Place. The developer, reports Hackett delightedly, "was furious." Can revenge, by any other name, taste as sweet?

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