The attached photographs are worth a thousand words. In the first hours of 2016 St. Mark’s Church, a Richard Upjohn masterpiece in West Orange, New Jersey, was consumed by one of the most devastating fires in recent memory The community is still in shock, as I learned while attending a meeting of the town council last night. Standing literally in the center of the town, at the intersection of four historic roads, the building had been a landmark since the 1820s. The identity of the place, so essential to its long time residents, went up in flames in a matter of hours. Now historic preservationists face the daunting task of dealing with the ruins of a national and state register landmark. Citizens have vowed to rebuild, but the owners of the building, a Hispanic religious community, have few resources. Ten years ago civic leaders and the Episcopal Diocese of Newark had an opportunity to create a plan for the building that might have saved it from this fate, and failed to do so. A tragedy indeed, but one that could have been avoided with foresight and leadership.


Giga-mansions & Tera-condos

January 4, 2016

The super-rich continue to grab headlines with monotonous regularity in papers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Their Sunday magazine and real estate sections feature full page ads for condominiums in the new “needle towers” that years ago would have provoked astonishment: penthouses for $85, $90, $110 million. Today we are hardly impressed with such gluttonous excess. The public understands that the sprawling world Monopoly board includes New York’s luxury condos, Beverly Hills’ mansions, and Paris’s historic hotels particuliers.  Why shouldn’t Arab oil princes and Chinese internet moguls have their fun with real estate speculation in the world’s hot cities?

Last month I noted with disgust the blood feuds developing in Southern California over the size of houses in one of the region’s star communities: Bel Air. Apparently this exclusive group of mansions, once owned by the likes of Cary Grant and Za Za Gabor, has now become a hunting ground for developers such as Mohamed Hadid. He considers lots there to be “the cheapest in the world.” He lives in a 48,000 square foot home called “La Belevedere.” And he is being sued by neighbors for putting up what can only be called a “giga-mansion” nearby.

Apparently even the super-rich can be shocked by tasteless, garish domestic excess. Hadid has a shell company that has constructed what many in Bel Air call “the Starship Enterprise,” a 70-foot tall house on a steep hill that stands, half-built, in the center of town. His company has been cited for building code and zoning violations. He seems unconcerned.

A shell company shields developers and their clients from prying eyes and legal challenges by not only neighbors but also government entities. The Times found hundreds of such companies operating in Manhattan, and has now discovered a similar pattern of secrecy in California real estate sales to foreign buyers with shady backgrounds.

Americans expect to see headlines about African warlords holing up in Paris or London to escape prosecution in their native countries. Foreign (and domestic) criminals with large Swiss bank accounts are now decamping on our soil, and for them size clearly matters. Forget large and extra large. The giga-mansion is the new standard.