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Why Trump's Troubles Are Far From Over : The flamboyant developer avoided bankruptcy last week when lenders agreed to a bailout plan. But bankers will keep tight rein on his lifestyle and deals. And fundamental problems remain in his primary businesses. : New York Real Estate: Once it was golden. Now it's caught in the Northeast slump.

July 01, 1990|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — It was one of those sunny, spacious apartments that make Manhattan life look so glamorous in the movies but that the average New Yorker rarely sees in real life. The address was the fashionable United Nations Plaza complex, and the apartment had a prime East River view, two bedrooms and a formal dining room.

But the prosperous couple who put the apartment on the market for $1.7 million were more than slightly chagrined when the first offer came in at $620,000. They dropped their price to $1.3 million, but the bids continued a determined slide until the couple's attorney declared that he would buy it at the prices bidders were talking about.

After 14 months on the market, the property sold recently for $710,000. "And they were happy at that," said Barbara Corcoran, president of the Corcoran Group, a brokerage that specializes in higher-price New York real estate.

The couple's experience was by no means typical, but it says much nonetheless about the cold winds blowing through what was once one of the country's hottest real estate markets. The effects of a regional recession have combined with the legacy of years of overbuilding to shake both the commercial and residential sectors of the New York market.

Commercial vacancy rates are edging steadily upward; single-family home prices are off as much as 30% in some suburbs; Manhattan apartment rents are falling, and so far 11 sponsors of cooperative apartment conversions have filed for bankruptcy.

These problems weren't the sole source of Donald Trump's difficulties, but they hurt him in several ways.

In the rising real estate market of the '80s, Trump could continually mark up the value of his assets on paper to raise money for new acquisitions, or to persuade lenders to refinance existing debts. Now those values are falling, lenders won't give him more--and want to be paid back on loans for such assets as the Plaza Hotel, Trump Tower and Trump Parc.

Naturally, with a weak market, Trump is also finding fewer buyers, and lower prices, as he scrambles to try to sell some of the "trophy" properties.

And he reportedly has only sold about one-third of the condominiums in Trump Palace, a lavish project under construction on Manhattan's East Side. That's far below agents' earlier expectations.

The difficulties besetting the New York market are painfully evident up and down the Eastern seaboard as well. The Boston area, which has lost 22,000 jobs in the past year because of defense cuts and a high-tech slump, is also in tough shape. Washington is slightly better off but has a glut of suburban office buildings and is also suffering the loss of defense work.

"Some of us have been watching these problems on the horizon for a long time. Now they've arrived," says Abe Wallach, executive vice president of First Capital Partners, a Manhattan-based real estate investor and developer.

The psychology of New York's market changed with the October, 1987 stock market crash, which began to throw out of work the Wall Street professionals whose rising pay had driven the boom in housing prices during the 1980s. (Figures compiled by the Corcoran Group show average per-room prices in the higher-price category of Manhattan real estate rose 600% between 1977 and 1987, while the median compensation of securities and commodities brokers grew by almost the same percentage.)

About 40,000 have lost jobs in New York's financial services sector since the crash, and 15,000 to 20,000 more may join Wall Street's displaced this year. Meanwhile, some major employers, such as J. C. Penney, Mobil Oil and Exxon, have left the city.

And Manhattan has undergone a boom in the building of both commercial and residential properties. To spur redevelopment of the seedy Times Square district on the West Side of Manhattan, the city offered a special tax abatement to developers who broke ground on new projects by the end of 1987.

The tax break brought in a swarm of developers who borrowed heavily and whose projects wouldn't have been viable without the special dispensation.

More than 5 million square feet of office space has recently become available on the West Side or soon will be available, says First Capital's Wallach. Another 2 million to 3 million are being added on the East Side.

Vacancy rates in midtown, which hovered at about 9% for much of the 1980s, have drifted up to 16% and have edged up to 16% downtown as well. But those numbers tell only part of the story, since many commercial real estate companies are filling space only by offering cut-rate rents and other inducements that may prevent them from getting the revenues they need to cover costs.

When First Capital went looking for 12,000 feet of space, a landlord offered a lease with a rent-free first year, assumption of their existing lease and the option to spend up to $80 per square foot on improvements. "This is like what they were offering in Houston three years ago," Wallach says.

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