New York City Developer Sees the Art in Real Estate

Roy Stillman, president of Stillman Development International, a New York-based real estate development and construction firm, is the developer behind The Schumacher, Metropolitan and Centurion condominiums in New York’s NoHo, Upper East Side and Midtown Manhattan neighborhoods.

His current project, the Times Square Theater, is undergoing a $100 million restoration led by architecture firm Beyer Blinder Belle.

A passionate art collector, Mr. Stillman, 56, has been known to commission artists to work on pieces for buildings, paying particularly close attention to the woodwork used in the apartments, too.

We caught up with him to discuss homes as a place for peace, the uncertainty in the high-end real estate market and more.

Mansion Global: Describe your dream property.

Roy Stillman: In my opinion, a home has certain key elements that make it a home rather than just a house or an apartment. One of them is peace.When we design a home, the idea is that it’s a rough world out there, and in your home, you’re safe, it’s a place where your pulse goes down. When you walk in the front door you feel a sense of relief. You can take a deep sigh of relief. That’s when I know I’ve got it right.

MG: Do you have a real estate property that got away?

RS: There are plenty of those, sure. On the flip side, there are so many times in my career where I’ve walked past a property that I had nothing to do with, but it somehow enters my consciousness, and then later on, I end up owning it. That’s something that resonates with me.

The Schumacher was such a case, I walked past it no less than 100 times. The Times Square Theater, too, I had walked by and thought "someone ought to do something about this."

But there’s the opposite, too, times that I should have acted, but didn’t. Sometimes you’re like a butterfly going from plant to plant and it doesn’t happen.

Properties that mean something to me are the ones with a voice, something with an intrinsic relevance.

But properties trade, and they come up again. Even if you don’t buy it, that doesn’t mean the deal is terminated for good I don’t think of things with regret.

MG: What does luxury mean to you?

RS: I try, frankly, not to use that term. By virtue of its overuse, it’s become useless. It’s more an aspirational word rather than a fact.

In the more commonly known way to think of the word, it’s about materials. I take our material selection to be a form of art. I’ve hand selected stone based on its artistry. We did that for the Centurion. I flew to Burgundy, and hand-selected a block of limestone from a quarry there. Each piece had my fingerprint on it. I selected each one based on its color and its quality, making sure it was the perfect grade and color.

For my home in Florida, I did that with onyx quarried in Afghanistan.

MG: Are you seeing any new hubs for luxury properties?

RS: We’re at a place in the economy where the answer is no. We’re at a nuanced time for selecting projects. Unless, you have an exception on your hands, now is not the time to do a residential luxury project.

But there are exceptions to the rules. Views of Central Park, for example, are exceptions to rules.

MG: What’s the biggest surprise in the luxury real estate market now?

RS: Sometimes you do see these outliers. The fact that the most expensive property in the U.S. just sold in New York for $238 million at 220 Central Park South. By contrast, if you look at macro data, you see everything’s red. But here, someone went totally contrary. But as a developer or investor you shouldn’t be playing toward the surprise, you should be playing toward the rule.

MG: Where are the best luxury homes in the world and why?

RS: I just got back from Nepal and Bhutan, trekking in the Himalayas. The best luxury home in that part of the world, for example, would have a perfect unobstructed view of the Himalayas.

I have one of the penthouses at the Setai in Miami—your knees would shake at the view. Those experiences are the reason you’re there. In Miami, it’s about water.

That’s one of the indispensable elements of "the best"—it must capture the experience of why the person chose to be there in the first place.

MG: What’s your favorite part of your home?

RS: My home is in Manhattan, I designed it, and consistent with this conversation, it’s very organic. I designed it to match the kinds of things I like to be around in terms of furnishings.

It’s about recentering myself and lowering my pulse.

George Nakashima [a woodworker and furniture maker, and father of the American craft movement] is high on my list of artisans of furniture. He wrote a book called "The Soul of a Tree." He would find these old trees that had died and give them new life by repurposing them. They’re very organic pieces, and I love them.

Also Louis Tiffany, a master in glass in the Art Nouveau movement, expressed the stylized nature of nature into his work. His vases are flowers, and his lamps are flowers, too. The bronze bases are stylized versions of roots. I like to combine those two artists even though they’re from radically different periods.

The common denominator is that beauty works with beauty even through different periods. I like to combine the two artists and they’re instantly friends.

MG: What’s the most valuable amenity to have in a home right now?

RS: That’s a cultural question. Each home has a setting and a setting has a subculture. I realize people who live on the Upper West Side are in a different subculture than people who live on the Upper East Side, or downtown. We’re all part of the same culture, but we have different subcultures. We separate ourselves into neighborhoods and homes.

For example, when we designed The Schumacher, we knew we were designing for people with an artistic sensibility.

Among the usual suspects is a gym, but what we did at The Schumacher were gardens. At the Centurion, an I.M. Pei-designed building, we created our best dose of peace and serenity in a garden with a huge quantity of transparent glass and flowing water. It had clear fengshui characteristics.

MG: What’s your best piece of real estate advice?

RS: It’s about quality. I’d give the same advice for art collections, or the people you choose to be around in your life. Have less, but go for the best. Buy less, but make it all great.

MG: What’s going on in the news that will have the biggest impact on the luxury real estate market?

RS: Uncertainty in the world equals inaction. There’s a lot of political and economic uncertainty, and tax changes that have disadvantaged "blue" states. You get up to $750,000 in a mortgage deduction, which is practically a kitchen appliance in New York.

These are macro trends that have disadvantaged the more valuable states. If you were in Kansas, you’d think the [new] tax law was fantastic. But for the blue states, it’s been a drag down on value, together with rising interest rates, and uncertainty with China-U.S. relations. They’re all causing people to sit on their hands.

MG: What is the best area now for investing in luxury properties?

RS: It has to have an intrinsic constraint on supply. Sometimes it’s geographic—like Hong Kong and Manhattan that are islands. Those are supply-constraint places.

Scarcity creates price increases. That scarcity can be a result of land-use-approval issues, zoning laws, or geographical barriers like the islands have.

People have to care. They have to want to be there for a reason.

MG: If you had a choice of living in a new development or a prime resale property, which would you choose and why?

RS: It depends who built it. I’ve seen so many brand new buildings and I walk in and say "blech." Why did you do this?

There’s a big difference between commodity traders and artists when developing a building.

I’d be happy to live in a new home built by a connoisseur but not by anyone else.

MG: What area currently has the best resale value?

RS: I live in the West Village and that’s rock solid, based on the things we discussed: 1. Does anyone care? Yes, people like to be there, because buildings are low and historical. 2. They’re valuable because there aren’t many of them. 3. It’s a real sense of community, too. You shouldn’t only want to live with people just like you. One of the values is community, and living with people who aren’t identical to each other.
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