Chinese Developers Step Up

May 16, 2014


A rendering of Oosten, a full-block condo complex in South Williamsburg being developed by the Xin Development Group International, an arm of a major China-based home-building firm. CreditThe Seventh Art
A rendering of Oosten, a full-block condo complex in South Williamsburg being developed by the Xin Development Group International, an arm of a major China-based home-building firm. CreditThe Seventh Art

China-based businesses and investors have been buying into New York City condominiums, hotels and office towers for years, but more recently, these firms have stepped up to take the lead on several major city developments.

Current projects in Manhattan and Brooklyn, including a full-block condo complex in South Williamsburg, are being headed by Chinese businesses, which until now have mostly invested alongside American companies, be it in new or existing buildings.

Perhaps the highest profile project involves the Greenland Group, which is based in Shanghai and is an arm of the city’s government. Greenland ventured into its first New York project when it bought a 70 percent stake in much of the residential portion of Brooklyn’sAtlantic Yards project from Forest City Ratner for $200 million. The site is also home to Barclays Center.

The deal between Greenland and Forest City still awaits approval from the Chinese government, Forest City officials say, though they added that the federal government in this country has agreed to allow it.


A rendered interior at Oosten. CreditThe Seventh Art
A rendered interior at Oosten. CreditThe Seventh Art

Specifically, the Treasury Department’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which reviews deals that could involve foreign entities taking control of American businesses, signed off on it this spring, said Joe DePlasco, a Forest City spokesman. He said Forest City was not required to file with the committee but did so out of an abundance of caution.

Mr. DePlasco added that Greenland would be an active development partner and not just an investor, which means that it would help build about 6,000 units, or 4,100 rentals and 1,500 condos across 14 buildings, though it is not involved in the construction of the modular 363-unit rental tower going up on the site now. Critics have said that Forest City is taking too long to complete the housing portion of the Atlantic Yards project.

Meanwhile, in Manhattan, China Vanke, China’s largest residential developer, is engaged in its first New York project in partnership with RFR Holding to build a new 61-story condo at 610 Lexington Avenue. The slender white tower, which was designed by Norman Foster, the British architect, will be constructed on a long-empty site that once held a YWCA, next to the RFR-owned Seagram Building. The condo broke ground in February.

But the Chinese-led project that is farthest along, and perhaps the boldest of the bunch because it is a solo effort, is the condo in Brooklyn called Oosten, at 429 Kent Avenue, between South Eighth and South Ninth Streets.

Offering 216 homes surrounding a courtyard, Oosten is the first-ever ground-up American project from the Xin Development Group International, an arm of Xinyuan Real Estate Company, the major Chinese home-building firm. And Xin has not teamed with other developers or investors for the $250 million undertaking, which will have a mix of apartments and townhouses, according to Ryan Black, the firm’s director of development.

Oosten (pronounced OH-stin), is the Dutch word for east, which is a nod to New York’s Dutch origins and the fact that the condo sits east of Manhattan, and near the East River, according to its developers. Also, Piet Boon, Oosten’s architect, is from the Netherlands. And just as in English, “east” in Dutch is shorthand for Asia, which honors the developer’s home — and which may help lure Chinese buyers.

Oosten’s most intriguing move may be its attempt to put a stylish stamp on a rough-edged industrial area south of the Williamsburg Bridge that has seen little in the way of major residential construction since the Schaefer Landing condo-and-rental complex went up across the street a decade ago.

There, sidewalks are more likely to be lined with graffiti than any trendy single-origin coffee shops, meaning the area has a much different look and feel from Williamsburg’s more settled sections, which Mr. Black acknowledges. Condos in general are also rare in this part of the neighborhood.

But, he says, Oosten, which will offer 13,860 square feet of landscaped open space at its center, is embracing its on-the-sidelines location. “Williamsburg has sort of evolved like the meatpacking district,” Mr. Black said, referring to the once-gritty neighborhood in Manhattan.

“Living there used to be fun, and then it became too hip, too touristy,” he said. “Being in the middle of it is not always the best place to be.”

Xin isn’t the first developer to try to colonize the two-acre site, which for decades was part of a Schaefer beer brewery that closed in 1976.

During the last boom, the North Development Group, a local firm, had planned to build apartment buildings there and got as far as pouring foundations, but the firm later defaulted on a loan for the project and ultimately lost the site, according to Xin officials. Xin bought it and its debt for $54 million in 2012.

But strings were attached to the property. A pre-existing deed restriction stipulated that the site could have only 216 units; also dictated was the height, at seven stories, and that courtyard.

Xin will also be responsible for reactivating the block of South Ninth Street that runs along the site, which had been closed to traffic for decades.

Wanting to boost the amount of outdoor space, and give more texture to the building’s facade, Xin actually decreased the average sizes of the units, while keeping the total the same, at 216, Mr. Black said.

The apartments, which will be completed by 2016, will nevertheless be hefty by New York standards. Though the smallest will be one-bedrooms, with 690 square feet, the largest will have six bedrooms; there will be four of those.

All units will feature hardwood floors, and limestone or marble baths, and apartments on the higher floors will enjoy East River views from this site, which is a block away from the waterfront. Oosten will also offer 15 townhouses, which will line the side streets and have underground garages.

Amenity-wise, a 55-foot pool will shimmer in the basement fitness center; a shallower, reflecting version will top a roof. There will also be a 90-space parking garage with spaces residents can lease separately.

But the complex won’t be adding shops to its block, which sits near a housing project and empty factory buildings; a 10,000-square-foot community space is likely to be leased as an art gallery, Mr. Black said.

That garage will also be a place to stash bicycles, either in a shared room or in the private storage spaces accorded to each home. Making bicycle travel convenient was a priority for Mr. Boon, who lives in Amsterdam, where many pedal to get around.

In fact, the neighborhood, where sneakers were twisted on overhead cables on a recent afternoon, reminds Mr. Boon of the grittier parts of Amsterdam’s harbor area, he said.

Oosten apartments will have floor-to-ceiling windows to drink in the views, like his other New York project, Huys, at 404 Park Avenue South, a conversion of an office to a condo, where Mr. Boon installed extra glass. “I think it’s important to get a lot of light,” he said.

Unit prices, meanwhile, are competitive for the neighborhood, about $1,000 a square foot or starting at around $700,000 for one bedrooms, which brokers say is on par with South Williamsburg but below what Northside condos get.

Sales, which are being handled by Halstead Property, are supposed to kick off in June.

As for what kind of buyers will show up, Mr. Black expects them mostly to be American. So far, Chinese buyers who can afford properties at this price level and who are looking for pieds-à-terre in the city have gravitated to places like Midtown, which is near many tourist attractions.

Besides, Oosten doesn’t have any of the studios that have been popular with Chinese investors, who turn around and rent them out, he added. Still, he admitted the condo will probably attract some overseas purchasers.

“We have a strong presence in China,” Mr. Black said. “Of course we’re going to market there.”