hn Gomes doesn’t break stride as he rushes across the black marble lobby of his West Village apartment building. He waves a strong arm to indicate I am to fall in immediately as he’s in a hurry to his day’s first meeting. Even from 50 feet away, underneath the lobby’s colossal, 24-foot ceilings, Gomes seems taller than his 6-foot-1 frame. With his shaved bald head, he resembles a more fashionable Daddy Warbucks: stylish, but not flashy, in a soft, gray felt jacket with suede elbow patches, bright tie and brown wingtips. It’s 9:30 a.m. and Gomes has an appointment downtown to discuss the details of a new condo development that could ultimately yield $113 million in contracts.
He bounds into the back seat of his black Mercedes S550 sedan, tricked out with custom, chocolate-brown leather interior. His driver, Douglas, pulls into the heavy traffic, and Gomes hits the button to lower the passenger-window privacy shade, then the window, and thrusts his smooth head fully out into the cold damp May air, like a dog. “I’m sorry,” he says, eyes closed, a beatific expression on his Buddha-like face. “I know this looks weird, but I need to cool down.” This is just one of his morning rituals.
Routine helps keep his driven life on track. He wakes naturally before the 6 a.m. alarm, puts in 20 minutes of Transcendental Meditation and one hour with a personal trainer. For breakfast, it’s muesli with almond milk and Keurig coffee in front of “Good Morning America,” while dispersing hundreds of overnight emails to his assistant or the assistant of his assistant, followed by a long hot steam to clear yesterday’s construction dust from his pores.
Gomes, 44, and his business partner Fredrik Eklund, 39, are the top brokers of luxury new residential development for Douglas Elliman, the biggest real-estate firm in New York City. Riding Manhattan’s building boom, the duo sells multi-million dollar condominiums — many of them outrageously appointed penthouse units perched atop brand-new, gleaming towers — to the very rich, the very very rich and the GDP-hoarders.
Like many who walk the crooked pavements of the city, I have long been perplexed by the end game as more and more high-priced residential skyscrapers climb heavenward. We on the streets negotiate the plywood barricades and dodge cranes in high winds, wondering how there could be yet more billionaires to buy these glass mansions. What does life look like at these altitudes?
The scale of this historic level of development suggests a storyline that I did not fully absorb until I spent a day in Gomes’ company. New York is still harboring foreigners fleeing unstable situations in their homelands, but now the emphasis is not on poor immigrants escaping persecution, it is rich investors seeking a stable haven in a turbulent world market. They are looking to park their global fortunes in our backyard.
Katherine Clarke/Daily News
DREAM TEAM Gomes and his partner Fredrick Eklund, left, inspect a property in Tribeca in 2015. The pair surpassed their 2014 record sales commissions in 2015 — and each bettered that total in the first quarter of this year.
This city is creating outsize wealth in multiple industries. According to a 2013 report on the future of cities in The Economist, NYC was rated the most competitive city globally based on its ability to attract business, capital and people — in other words, the ingredients of wealth-building. The report forecasted the city to remain in this position until its farthest projection in 2025. To international and domestic buyers, that makes New York real estate an enticing investment. It’s the reason Russian oligarchs park their money here and one of the reasons the Chinese elite buy homes for their children (along with access to our country’s higher-education system). It’s why Saudis, repelled by British tax laws that have made London less desirable, come house-hunting. Indian, Malaysian and Kazakh investors lead the next wave of foreign home-buyers.
And selling New York real estate can now be done remotely: A broker can send a marketing team to Shanghai or Singapore with their glossy pitch books and computer-animated apartment tours and sell a glinting, high-rise dream home before ever breaking ground.
Domestically, the investment bankers who once swallowed up high-end real estate gave way to hedge-funders. Now, tech moguls and canny entrepreneurs take their place. Celebrities and sports stars buy second or third or fourth homes. Wealthy Manhattanites flip houses in search of the most glamourous asset of all: change.
We rise like emperors over the city, the river and New Jersey unrolling beneath us. Gomes cackles gleefully, “This is how this city gets built!”
Between 2014 and 2015, the number of permits for new residential construction in Manhattan rose nearly 77%. Forbes recently reported that most of New York’s top-ten billionaire developers doubled their net worth since the pre-crash market peak in 2007. Fair-lending and -housing laws prevent the real-estate industry from keeping hard demographic data on buyers, but Jonathan Miller of the real-estate appraisal and consulting firm Miller Samuels Inc., estimates that over the past five years, half of all new-development sales were purchased by international buyers. Those demographics vary greatly by neighborhood: In downtown New York, international buyers make up approximately 15% of the new development purchasers; on midtown’s newly minted Billionaires’ Row, the number is inversed to 85%. But that global buyer pool pulls up prices everywhere, particularly across Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn.
From 2004 to 2014, prices rose dramatically in Harlem (102%), Nolita (79%) and Chinatown (75%), according to PropertyShark, a search engine that tracks real estate in NYC. As a result, the Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods closest to Manhattan became, in some instances, equally unreachable. The average price of homes in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, increased by 269%, climbing from $275 per square foot in 2004 to $1,015 ten years later.
That, of course, carries along with it all the mixed emotions and experiences of gentrification: Long-time low-income residents cash out and retire happily to Florida, while dependable, long-term renters get pushed out so their buildings can get converted to high-priced condos. Sure, now there are fewer hypodermic needles to step over but fewer subway cars with enough room to squeeze into at rush hour; better restaurants supplant classic dives.
Property values have decreased — sometimes by as much as 30% — in an equally large swath of the city, but in sections all farther out from the Manhattan hub: the Bronx, Queens and South Brooklyn. The net result is that more people struggle to afford life in the city.
But in Manhattan, fortunes can be made. Like most brokers in NYC, Eklund and Gomes are independent contractors who work under the umbrella of a real estate agency. When they represent a seller, they earn 3% of every sale, and 6% when they represent both the buyer and the seller. They pay Elliman an undisclosed amount for office space and the use of the company’s 100-member new-development support team. Under this arrangement, Gomes and Eklund accumulated the highest total commissions at Douglas Elliman in 2013. They bettered that amount in 2014, earning the highest commissions in Elliman’s history, and then beat that record in 2015. Separately, Gomes and Eklund each topped their entire 2015 figures in the first quarter of 2016 alone. In April, they sold their most expensive apartment to date, listed at $32.25 million, on one of the upper floors of 432 Park — at 1,396 feet, the tallest residential structure in the Western Hemisphere — to a buyer whose identity they cannot disclose. Gomes tries to wrangle three or four deals of that magnitude per year, but focuses primarily on volume in the $4-to-$7-million range. He has made up to $1 million on a single sale.
Courtesy Eklund Gomes Team
PENTHOUSE HUSTLERS Gomes and Eklund sold their most expensive apartment ever, in 432 Park, for $32.25 million. The building, at 1,396 feet, is the tallest residential building in the Western Hemisphere.
In the car, as we navigate the dense traffic of an overstocked city, Gomes educates me on the basic tenets of high-stakes real estate. Sellers, he tells me with the intimate exuberance of a life coach, are his business. Buyers are fickle, he says; sellers, you can count on. They always complete a deal. That’s why he mainly represents sellers, whether they’re developers of an entire building or individuals looking to unload their apartments.
Gomes and Eklund like to think of themselves as not merely selling high-priced apartments, but, rather, creating plush sanctuaries — whole towers of them, from plotting the allotment of one- and five-bedroom units to selecting the cabinet finishes. Sometimes they bring the empty land to a developer, but mostly a developer comes to them with a plot or building shell. They offer developers three choices — always three — of architectural, design and marketing teams. They decide whether the penthouse will have two private elevators and the building should include a candle-lit thermal bath. (High-end master bedrooms now typically have two bathrooms.) Then, they wrangle with the legal paperwork.
Today, Gomes will race to six meetings and appointments up and down Manhattan involving condos in six new buildings — 260 units that will eventually add up to more than $1.1 billion dollars in closing contracts. That constitutes less than half of the buildings that the pair have under development and does not include the dozens of resale units or rentals they currently list.
Like the light of a dead star beaming to our present, the work Gomes does today, for the most part, will not be paid for approximately three years. The day’s agenda includes refining sales materials and selling apartments that mostly do not yet exist. Two buildings are simply “good dirt” as real-estate insiders call it: plots of empty land onto which architectural renderings and animated simulations have been projected. Two are renovations — a former parking garage yet to be gutted and a former music school singing with buzzsaws.
AS SEEN ON TV The Eklund Gomes Team receives exposure from Bravo’s reality series “Million Dollar Listing New York,” on which Eklund stars.
Selling unbuilt apartments requires creativity. In 2008, Eklund paid $10,000 out of his own pocket to create a 12-minute pilot of a show he called “Billion Dollar Broker,” starring himself. A Bravo producer liked it, which eventually led to him landing a lead role on the network’s “Million Dollar Listing New York.” Since its debut in 2012, the show averages approximately 1 million viewers per episode, and has been sold in 100 countries. Eklund’s TV star billing (with Gomes occasionally appearing on the sidelines), along with the heavy use of social media, are part of the duo’s winning pitch. They’re the self-described “New Guard of Real Estate.”
Gomes believes in signs. He believes that if you listen well, the universe will tell you what you should be doing. When he was 26 years old, he used to clip inspirational pictures from magazines: Hotel shots from around the world, beautifully appointed great rooms. One individual obsessed him: Ian Schrager.
“He created everything interesting,” Gomes says of Schrager, innovator of the boutique hotel experience. “The Morgans, the Paramount. He had forayed into the European market.”
Gomes was too young to witness Schrager’s Studio 54 days, when he and business partner Steve Rubell held the keys to New York nightlife. Gomes doesn’t mention the fact that Schrager ultimately went to prison for tax evasion, having hidden cash and paperwork in the club’s ceiling. He is more interested in what Schrager created after serving his time: Palladium, the 14th Street club that Gomes frequented as one of DJ Junior Vasquez’s devoted “disciples,” one who would bounce between VIP room and dance floor during the deejay’s legendary 12-hour parties. Then after Palladium, Schrager created the hotels.
“I thought, If I could ever meet Ian Schrager…” Gomes recalls.
In 2004, Michael Shvo, who was then the top broker at Douglas Elliman, discovered Gomes at Balthazar, the celebrity-studded bistro, where he served as maître d’, having worked his way up from waiter. Shvo used to come every Saturday at 4 p.m. and sit near the reception stand. One day Shvo saw Gomes kissing Eve Mendes goodbye.
“You know her?” Shvo asked.
“You have her number?”
“I could make you a millionaire,” Shvo promised.
He kept pushing Gomes to leave Balthazar and join his real-estate crew. Gomes had developed an easy rapport with the restaurant’s A-list clientele: He knew what rich people liked to eat and drink and talk about. While at Balthazar, he was putting himself through business school at Baruch College, focusing on entrepreneurship.
Gomes finally took Shvo up on the offer, and by 2006 he had closed two penthouse deals totaling $12 million.
Shaun Osher of CORE, a boutique real-estate agency, noticed his success. “John Gomes, you are going to have a very long career,” Gomes recalls the agent telling him. “And if you come to me I will put you on the right path.” At that time, Gomes had $500,000 in commissions pending at Elliman and the rule was, if you walked away before the deed transfer, you would leave half on the table. He took the risk.
“And that’s when I met Fredrik,” Gomes says. Once again, luck found him at the right time.
When he started working at CORE Gomes noticed that one of the brokers, the Swedish expatriate Eklund — a former novelist and briefly a porn star, as well as the grandson of Bengt Eklund, one of Ingmar Bergman’s regular actors — always had a desk covered by open-house sign-in sheets, phone numbers, business cards, some spilling onto the floor. Every stray paper represented a deal lost, Gomes figured. He approached Eklund and made an offer to take Eklund’s overflow for a percentage of every sale.
They soon found they trusted each other and, in 2010, struck out on their own. “I started getting a new best friend,” Gomes gushes. “I fell in love with him. He is a very, very beautiful soul and an amazing business partner.” Gomes and Eklund not only work together all day — crossing paths at meetings, then separating for showings — but they vacation together. They involve themselves intimately in each other’s families.
Before Gomes’ wedding to fashion designer Raul Melgoza in 2015, Eklund wrote an Instagram post that detailed the intensity of his and Gomes’ relationship: “I always cry when I think of our friendship and love…. You are the most fearless and honest person I’ve ever met. People are afraid of that, you know, because people can see an angel when they see one, it’s like you are the light that shines and erases all shadows. We’ve been business partners for eight years now but soulmates for eight centuries. And before then parted but never separated in the Big Bang…. We’re going to travel the world together, again and again, retire together and die together.”
Courtesy Eklund Gomes Team
OFFICE THERAPY The pair frequently vacation together. Before Gomes’ 2015 wedding, Eklund, left, sent a mash note to his BFF on Instagram: “We’ve been business partners for eight years now but soulmates for eight centuries.”
Now we hurtle down to Tribeca, the neighborhood where one apartment vista can encompass not only the skyscrapers of the city, but the living spaces of Beyonce and Jay-Z, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. Gomes has shown homes to an entire TMZ roster of these sorts, including Justin Timberlake, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. He’s sold to J-Lo, and sold for Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick. Once, a woman, led by another agent, arrived for a showing, her entire head, face, and big hair mummified by a colorful silk scarf, large black sunglasses propped over the fabric. She toured the luxury apartment without a word. “I assume a big celebrity was under there,” Gomes says. “But I will never know.”
We leave the spacious showroom on the ground floor of 9 White Street with its detailed architectural model complete with penthouse trees, its meticulous renderings, its samples of finishes, and head over to the husk of 11 Beach Street with an amiable West Coast couple who are contemplating buying in the building, summoned by their increasing work in New York.
The construction elevator on the exterior scaffolding jolts and the whining pulleys haul us to the eighth floor of this soon-to-be 27-unit building. We rise like emperors over the city, the views of Hudson Street, and then the river and New Jersey unrolling beneath us. Here, the air is fresher, more brisk. Gomes cackles gleefully, “This is how this city gets built!”
As the elevator creaks open, we find ourselves in a cement-dust fog. The floor-through is an expansive shell of immense iron and concrete supports. The jackhammers and saws cease and we wend through a thick forest of metal studs, past the half-dozen or so construction crew members frozen in place, like extras in a ballet, poised on a crate doing wiring, or setting up a ladder to hang a socket, or holding a drill to the floor of the future master bathroom. They gaze at us listlessly. The only member of the crew who engages is Miguel, the stocky foreman in baggy work clothes who enthusiastically fills in the blank space left by Gomes’ light pitches.
“New York is becoming a tech city. It makes me feel so good that the people I am selling luxury apartments to are entrepreneurs.”
“This is the great room,” Gomes says, of a space that gapes south into the gray fog of the day. He sketches the stunning future with a wave of his arm and points to the floor plan. “You can’t appreciate the view in this weather.” He points out the massive openings in the cement, “But you get 56 Leonard” — designed by the Pritzker Award–winning architects Herzog & de Meuron — “you get the Freedom Tower…”
“Believe me, the view is unbelievable,” Miguel confirms.
“You have the Tribeca Film Festival…”
“There is fashion, restaurants,” Miguel fills in. “They filmed ‘Ghostbusters’ over at this firehouse.”
Gomes has told me he looks at shoulders when he sells. If he can’t get a person to relax in the space, they will never be able to imagine themselves as residents. But it would be hard to relax our jacketed shoulders clenched in the brisk air that blows through the netting over the massive open window holes, with our awkward hard hats, our mincing steps over the wires.
We head down one flight to a five-bedroom unit in exactly the same shell-like state but facing west. Gomes summons us to one side. “I just want to give you a feel,” he says. He then backs to a metal door, which will one day be the private elevator. I get a sense this performance will be good because he has not actively corralled the group together before. We line up on either side of this future hall. And then he strides past like a runway model, arms arching up over his construction helmet and circling level to his shoulders so they stick out in front of him like bayonets. “As you walk in, that floor-to-ceiling hole is your window. That’s your window,” he calls back to us. “That’s your view!” Watching Gomes perform, you get a sense of how seductive this rarified world can become, how distant the struggles of the majority of New Yorkers who, according to StreetEasy, now devote two-thirds of their income to rent. And I, who had been price-shopping milk the day before, suddenly consider this place, which could house a large family, a steal at $8.65 million.
Real estate in Manhattan has gone through whiplash cycles. Inflated by Wall Street bonuses, the market crescendoed in 2007. After the crash in 2008, nothing sold for a while; in 2009, Eklund was the sole broker in the city to move a Soho apartment in the first quarter.
Volatile markets such as these can spell tough times for brokers. “Card houses,” as realtors call them, crumple when real-estate values go south and prospective buyers of units in new developments walk away from deposits and lawyer fees rather than see a purchase through. Gomes has watched such buildings empty one by one, when all of the work put in over the previous three years goes out the door.
Then, as the U.S. economy stabilized and markets around the world remained volatile, Manhattan real estate became a safe harbor to park assets. Gomes says 2012 and 2013 were erratic and irrational. “It was great for sellers,” Gomes says, “but it was not nice. Many buyers got burnt.” The buyer would put down a deposit and pay for the legal paperwork, only to find a new customer would swoop in at the last minute with more cash and get the keys to their dream home.
Cash purchases kept the high-end market sizzling through June 2015, and remains robust. PropertyShark calculated that the number of all-cash purchases of New York apartments has nearly tripled since 2006. The Treasury Department became concerned that Manhattan was turning into a giant laundromat, with real estate becoming a place to stash ill-gotten fortunes.
In early 2016, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network at the Treasury Department announced a crackdown, starting March 1. They would require all cash purchasers of Manhattan real estate selling for $3 million or more to disclose their identity and not hide behind an LLC.
The Geographic Targeting Order (GTO) focused only on Manhattan and Miami-Dade County, and the program can, by law, last only 180 days. “We are seeking to understand the risk that corrupt foreign officials, or transnational criminals, may be using premium U.S. real estate to secretly invest millions in dirty money,” said Jennifer Shasky Calvery, director of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), in an agency press release.
Susan Watts/Daily News
FULL SERVICE AGENT Gomes’ hands-on approach extends to prepping properties for photo shoots.
According to Raphael De Niro, son of Robert De Niro and another top Elliman broker, the main reason for hiding behind LLCs might be more straightforward. Speaking at Real Deal, a Manhattan real-estate conference, in May, De Niro said that the concern among potential buyers is mostly about not wanting to pay New York City income tax, when these residences are only part-time homes. In 2015, the New York Times reported that owners of 89,000 of the city’s condos and co-ops claim not to live in the city.
As for Gomes, the topic causes a slight cloud to dim his otherwise sunny demeanor. He offers only that people might have all sorts of legitimate reasons for wanting to protect their privacy. He mentions celebrities trying to keep stalkers of all sorts at bay. Other brokers talk about businesspeople looking to find safe shelter from world leaders wanting to feed them polonium. “We are in America, too, and people came here for freedom,” Gomes says enigmatically. “It’s what makes America what it is.”
Perhaps quieted by the GTO, the high-end residential market shows wear. The developer of a 900-foot, 80-story condo tower on the Upper East Side went to bankruptcy court in April. That same month, Philip Johnson’s landmark 550 Madison, slated to be turned into luxury condos, suddenly sold to Saudi conglomerate Olayan Group for a reported $1.4 billion, not as residences, but as future office space. Gomes won’t comment on the specifics because the realtors on that long-awaited jewel of a project happen to be other Elliman employees. But word is the brokers found themselves surrounded by stacks of exquisitely created pitch books, pored-over floor plans, the detritus of marketing strategies for dream residences that gave way to a commercial market reality. Still, the final sale price suggests the overall real-estate market is healthy.
Between 2007 and 2015, 255 apartments sold in the $10- to $20-million range. Currently, there are 200 apartments on the market at that price point. You could view that inventory as a glut or as an expression of builders’ belief in the global supply of rich people. Michael Shvo, Gomes’ former mentor, noted at the Real Deal conference that the price per square foot at the high end has doubled since 2007, suggesting not so much an oversupply, but a higher valuation.
At the moment, Gomes and Eklund appear to have no shortage of potential buyers. “New York is becoming a tech city,” Gomes says. The former entrepreneurship major likes the new breed. “It makes me feel so good that the people I am selling luxury apartments to are entrepreneurs.”
He admits to feeling a little conflicted that he is profiting off a transformation that annoyed him in the mid-’90s, when he was a young waiter living on W. 10th Street in a coveted rent-controlled apartment. When he was part of Junior Vasquez’s entourage, then-mayor Rudy Giuliani launched his “quality of life” campaign. Gomes resented the crackdown on minor offenses, the scouring of New York’s grittier — and more colorful — neighborhoods. He liked his lifestyle just fine then. But now he considers the source of the luxury boom from which he profits: It all goes back to New York cleaning up back then. And now, upper-middle-class families, who once might have moved to Westchester or Ridgewood, N.J., want to be in New York for the culture and diversity, for the lifestyle. And, as Gomes puts it, who is he to resent families for wanting to live where he wanted to live?
Gomes races into a meeting about a new construction at 1 Great Jones Alley with the developer’s team and Elliman marketing members. Eklund arrives slightly late, apologizing, wearing a fashion-forward black cropped jacket with leather trim. He is more serious than the madcap persona he projects on Bravo, and at this meeting the source of Gomes and Eklund’s success comes into focus: They’re good at what they do. They provide straightforward business advice. They suggest improved design corrections. They pay attention to detail, from the best position of the drone that will take photos of views from the future building to the surface of the facade of the building across the way, which they will rehab to improve that view. They are not crass. They don’t curse. Their teams seem to like them, but they don’t try to ingratiate themselves.
Gomes says he has always held himself to such high standards. “I was always good,” he later tells me. “I was the president of my class in business school. I was captain of the track team. I graduated cum laude. I was an altar boy. My mother always said, ‘I want you to be a good boy. I want you to be a good human.’ ”
The participants at these development meetings throughout the day tend toward a young, competent, shiny-haired, white female majority, with a few smart amiable guys thrown in. The most fascinating aspect is that these young people approach the work not just with a sense of duty, but with what comes off as true personal interest. Everyone perches at the edge of the oversized couches or runs through checklists gripped with the kind of engaged energy formerly reserved for political revolutions.
In another meeting, the design team sent by one collaborator looks fresh from a summer-stock production of “Portlandia,” casually hip, a little scruffy. For a while, I can’t figure out their role. They seem to be responsible for the full-page ad designs, but they also happily volunteer to oversee the construction of a faux balcony so buyers can sense what 200 square feet of outdoor space would feel like. They will fix the looped reel playing on the 16-by-9-foot high-definition screen, but they also crafted the 86-page book with the cover that matches the apartment’s teak veneers. You get the feeling that all of their artistic endeavors are not just the way to pay the bills, but the full expression of themselves.
It’s hard to square this dynamic with discussions about luxury real estate. So much talent is invested in burnishing the high-end, I can’t help wondering what could be accomplished if this same energy could be tapped to address the now seemingly intractable low-end problems. The housing shortage requires clear-eyed advocates: The city government usually demands New York developers to include a percentage of affordable housing in their plans, but often those aspirations disappear along the way. The stock of rent-controlled apartments dwindles. Recent reports on troubles with the Section 8 voucher program show that even employees of New York’s social-service agencies have been pushed into homelessness when they can no longer afford their rent. Of course, my imaginary recasting of these talented real-estate bees as the saviors of the masses is more fantastic than their creation of animated tours of unbuilt luxury skyscrapers. Yet, it’s a testament to the group’s competence that the thought that they could solve New York’s enormous housing problems even crosses my mind.
Susan Watts/Daily News
PICTURE PERFECT Gomes reviews a shot during a photo shoot for a penthouse unit in Greenwich Village.
The meeting concluded, Gomes rushes off to his next appointment with a potential seller in Chelsea. Traffic is tight, so Gomes decides to jump out and speed walk. We move so fast the city blurs. I no longer see faces. I don’t notice individual landmarks. Moving at this pace, Gomes occasionally clips a passerby lightly with his umbrella and apologizes. A veteran of the city, I can barely perceive where we are. When Gomes later knocks over a Plexiglas container on a sandwich board he goes back to fix it and notes that it’s an example of his philosophy of leaving things better than when you found them. For once, as I wait for him to complete the task, I can focus: The place he has left better is a pole-dancing school.
Gomes does not eat lunch, per se. He used to shovel down salad in the car, but that proved disastrous. Instead, the driver pauses around noon while in transit to another meeting so Gomes can dash to buy his daily health shake to go. Given that his only other sustenance was the muesli in the morning, I am amazed the man sustains body mass.
The team considers the collages of cabinet finishes and neighborhood finds. “Can we throw in a few edgy objects? It looks a bit tame,” someone says. “Maybe a gun?”
Next stop is home base in the Flatiron District. Gomes and Eklund work at back-to-back computers, divided by a standard cubicle partition in the somewhat cramped office. Their assistant sits on one side, the assistant’s assistant on the other. Gomes’ proclivity for clipping magazine images of grand hotels shows up as the decorative element tacked to his partition wall. Gomes sprays the air with a scent called Relief, created by the company that designs in-house gyms for their buildings, and it is yet another reminder that this whole high-end real estate world smells like paradise — roses in a showroom, gardenia in an elevator. It turns out Gomes picks a unique scent for every selling space to register on the strongest of our five senses.
The Eklund Gomes conference room is small enough that chairs must be carefully choreographed to fit. The design team scrolls through the images from the new catalogue for 75 Kenmare, with Andre Kikoski doing the exteriors and Lenny Kravitz’s design company handling the interiors. It is slated to begin construction this fall. Gomes and Eklund want more bleed-through images, fewer rigid grids. They chuckle at the lobby picture and I realize that it’s because the Elliman employee to my right is the doorman, costumed for the part.
To package these buildings correctly, no glitch can go uncorrected. What is that storm in the distance in the renderings? Why are the imagined pedestrians wearing so much clothing? All those wrinkly pants! They lament that the illustration makes the building in one of Manhattan’s hipper, more vibrant neighborhoods appear like a dentist’s office in a deserted New Jersey strip mall. It must be revised.
The team considers the collages of cabinet finishes and neighborhood finds. “Can we throw in a few edgy objects? It looks a bit tame,” someone says. “Maybe a gun?”
At our next meeting in Midtown East, Gomes returns from the bathroom laughing. “When I stepped away and remembered the image of you running down the street to keep up with me, I realized how insane my life is.” It turns out I, who comes from a family of fast walkers, have no reason to be shamed: Gomes still holds his high school’s hurdling record. Who am I to compete where three decades of adolescents failed?
But having tried to keep pace, I come to wonder what life was like a year-and-a-half ago, before Gomes’ meditation habit, when everything transpired at this frantic speed.
“I was having a nervous breakdown,” Gomes says, frankly. He says he realized he was taking short breaths and would have to give a big yawn in between. “It was counterproductive. I wasn’t happy. What led to the stress was my success and I wasn’t going to become the victim of that success.”
“I am part of the team that is literally changing the skyline of New York.” He laughs. “That’s crazy!”
That’s when he and his husband invited Théo Burkhardt into their apartment for a week to teach them TM. “At core of who we are is spirit, is essence,” Gomes says. “The physical body allows us to do what our spirit wants us to do.”
Gomes’ life now includes a private chef when he and his husband host more than two other people, a weekend house in the country. But life wasn’t always so fancy. His father, Benjie, an immigrant from Cape Verde, off the coast of Africa, met Gomes’ mother, Helen, near Boston, while on a part-time gig installing a Hanukkah Star of David over a local nursing home. He looked down and saw the blond, blue-eyed Irish-American teenager walking into work and was smitten. They married and she gave birth to John at 18, and then John’s sister six years later. Helen never stopped pushing herself, earning her Master’s degree in nursing, eventually working with researchers at Harvard on diabetes, and becoming a much-loved professor at Rhode Island College. Benjie worked his whole career as a truck driver.
John’s relationship with his father, who never graduated high school, wasn’t great when he was growing up in Boston. The father could be aggressive in his desire for his son to surpass him. “Now I look back, I am so happy,” Gomes says. “I credit those lessons to what I’ve been able to achieve.”
After graduating from the University of Rhode Island with a double major in Communications and Political Science, Gomes earned an AmeriCorps graduate-program scholarship of $5,000 by putting in a year of 60-hour weeks for a nonprofit called City Year, helping mentor teens living in poverty in Providence. He moved to New York and spent a year as a paralegal, and interned in the public-defender’s office. But his interest in law school waned, and a colleague suggested he study for an MBA. He got the job waiting tables at Balthazar and began sending checks to his grandmother for her to stash so he wouldn’t know he had money until the tuition bill came due. Baruch College matched the AmeriCorps scholarship, and he earned a free ride in the second year of business school by becoming president of his class. All that hustle left Gomes with precious little free time to spend with family.
Susan Watts/Daily News
IF YOU BUILD IT Gomes’ attention to detail extends to ensuring maquettes and architectural renderings are perfect.
For Christmas, Gomes decided he would give his father the gift of time. “I wanted to understand his path toward my path,” he says. He booked a weekend for the two of them in Canton, Ohio, the city where his father began American life six decades earlier as a 14-year-old who couldn’t speak English. The Gomes family had been wealthy in Cape Verde, but when Benjie arrived in the U.S. with two of his five brothers, they were poor.
Gomes’ father took his son to the site of his old home. Due to the nearby creek’s constant flooding, all but two of the houses had been razed, and the citizens relocated. His father stood at the site that had been 933 Calahoun. “This was my window, this was my door,” his father told him. “This is where I negotiated with the guy who brought us coal.” He sketched his past the way Gomes now sketches the glamorous skyline for his billionaire clients.
“He took me to his school and showed me where he went to second grade as a 14-year-old,” Gomes tells me.
That piece of information seems formative to a person’s whole sense of origin. But Gomes tells me it came as a surprise. “I never knew that before,” he says.
When was this trip?
Gomes and his husband currently plan to have children of their own. “It’s been an ongoing discussion, something that kept coming back,” he says. “All the success and travel and things we’ve done, something is still missing. We want to share what we have. We want to pass on lessons.” They have found an egg donor and his sister will serve as surrogate. They hope for twins, as early as the end of the year. “I want my story to continue so desperately, and I see it so clearly.”
Gomes sees his task as not just creating saleable properties, but leaving New York better than he found it. It’s a quality that goes back to his youth. Referring to the ’80s sitcom “Family Ties,” he tells me that “I was the Alex P. Keaton of the Gomes family. I always remember not identifying with my family. I had ideas how they should dress, what kind of car they should drive. I would think, This is not how I’m going to live when I’m in charge. No. No. No. No. No. No. Now they walk into my apartment and are like, ‘Oh, my!’ And I say, ‘Now you know why I didn’t like how we lived.’ ” He is, in a sense, trying to gussy up this metropolis the way he would have primped his family if he had only had the means back then.
Indeed, he is most proud of his labors on the development of the Schumacher in NoHo because, in converting a former Civil War-era printing house into residences, developer Roy Stillman authorized Gomes and Eklund to serve as co-visionaries. Stillman corrected “crimes against architecture” by restoring key flourishes he found in the historical record, while Gomes and Eklund convinced him to turn a light shaft into a vertical garden. They insisted he install all the best custom fixtures and finishes, and Stillman commissioned fine artists to create common area benches and partitions. As a result, the pricing of luxury apartments in NoHo soared from $2,000 per square foot to $2,800, something that was written about around the world. To the average buyer, that means no more NoHo; to Gomes, that means he helped create one of New York City’s residential landmarks.
Susan Watts/Daily News
IN THE DUST Gomes and a colleague inspect materials at a West Village development.
New York requires a sporadic stream of citizens who think this way. A visitor to Central Park when it was under construction in 1871 noted that its name belied the fact that it was located far north of the city. It awaited the luxury apartment buildings that even now claim Manhattan’s highest square-foot price. Along the way, it became the People’s Park.
Asked how he compares himself to such city builders as Robert Moses, Gomes expresses grateful bewilderment that he should find himself playing a small part in redrawing the metropolis. “I shuttle around in that car,” he says, “constantly crisscrossing the city, looking up through the sunroof. Sometimes I am standing in one of our buildings that is 50 or 60 stories in the air and I’m looking at another of our projects across Manhattan, climbing too. I am part of the team that is literally changing the skyline of New York.” He laughs. “That’s crazy!”
In the 1 Seaport sales gallery in the Financial District, a wall of stacked high-definition TV screens blooms into a vast, sunset-tinted, rippling sea as Coldplay blasts through the speakers. The name of the future building projects over the glow. The computer animation unreels scene after scene of domestic bliss: An SUV with tinted windows pulls into a discreet valet parking port. An animatron woman pauses at the edge of the infinity pool to gaze in wonder at the river below. Two small children in pajamas linger at one of the floor-to-ceiling windows watching the boats. “That could be my family,” I joke.
“People like change. New York is always renewing itself. The liquor store into a shoe store, the deli into a bakery. I love that people want change because it gives me more buyers and sellers.”
“See, you can see yourself there!” Gomes exclaims. This part of the day, just off a conference call and awaiting the last group meeting of the day, is devoted to hydration: water and more water to quell afternoon hunger and, as Gomes puts it, keep the mind sharp.
Turning away from the film, I stroll across the sales office, which reportedly cost millions to renovate. Up this high, imagining the glass skyscraper that will grow in the plot across the street and looking over the future Jean-Georges and David Chang restaurant sites, everything sparkles, even on this gray day. The orchids bloom, the furniture is thick and neutral. The apartments depicted on the screen don’t yet exist, and therefore, neither does the future clutter or the unpaid bills or the family squabbles. Or, if you look at it from the always-positive perspective Gomes has trained himself to adopt, there are so many celebrations yet to be hosted here, so many kisses, so many sunrises. From up here it seems clear why the world’s wealthiest are so eager to buy up New York City. Why wouldn’t they want to occupy every last glossy square foot of the top city on the planet?
But I am one of the New Yorkers who sometimes twinges at the city’s high-priced facelift, who misses Bereket, the late-night Turkish shawarma joint on Houston; who felt sad when Union Square Café had to abandon its long-held location because it could not afford the big-box rent its space now demands. Friends move farther and farther from Manhattan. I worry for the workers priced into long commutes. Gomes counters by recalling his own background. “At least they have a job,” he says, connecting the city’s success at attracting people and investment to employment. Previously he had cited the importance of tax payments to the city, and indeed the top apartments he sells can come with a monthly real-estate-tax bill of more than $7,000, that is, if the owners don’t employ loopholes. “My mother commuted an hour to work every day,” he says.
Who are we, sadsacks, lamenting the lost? Doctors first coined the term nostalgia in the 18th century to describe the medical condition of French soldiers missing home. Gomes’ whole being makes clear that nostalgia is an illness, a limit to enjoying the present, intelligence overextended on something that can never be remedied.
Susan Watts/Daily News
ALL GROWN UP “I was the Alex P. Keaton of [my] family,” Gomes says. “I would think, This is not how I’m going to live when I’m in charge.”
“People like change. New York is always renewing itself,” he says. “The liquor store into a shoe store, the deli into a bakery.” We had just met with a potential seller who offered no other reason for unloading his carefully decorated apartment aside from a desire to get rid of his possessions and start something new. “I love that people want change because it gives me more buyers and sellers.”
He admits to one pain, however. “When I walk by those NYU dorms that used to be the Palladium, I always cover my eyes,” Gomes says. The university tore down the iconic club in 1997 and gave the new collegiate bunkhouse the club’s name. “I turn my head. That’s too much.”