The World At Home : Charles Laffiteau's Bigger Picture
2018-05-01 15:12:03 -

By Charles Laffiteau


The Trump property at 40 Wall Street in New York City has long been the current US president’s most valuable single asset. But many real estate professionals now argue that the 30 per cent stake Donald Trump holds in Vornado Realty Trust is actually worth more than the Trump Building or Trump Tower.


The irony of Trump’s stake in Vornado is that it came about as the result of the sale of Trump Place in Lincoln Square by Trump’s Chinese partners. Trump filed lawsuits against the sale, claiming his partners had accepted kickbacks, but because he was a limited partner with a minority stake, he wasn’t able to block it. In other words, President Trump’s most valuable current asset is the result of a real estate transaction the so-called ‘master dealmaker’ vehemently fought against, but was powerless to halt.


As for the president’s other real estate assets, let’s take a look at their respective reputations and a more realistic assessment of what they are currently worth. We’ll start with Trump’s Niketown retail building in the shadow of Trump Tower. Nike closed its store there last month, so Trump is searching for a new tenant for 65,000 square feet of retail space in a neighbourhood where the value of retail space is falling.


Last year’s Bloomberg Billionaires Index had established a value of $580m for the Niketown property, but that was also before Nike announced it was closing the store in favour of a new one being built for Nike a few blocks away. More recently, in an era where e-commerce continues to steal business from brick-and-mortar retailers, Forbes estimated the Niketown property’s value at a much more modest $253m.


However, Niketown is not the only Trump real estate property whose worth is falling, as the values of all of President Trump’s other properties in Manhattan are also eroding. For example, his Vornado Realty Trust partnership owns the 43-storey 1290 Avenue of the Americas building in midtown Manhattan. This two million square foot office building, adjacent to Radio City Music Hall and Rockefeller Center, counts AXA Equitable Insurance, Morgan Stanley and investment firm Neuberger Berman among its tenants. The building was appraised for over $2bn dollars back in 2012 when it was generating net income of $100m per year, but with 2016 rental income of just $77m, its estimated value has now fallen to $1.6bn.


As for the Trump Building, while it may have a prominent address on Wall Street, it is far from being a prestigious office tower. In point of fact, the Trump Building’s primary claim to fame is that it is the cheapest place in New York City to rent office space with a Wall Street address. The average rent there is around $36 a square foot, which is roughly $20-$25 less than comparable rents in lower Manhattan, and half of the $70 average rents in midtown. Furthermore, cheap rents also tend to attract business people with questionable reputations.


Over the past 20 years, 29 different people have been charged with using their offices at 40 Wall Street to perpetrate 12 different scams involving bribery, loan sharking, investment fraud, money laundering and immigration fraud. Another nine firms have been charged with serious financial and regulatory violations, and today the building remains a favourite spot for boiler room operations and penny stock schemes. According to the Securities and Exchange Commission alert list, the Trump Building has been the home of more unregistered brokerages than any other US address.


The famed Trump Tower – site of President Trump’s New York City home, offices and business headquarters – has also seen its value erode over the past five years. Thanks to rental income from Gucci, Trump Tower was valued at $630m as recently as 2015. But an eight per cent drop in the overall worth of real estate in New York City combined with a 20 per cent fall in rental income has reduced its value to $450m. Moreover, with lots of new skyscrapers on the market attracting a limited pool of tenants, older buildings like Trump’s are having an increasingly difficult time attracting new tenants.

Much like its Trump Building brethren, Trump Tower has a number of tenants with unsavoury or questionable reputations. The difference here is that instead of shady investment brokers, Trump Tower has most often been characterised as the home base for a “tower full of oligarchs”. According to an investigative story published by Bloomberg Businessweek last March, a Russian with mob connections lives on the 78th floor, while a pro-Moscow politician from the Ukraine, whose political party hired Paul Manafort as an advisor, lives five floors up.


But purchases of condominiums in the Trump Tower by Russian oligarchs make up only a sliver of Russian oligarchs’ investments in Trump properties. Dolly Lenz, a well-known New York City real estate broker, has said she sold approximately 65 Trump World Tower condos near the United Nations building to Russian investors, and Reuters discovered that 63 Russians had purchased almost $100m worth of condominiums in Trump-branded condo towers at Sunny Isles Beach, Florida.


In light of this, maybe Trump fears Robert Mueller’s investigation will uncover more ties to Russian mobsters. Or maybe he’s afraid Mueller will discover he is worth a fraction of the $10bn he claims?

Charles Laffiteau is a US Republican from Dallas, Texas pursuing a career in public service. He previously lectured on Contemporary US Business & Society at DCU from 2009-2011 and pursued a PhD in Public Policy and Political Economy.

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