Putting on the Ritz

Developers of pricey high-rise condominiums are selling Clayton as a place for the rich and famous. So far, out-of-towners aren't buying.

Jul 19, 2000 at 4:00 am
Just imagine: Thanks to electronic communications, you can do your job from anywhere in world, without having to be tied to any particular location. Plus, you have a million dollars to plunk down for your own private castle. So, where do you go? New York, Chicago, West Palm Beach?

How about Clayton, Mo.?

Apparently not too many of you want to go to Clayton, and the optimism that once boosted the suburb's millionaire condo craze has faded a bit. One large project has been canceled, and the marketing message of a second project is that a third one will never get built.

So much for optimism.

Last year, shortly after St. Louis Mayor Clarence Harmon pronounced the 13-story Darst-Webbe public-housing towers dead because "people can't live in high-rise buildings," three development groups each proposed to build an "ultraluxury" condominium tower in Clayton. The 30-story Fountain Place would rise just north of Clayton's Ritz-Carlton Hotel. The 30-story Plaza would stand just west of the Ritz. The 19-story Monaco would be a few blocks away, at the intersection of Brentwood Boulevard and Maryland Avenue. Together, they would add more than 300 high-priced condo units to Clayton's housing stock.

The Fountain Place developers aimed to undersell their competitors with prices starting at only $400,000 and ranging up to $1.6 million. Prices at the Plaza would range from $790,000 to "$3 million and up." The Monaco's prices ranged from $500,000-$4.5 million.

What features are worth that much money?

The first is simply space, and lots of it. The condos in the Plaza, for example, range from nearly 2,700 square feet to almost 5,500 square feet, larger than most free-standing homes. Besides large rooms, that gives ample space for closets and bedroom-sized bathrooms. Master baths at Fountain Place feature both glass-enclosed showers and jetted soaker tubs, along with marble or imported ceramic floor tiles. Standard features include hardwood flooring, fireplaces, granite countertops and high-end kitchen appliances from such brands as Sub-Zero and Thermador. Fountain Place also will contain $1 million of fiberoptics and high-speed Internet-access cable so that every condo owner can take advantage of the latest electronic technologies.

More important than any particular piece of hardware, however, is lifestyle, says Robert Saur, president of Clayton-based Conrad Properties, which planned the Monaco.

That lifestyle includes attentive personal service. "We're offering services you'd expect to find in a Chicago or New York building," says Cliff Drozda, director of marketing and sales for Fountain Place. Those services include valet parking and concierge, maid and room service. One thing that means, he adds, is that if you suddenly decide to go to Europe for a couple of months, you can just lock your door and go without hassle or worry.

It is sort of like living at the Ritz full-time, but in a really big suite.

The ultraluxurious amenities also include private lounges, fitness centers and landscaped gardens.

Tim Davidson, a publicist for Fountain Place, puts that project's 1-acre garden in the tradition of the ancient Hanging Gardens of Babylon and King Louis XIV's royal gardens at Versailles. The landscaped garden atop the condo's parking garage will include fountains, a waterfall, walking paths, sculptures and a full-size swimming pool.

The less elaborate plaza atop the Plaza's garage will feature flower gardens, walking paths and a swimming pool.

"We are selling security, a worry-free lifestyle, state-of-the-art communications and attractive common areas," says Frank Giannone, president of Toronto-based FRAM Building Group, which is developing Fountain Place in partnership with St. Louis-based Porta McCurdy Development Co. and Maritz, Wolff & Co., owners of the Ritz-Carlton in Clayton.

They also are selling ostentation. "When you spend a lot of money, you want it to show," Giannone says.

Of course, architecture isn't everything, but it is something. To reflect the luxurious lifestyle developers claimed to offer, architects of these condo towers abandoned the plain, Soviet-style design typical of so many Clayton high-rises.

The mostly brick exterior of Fountain Place, topped by what is loosely called a "French chateau," much as a pyramid tops the Civil Courts building downtown, will feature lots of ornamental stone- and ironwork. A two-story arched porte-cochere at the front adds to what Giannone called the building's "pride of place."

The Monaco, which also followed the exaggerated mansion-on-a-pedestal style of architecture, presumably paid homage to gambling palaces in the tiny European principality of Monaco.

Who is buying such a style of living?

"Empty-nesters (parents whose children have grown and moved out) who are ready to get out of the single-family home they've lived in for years," Drozda says. "Our typical purchaser is an empty-nester with his own business or a senior executive; most are couples."

They include Marilyn Schnuck, of Schnuck Markets fame, who bought the penthouse for $3.5 million, and former professional baseball player Sig Langsam and his wife, Esther.

The ultraluxury-condo lifestyle also is attractive to people who are sick of commuting and tired of managing a house, people who want to be carefree and have someone else take care of the details, Giannone says.

To help market that lifestyle, FRAM turned to the ultimate in fantasy technology: the Internet and virtual reality. The company launched a Web site with an elaborate virtual tour that covers everything from the building's exterior and the private 30th-floor "Sky Club" to model bathrooms, kitchens, living rooms and master bedrooms.

Cliff Bowman, president of the Vancouver-based firm in charge of marketing the condos, predicted in January that with the aid of the Web site, 25 percent of buyers would come from out of town or out of state. On a similar FRAM project in Dallas, out-of-towners snapped up nearly 50 percent of the units.

So why shouldn't a project in Clayton sell a quarter of its units to outsiders?

Why not, indeed? After all, "Clayton is at the heart of the good life in the St. Louis region," a region that is one of the "Top Ten Best Places to Work and Live," according to a magazine advertisement for Fountain Place.

"The avid shopping enthusiast and passionate cuisine connoisseur will be more than satisfied within the Clayton city limits," the ad claims, but if for some reason someone did want to venture outside Clayton, this Xanadu on the Innerbelt is near every possible attraction: sports stadiums, the Arch, Powell Symphony Hall, casinos, Forest Park, Six Flags.

OK, so it is a bit exaggerated. Doesn't matter -- nobody from out of town bought it anyway.

No one.

According to members of the Fountain Place development team, 60 percent of the units are sold, even though construction hasn't yet started, but not one condo has been sold to a buyer from out of town.

That means all of the high-priced-condo developers in Clayton are competing for the same group of local buyers, "people from West County," Saur says. Unconvinced that there are enough such buyers to go around, he canceled plans for the Monaco.

Saur says he put the project "on hold" to wait and see what happens with Fountain Place and the Plaza. "There is no question there is a very strong market for people wanting to live in Clayton," he says. "There is a question of how broad it is and how long it will take to absorb these units."

Conrad began the ultraluxury-condo craze in 1996, when the company began developing the Residence at 800 South Hanley, an eight-story building that was the first high-rise condominium built in Clayton in more than 20 years. The 40 units, priced from $650,000-$1.5 million, didn't sell out until 1999. How long would it take for more than seven times as many units to sell?

Over at the Plaza, developed by strip-mall mavens Michael Staenberg and Stanley Kroenke, people also seem a little antsy about that question. Taking a little dig at her cross-street competition, Anne Ryan, real-estate agent for the Plaza, says the "beauty of our project is that it is a fact. They are working like crazy over there."

Work is under way at the Plaza, despite lagging sales, but it is work on the office building and parking garage that also are part of the project.

It is a not-so-subtle reminder that in June, someone planted a story in the St. Louis Business Journal that FRAM and Porta-McCurdy were pulling the plug on Fountain Place and directing buyers across the street to Kroenke and Staenberg's project. It wasn't true.

A major investor, insurance company SunAmerica, pulled out of Fountain Place when that company was taken over by an even larger insurer, AIG. That sent FRAM and Porta looking for new investors. Among those they contacted were Kroenke, who is part owner of the St. Louis Rams, and Staenberg. Then the owners of the Ritz-Carlton signed on to the project.

Though momentarily infuriated by the Business Journal article, the Fountain Place developers decided to act magnanimously. They can afford to: The contracts they already have on hand are worth more than they expect to spend building the place.

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