Trump soars to greater heights

Businessman Donald Trump's method to raise the number of storeys in his buildings has caught on with other developers

NEW YORK • Of the many rivals Mr Donald Trump has accumulated in business and, now, presidential politics, one of the earliest was a New York City skyscraper with the boldness to stand taller than his own.

In 1979, as Mr Trump inspected a model of the black-and-gold Fifth Avenue highrise that would come to serve as his home, office, fortress and personal monument, he could find only one flaw to spoil the moment: the General Motors (GM) building, which, in real life, was 12.5m higher and a few blocks away from the future Trump Tower.

"My building looks a little small," he said, according to Mr Norman Brosterman, the model-maker's assistant at the time.

Assured that the scale was accurate, Mr Trump had an inspiration on his next visit to the architectural workshop. "Can you make my building taller?" he asked.

No, he was told. "Well, can you make the GM building shorter?"

New York’s Trump Tower (above) and the General Motors building. PHOTO: NYTIMES

He marked the GM building at his preferred height with a pencil. Mr Brosterman sawed off the top third, leaving Trump Tower the tallest in the neighbourhood. "Trump said, 'Great', and left," Mr Brosterman recalled recently.

In real life, Trump Tower could not be elongated. But Trump Arithmetic found a way.

Though the tower was built with 58 floors, Mr Trump later told The New York Times that because there was a soaring pink marble atrium and 19 commercial floors at the bottom, he could see no good reason not to list the first residential floor as the 30th floor. The pinnacle became the 68th - the height that appears in marketing materials, online search results and news articles to this day.

He repeated his Trump Tower innovation at least seven more times.

The idea quickly caught on with other New York developers. By 1985, the year after Trump Tower opened, developer Harry B. Macklowe had employed the same stratagem to turn his 67-storey Metropolitan Tower into a 78-storey skyscraper.

Mr Macklowe's team credited Mr Trump for the idea. So did Mr Trump. "A lot of people have copied me," he told The Times in 2003.

In this case, imitation is shrewd salesmanship. One57, the billionaires' aerie on 57th Street that laid temporary claim to being the tallest residential tower in New York when it was completed in 2014, was said to top out at the US$100-million (S$138-million) 90th-floor penthouse. Actual floor count: 75.

"The higher your building, the better it is for your marketing purposes," said Mr Amir Korangy, publisher of The Real Deal, a New York-based real-estate publication. "Nobody's trying to have the shortest building in the city, so any sort of edge you can get to add a floor here and there, you take it."

The city's Buildings Department does not object, so long as the floors are counted accurately in the building's certificate of occupancy.

Hence the Trump SoHo in Spring Street, completed in 2010, where, according to the condominium offering plan filed with the state attorney general's office, Mr Trump skipped the 13th floor for superstition's sake and a few more for marketing's sake. There are 43 floors, but the lifts go up to 46.

Or take the Trump International Hotel and Tower, the hotel and residential building in Columbus Circle that was, pre-Trump, the 44-storey Gulf & Western office building.

New York’s Trump Tower and the General Motors building (above). PHOTO: NYTIMES

Mr Trump improved the structure so thoroughly that it managed to stretch into a 52-storey tower, even though it stayed, strictly speaking, the same height. Because new apartment buildings usually have lower ceilings than office buildings, Mr Trump explained in 1994, the almost-180m-tall building was about as tall as a conventional 60-storey residential building.

In time, creative numbering became almost as much of a building signature as the Trump name. Other tactics included counting underground parking lots and below-grade floors in the total, Mr Korangy said.

Few buyers were hoodwinked.

At the Trump International, for instance, buyers had to sign a document explaining the difference between the marketing floors and the actual floors. Still, Mr Trump has said people are not opposed to saying they live on, say, the 50th floor, even if it is the 43rd. "People are very happy. They like to have apartments that have height, the psychology of it."

It is not clear if other developers elsewhere were inspired by him. One in Hong Kong, where the number eight is considered lucky, managed to eclipse even Mr Trump: He rebranded the top floor of his 46-storey building as the 88th floor.

For Mr Trump, the quest to own New York's tallest and most glamorous structures eventually led him back to the GM building, which he and a partner bought in 1998 for US$878 million. (He later sold his stake.) "His mission was to add the Trump touch to the white marble- plated skyscraper," according to the Trump Organization's account of his ownership.

This included splashing his name across the building in 1.2m golden letters and ornamenting its plaza with two "breathtaking" fountains.

This time, however, the Trump touch did not involve the loss of the building's top third. The Trump Organization says the GM building is 50 storeys high. For the record, the city agrees.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 05, 2016, with the headline 'Trump soars to greater heights'. Print Edition | Subscribe