Donald Trump is seen in his office in Trump Tower in Manhattan. (Jennifer S. Altman/FOR…)
In a city of stately buildings, the Old Post Office is an especially fine piece of real estate. It’s 315 feet tall, just behind the Washington Monument (impressive, but not available). It’s historic, celebrated and on prestigious Pennsylvania Avenue.
The perfect building for Donald Trump.
Trump and his daughter Ivanka are close to adding the national landmark to the growing portfolio of shiny Trump things. The Old Post Office Pavilion is so revered that the threat of its demolition launched the capital’s historic preservation movement. Built in the 1890s, it has been ogled by local developers for years, and competition for the property began to boil almost immediately when the federal government sought private partners in March 2011.
When the government announced in February that it had selected the Trump plan to turn the building into a luxury hotel, it stunned Washington real estate insiders and politicos alike.
Critics have not held back. They say the Trumps are famous for making unrealistic promises and suing to get their way. They say the $200 million the Trumps have proposed to spend renovating the Old Post Office is not economically sensible, setting the project up for failure. The Trumps have built fewer hotels than their competitors and have never navigated Washington’s political and regulatory landscape. This, the critics say, should matter.
Trump, sitting in the 26th floor office of Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, smiles from behind his desk at the criticism. It’s a grin familiar to millions of Americans who watch “The Apprentice,” which he tapes downstairs.
“In a way, we are paying too much for the Old Post Office,” he says casually. “I mean, we are paying too much for the Old Post Office. But we will make that so amazing that at some point in the future it’ll be very nice.”
Fifty years into his real estate career, confidence is a luxury that Trump says he can afford, although that was not always the case.
Trump was 37 and already famous when he completed 58-story Trump Tower, the Fifth Avenue building with pink marble interiors where he lives and works.
But his early triumphs prompted an ambitious entrance into Atlantic City in the 1980s that nearly cost him his fortune. Four times Trump-branded casino companies filed for bankruptcy to ward off creditors in the 1990s and early 2000s, although he has no role managing the companies today.
He staged his return, renegotiating loans and returning to bold skyscraper projects, such as the 72-story Trump World Tower in Manhattan, which a New York Times architecture critic dubbed a “handsome hunk of a glass tower,” and the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago, an $850 million hotel and condominium project completed in 2009 that is the second-tallest building in the city. His expansion into golf courses includes the Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, where he plays a half dozen times a year and stays when he is in town.
With the help of “The Apprentice,” which debuted in 2004, and “Celebrity Apprentice,” Trump also took his name from one associated with resorts, casinos and a playboy lifestyle to a luxury brand, one that adds value to his properties the way LeBron James’s does sneakers and Paula Deen’s does skillets.
Terry J. Lundgren, chairman and chief executive of Macy’s, says Trump’s brand works. Macy’s sells Trump-branded neckties, shirts and cuff links, helped by the millions of viewers who see Trump wearing the solid color silk ties and French cuff shirts on prime time.
“I see his image being attached not just to real estate but just general business success,” Lundgren said.
That brand carries value in the hotel industry, according to David Loeb, managing director and senior real estate research analyst at Robert W. Baird & Co.
“Trump has cultivated an image that a lot of people do respond to,” he said. “And the Trump name is recognized, maybe not globally, but in international and domestic markets. And frankly the Trump hotels have achieved a reputation of being high-end luxury hotels in places like New York and Chicago.”
But having a highly rated television show and a line of successful neckties were not among the criteria the General Services Administration sought in a private developer for the Old Post Office, and the task of convincing the agency that the Trump Organization was the best choice to develop the building fell to Ivanka.
‘Potential to be the best’
A celebrity herself, who learned details of her parents’ divorce from New York tabloids and whose ballet recital as a child was attended by her neighbor Michael Jackson, Ivanka has graced the cover of fashion and lifestyle magazines from Seventeen to Harper’s Bazaar.
A Wharton graduate who strikes a serious tone discussing real estate, she played a role in developing Chicago’s Trump International Hotel and Tower and took the lead on a $150 million purchase of the Doral Golf Resort and Spa on 800 acres outside Miami.