Mr. Condo goes to town Luxury units in Carl E. Dranoff's latest project, Symphony House at Broad and Pine Streets, are selling faster than any he's done.

Posted: February 06, 2005

Who says there's a pent-up demand for luxury condos in Center City?

Carl E. Dranoff.

A week before the sales office opened for his 31-story Symphony House at Broad and Pine Streets, Dranoff says, he had already sold 45 of the building's 163 condominiums - though they won't be ready for at least 22 months.

These decisions to spend between $458,000 and more than $1.4 million were based on pictures and drawings and a five-minute video shown at the Dranoff Properties office in University City that focuses as much on the neighborhood - the Kimmel Center is 100 steps from the high-rise's front entrance - as it does on Symphony House's art-deco style.

Even a visit to the site offers no clue what to expect, at least not yet. Today, it's just a parking lot across Pine Street from the University of the Arts. Construction won't start until April.

Since the first ad appeared Jan. 23, sales manager Mary Hall said, the staff at Dranoff's office has worked 13-hour days, fielding 10 phone calls an hour and 40 to 50 e-mails daily, and filling a couple of appointment books.

Considering that the advertising coincided with the winter's first major snowstorm and the Eagles' NFC championship game, the response is even more surprising.

"Actually, I'm overwhelmed," said Dranoff, who has spent more than 30 years as a builder. "This is the fastest start I've experienced for any project."

At $115 million, this is also Dranoff's most expensive project and the first new construction he's been a part of in the city in 30 years.

In addition to 163 units of one to five bedrooms (including a $3.6 million two-story penthouse), Symphony House will include the new home of the Philadelphia Theatre Company and a parking garage for 400 cars.

Businessman/musician Kenny Gamble's Universal Cos. has a 10 percent share of the project and was instrumental in working with the city for approvals and securing a $5 million state grant for the theater.

Dranoff's last and previously most expensive project, the Victor Lofts conversion of the RCA Building in Camden to luxury apartments, cost $65 million.

Why did the man who, with Stephen Solms, spent the early 1980s turning warehouses and factories into Historic Landmarks for Living decide to go new?

"The number of buildings in the city of historic significance suitable for such a conversion is becoming limited," said Dranoff, a lifelong Philadelphian. "It was either build something new or move to another city."

His last three projects have been considered risky by almost everyone, except Dranoff.

When he converted the old National Book Publishing Co. on the Schuylkill to Locust on the Park in 1999, it was considered too far from the center of downtown to be viable. Yet it rented out in record time.

When he spent $58 million converting the old G.E. Building at 32d and Walnut Streets to the Left Bank in 2001, most people shook their heads and said, "In West Philadelphia?" But thanks to a combination of "eds and meds" - Drexel, the University of Pennsylvania, and the hospitals there - it, too, rented out quickly, Dranoff said.

The Victor project produced more shaking of heads. Six months after its completion, the building is 75 percent full.

Dranoff is set to begin work on the 83-unit Radio Lofts behind the Victor next fall. He has a plan on his desk for Cooper's Landing, a revitalized Camden waterfront that may end up with more than 1,500 single-family houses and "even outdo Jersey City or Hoboken."

He will begin a Manayunk project, Venice Lofts, in mid-May.

David Thornburgh, executive director of the Pennsylvania Economy League, said Dranoff is "pushing the frontier."

"The willingness to sink money into these frontiers opens it up to others to do the same thing," Thornburgh said. "It changes people's perceptions when real money and real initiatives go into places which no one had thought could be put to good use. It represents a fundamental psychological shift in how we view urban neighborhoods."

The Broad and Pine Streets neighborhood has particular significance for Dranoff. The first project he was involved in after graduation from Drexel was 1500 Locust St. with Jack Blumenfeld, then the region's largest multifamily builder.

"In the early 1970s, everyone said building at 15th and Locust was crazy, that it was so far from the city's core, it was almost like being in the suburbs."

No longer, thanks to almost a decade of efforts to develop the area as the Avenue of the Arts.

John Claypool, executive director of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Institute of Architects, suggested that Dranoff's project will likely start the Avenue of the Arts moving south, allowing others to see the potential in developing all the vacant spaces between the Kimmel Center and Washington Avenue.

"After Broad and South, it still remains a struggle as far as development [goes]," Claypool said.

The design inspiration for Symphony House is the Kimmel Center; Dranoff mentions that often in conversation about the project.

He also told the architect, Michael Ytterberg of Bower Lewis Thrower, that he wanted something "timeless" - an updated art-deco look with post-9/11 security and technology features and the glamour and romance of the 1920s.

The nearby Drake, built in the late '20s, was another inspiration, "simply a base, a shaft, and a top with wedding-cake setbacks."

Those setbacks, or recesses, are expensive design features to introduce because of the plumbing, coping and waterproofing necessary to make them work, Dranoff said.

In the 1920s, buildings such as the Drake and Alden Park in Germantown were built as permanent homes for well-heeled renters who had live-in servants.

Even if they have no live-in help, buyers at Symphony House and other luxury high-rises are spending a lot of money and want everything.

For example, on the eighth floor there will be a 60-foot lap pool, an oversized hot tub, a spa, a library, a fireplace, a baby grand piano, and a kitchen with facilities for two caterers to work on separate parties.

There will be a sundeck along 150 feet of the southern part of the building, and private dining salons (a suggestion of a focus group of real estate agents) for residents to use for family holiday dinners or for groups too big for even a 4,500-square-foot unit to handle.

The condos will have balconies or walkout terraces or both. There will be nine units per floor from the ninth to the 20th story, with fewer units per floor as you go up to the two-story penthouse.

The higher you go, the higher the ceilings and the prices.

Recognizing that there will be a long wait until the doors open, and that the current hot real estate market could end before then, Dranoff is offering buyers the chance to sell their houses now and lease space in his other buildings in the meantime.

Those leases would expire when the Symphony House units became available.

The offer is based on Dranoff's experience when he pre-sold a suburban subdivision in 1981 and interest rates jumped from 9 percent to 13 percent.

"We lost money on every house when we had to buy down the mortgages."

Contact real estate writer Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472 or aheavens@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/alheavens.

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