New York billionaire seeks permission for ‘temple for a titan’

The billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman will on Tuesday attempt to convince New York’s powerful Landmarks Preservation Commission to allow him to build a “flying saucer” penthouse on top of a historic apartment building in the Upper West Side overlooking Central Park.

Ackman, a Harvard-educated activist investor who famously made $2.6bn (£2.2bn) profit in a single day betting on the financial impact of coronavirus during the early days of the pandemic, has been engaged in a years-long public relations battle with his merely millionaire neighbours to garner support for his planned Norman Foster-designed two-storey penthouse that has been described as a “temple to a titan”.

He successfully won the backing of Manhattan Community Board 7 (CB7) for the plan atop the 120-year-old building last week, and will seek the approval of the Landmarks Preservation Commission on Tuesday.

The penthouse at 6-16 West 77th Street, which is designed by Foster + Partners, would replace a pink stucco 17th-floor penthouse that Ackman and his partner the scientist Neri Oxman bought for $22.5m in 2017.

Bill Ackman watches the tennis at the US Open in New York in September.
Bill Ackman watches the tennis at the US Open in New York in September. Photograph: Elsa/Getty Images

The apartment was previously owned by feminist and gender politics author Nancy Friday. The author, who died in 2017, had over the years purchased four neighbouring units in the building and cobbled them together to create the unusual 13 room apartment.

“We love the site. We love the Upper West Side,” Ackman said in his appeal to the CB7 members in a video meeting. “My wife and I wanted to raise our new family here, we have a two-and-a-half-year-old child. Our approach here was to build something that would be additive to the neighbourhood.”

Ackman, 55, said the glass penthouse near the American Museum of Natural History would be “much less visible” and “less glaring” than the existing pink blocks penthouse, and would provide a “material enhancement” to the historic building.

“Everything is as minimal as it could possibly be,” said Ackman, who has built up an estimated $3.3bn from his hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management. “The bottom line is no one will take as much care as we to design something that will be beautiful [and] have a minimal impact. We want to live peacefully with our neighbours, we don’t want them to be upset with us.”

However, one local resident told the community board that the planned penthouse would ruin famous views. “The immodesty of the penthouse apartment is disturbing, it uses the 6-16 building as a strap for a platform temple to a titan,” he said. “It stares at humanity and wildlife beneath.

“New Yorkers, Americans, people all over the planet visiting the Museum of Natural History … would find in their field of vision the Ackman eyrie and wonder who let this happen, what on earth possessed them.”

Another local resident said the proposal looked like “a flying saucer landed on the roof”.

However, the board voted to approve Ackman’s design, with 25 votes in favour, seven against and two abstentions. With approval granted by the committee Ackman’s plans will now be debated by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Ackman currently lives at the luxury Beresford apartment building on the other side of the museum, from where he and his wife first saw the Friday’s pink penthouse.

It is far from Ackman’s most expensive property. In 2015 he bought the penthouse of the 1,005ft skyscraper One57 for $91.5m as a “fun investment”. He uses the apartment on the 75th and 76th floors for extravagant parties to entertain his business and celebrity friends. Ackman has said he planned to hold on to the six-bedroom, eight-bathroom penthouse with views of Central Park for a few years before “flipping it” – selling it at a huge profit in a few years. He also owns a three-house complex on the beach in Bridgehampton, the Hamptons.

At the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, Ackman, a regular TV news financial pundit, told millions of CNBC views that “hell is coming”. In a 28-minute near-hysterical TV, he said the US was underestimating the severity of the coronavirus crisis, and predicted it would kill millions of people and devastate the global economy. The interview sent financial markets into a tailspin.

At the same time Ackman had quietly placed a bet that stock markets would tank. Those bets made his hedge fund $2.6bn (£2.2bn) – a near-10,000% return on his $27m stake.

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