Trump’s Signature New York Hotel and the Art of the Compromise

For more than two decades, the Trump International Hotel and Tower has soared over Central Park, a crown jewel of President Trump’s family business that features luxury hotel rooms and exclusive private residences just off Columbus Circle.

In true Trump fashion, the hotel and tower are branded with the Trump name on three hard-to-miss signs. But this fall, the Trump Organization is expected to overhaul the signage, reflecting in part the strains the Trump presidency has placed on the family’s brand in Mr. Trump’s ever-hostile hometown.

As part of a broader renovation of the property, the company is considering a proposal that would change the signage so that the Trump name is no longer directly associated with the private residences, according to people with knowledge of the proposal. Instead, the skyscraper’s premier Manhattan address — One Central Park West — would get top billing for the residences, while the Trumps would continue to manage the property and keep their name on signs for the hotel.

The proposal is a compromise, offered over the summer by the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., to head off demands from some owners that the building lose its Trump branding entirely, the people said. If, as expected, the proposal is approved by the building’s condominium board, the Trumps will be spared an embarrassing fight at their flagship hotel just as the 2020 election season hits full swing after Labor Day.

Although the building is not a major moneymaker for the Trumps — their company manages the property and owns some portions of it, but there are hundreds of individual unit owners — it has long held symbolic importance to the president: It was the first hotel to bear his name (and now the only one left in New York), and even as “Trump” has disappeared from other buildings in New York and elsewhere, this signature property was considered untouchable.

That changed after a contentious meeting in June between the condo board and several dozen owners, some of whom complained that the Trump name had been a drag on the property ever since Mr. Trump announced his bid for the presidency four years ago, according to people with knowledge of the meeting who spoke on the condition of anonymity because it was a private session.

In heavily Democratic New York, Mr. Trump’s politics most likely contributed to the discord, which had surfaced in the past as well. But in June, some owners suggested that the polarizing nature of the Trump name was depressing the value of their investments in the building, said the people with knowledge of the meeting. With sales of units in the building slowing in recent years, some owners called for stripping the T-R-U-M-P letters from the property’s signage altogether and renaming the property One Central Park West.

The compromise plan from Donald Jr. would most likely remove the block-lettered “Trump International Hotel and Tower” sign above the building’s shiny entrance and replace it with signage that draws a clear distinction between the hotel and the tower, the people with knowledge of the plan said. That would involve elevating the presence of the One Central Park West address, which currently appears in much smaller lettering than the Trump name elsewhere on the property.

The two other existing Trump signs, both at street level, would also be modified to reflect the branding change, though the details of that modification are unclear.

In a statement, the Trump Organization said it was “very proud of the building, our relationship with the board and the fact that we are rated, year after year, as one of the finest hotels anywhere in the world.” The statement did not address the June board meeting, but a person close to the company suggested that the agitators were a handful of owners who opposed the president’s politics, while others at the company strongly objected to suggestions that the signage changes were related to the complaints.

The president of the condo board said in a separate statement released by the Trump Organization that the board was “unequivocally not considering a change to the name of the building.” The statement made a reference to plans for “an updated portico and modernized exterior signage” without elaborating.

“We have a fantastic relationship with the Trump Organization and look forward to many years of continued collaboration,” said the board president, Doug Russell, who is also a longtime real estate broker in the building.

With the proposed signage change, the board and the Trumps are hoping to satisfy the internal critics pushing to remove the Trump branding altogether. For a name change to happen, the unhappy owners would need to elect a new board, and some of them want to hold elections in the fall. The current board comprises six residential owners, two hotel owners and Donald Jr. One of the board members, a New Jersey doctor, was nominated to the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition.

But even if the owners voted to overhaul the board, it would be nearly impossible to disentangle the Trump Organization from the property.

For one thing, the company owns a unit in the building, as well as the parking garage, valet services and the restaurant space, with the Michelin-starred Jean-Georges. It also owns the room-service kitchens and the lobby bathrooms — without which the hotel arguably would cease to function. “We have a vested interest in the property’s continued success,” the company said in its statement.

The hotel itself “just had one of its best performance years” ever, the statement said, though bookings had slumped during the early part of the presidency along with the broader market, leading to some complaints from people who own hotel rooms and get a cut of their bookings.

Mr. Trump’s run for the presidency also coincided with a slowdown in sales in the building. In the two years after Mr. Trump announced his candidacy in 2015, half as many apartments and hotel rooms sold than in the prior two-year period, according to data from PropertyShark. The price of units sold in the Trump building stacked up well against similar properties in the area in that period.

But since Mr. Trump took office in January 2017, the price of units sold in the Trump building has dropped an average of 23 percent compared with similar units sold in the same building during the campaign. That decline has been much steeper than experienced in the wider Manhattan condo market, according to an independent analysis of the data.

An analysis of residential-only sales conducted by CityRealty, the real estate listings website, showed that the average price per square foot in the Trump building fell 29 percent between its peak in 2015 and 2018. Of the 20 apartments currently for sale, more than half have had their asking prices reduced, though sales and prices have bounced back over the last year or so, potentially buoyed by foreign investors who are either indifferent to American politics or drawn to a Trump property.

“It remains a very desirable building for international buyers,” said Rebecca Mason, managing director of CityRealty.

When the financial outlook for the building was somewhat in doubt last year, some members of the building’s board considered taking steps to ditch the Trump name, The Washington Post reported at the time.

While that went nowhere, the concerns persisted.

At the June meeting, some owners used the opportunity to vent about other simmering problems too, according to the people with knowledge of the meeting. Some residential owners, for example, complained that the Trumps took better care of the hotel side of the building, pointing to a major renovation of the guest rooms and common spaces.

Since the meeting, the company and the board have undertaken plans for a residential hallway renovation. In his statement, Mr. Russell, the board president, noted that the company and the board were also planning to upgrade the building’s grounds, including the new signage, granite sidewalks and “beautiful new landscaping around the perimeter.”

While some owners at the meeting supported renaming the building, others were for a compromise that would elevate the visibility of the “One Central Park West” lettering so that the address, rather than the Trump affiliation, would become one of the building’s most identifying features.

A hotel unit owner, Howard Finkelstein, who favored removing the Trump name altogether and sought a seat on the board, was not aware of the details of the proposal when reached by a Times reporter. He said it did not seem to do enough to alleviate the concerns of some owners.

“I don’t need to be in a building that is right smack in the middle of political warfare in this country,” he said. “The name of the building — whether you like him or don’t like him — is not helping the building.”

Though Mr. Trump’s New York residence is in a different building, on Fifth Avenue, his connection to this skyscraper dates to 1994, when he began collaborating with an affiliate of General Electric to convert a 1960s-era office building into the tower. At the time, the project offered Mr. Trump a shot at redemption after years of business failures.

The building, as Mr. Trump described, had structural problems and was “chock-full of asbestos.” And yet, he wrote in 2008: “The good news was that the building structure was classic and had wonderfully high ceilings. It was worth saving for those important reasons alone.”

In 1995, Mr. Trump and his partners from G.E., along with Rudolph Giuliani, then the mayor, broke ground on what was billed as a $250 million project to transform the building into a “super-luxury” tower with a “shimmering bronze glass facade” that would “command Manhattan’s western skyline.”

A New York Times article about the opening of the tower in 1997 noted some of the hotel’s unusual features: Suites were equipped with a small brass telescope next to a chaise longue, and had “nearly floor-to-ceiling views.”

When preparing to open the building, Mr. Trump was so eager to make his name synonymous with the property that he wanted to slap “Trump International” on the iconic 30-foot-wide silver globe that sits on the grounds, though city officials ultimately blocked it.

In the 2000s, the building became Mr. Trump’s chip in the battle over views of Central Park, as the Time Warner Center emerged across the street — on a site Mr. Trump had bid on and lost. Mr. Trump enjoyed having the One Central Park West address, and bragged about his building having better views than the $1.7 billion property rising nearby.

“A fantastic location with unobstructed views of the park,” Mr. Trump would boast.