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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Robert Von Ancken

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-12-01

He doesn't carry a badge, nor a pistol, and he doesn't come across as a gruff guy. He doesn't belong to any police force. But Robert Von Ancken nevertheless views himself as a detective.

"Remember that old TV series, 'Dragnet'?" Mr. Von Ancken said yesterday. "Sgt. Joe Friday, its lead character, would say, 'Just the facts, please, just the facts.' Well, as an appraiser of buildings that's what I'm looking for. So call me a sleuth, call me a detective, but when I'm retained to look at public buildings, major office complexes, shopping centers, almost anything in real-estate, I'm after just the facts."

He paused, smiled, and then said: "And often those facts don't come easily."
That may be so because of the sheer size of the properties that Mr. Von Ancken has appraised over the last four decades.

They include the Empire State Building (2.8 million square-feet); the Chrysler Building (1.3 million square-feet); the World Trade Center buildings (10 million square feet); 55 Water Street (3.6 million square-feet); Rockefeller Center's 13 buildings; 1 New York Plaza (2.5 million square-feet); the General Motors Building (1.8 million square-feet); and all properties owned by ABC, CBS, Disney and Verizon in New York State.

Add to the above, Columbia, New York and Princeton Universities; the landmark Seagram Building; Grand Central Terminal; Penn Station; the Metropolitan Transportation Authority; the trump Organization; and Battery Park City.

While he acknowledged that he might be off by a few hundred here and there, Mr. Von Ancken - who is executive managing director of the Metropolitan Valuation and Advisory Group of Grubb & Ellis - said he has appraised nearly 8,000 properties, valued at tens of billions of dollars.

So stellar is his reputation in the appraisal industry that Mr. Von Ancken is frequently invited to appraise properties abroad. His work has taken him to London, and to Germany, where his parents Henry and Elfrieda were born. Mr. Von Ancken appraised 20 shopping centers near Frankfurt.

In appraising these properties, Mr. Von Ancken, like a police detective, must go by the book. In his case, it's a 40-page book issued by the Washington-based Appraisal Foundation. The nonprofit organization was established in 1987 in the wake of scandals in the savings and loans industry - crises that dramatized the need to improve appraisal practices throughout America since the financial community was closely associated with the real-estate industry.

"Appraisals must be based on established and recognized standards," Mr. Von Ancken said. "They must be free from outside pressures."

The need for strict standards was recognized by Congress, which enacted the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act (Firrea) in 1989. Firrea gives formidable powers to the Appraiser Qualifications Board and the Appraisal Standards Board, both of which are administered by the foundation.

While many of the properties that Mr. Von Ancken appraises are commercial buildings, some 95% of all appraisals in America are done on residential premises. Typically, homes are appraised at 6% of their value, and commercial properties at 20%.

The appraisal of commercial properties takes on a special significance in Manhattan because of the vast amount of commercial space - 375 million square-feet. Of this, 140 million square-feet is south of 23rd Street.

"The key question in appraising always is, 'How do you prove the value of a property beyond the shadow of a doubt?'" Mr. Von Ancken said.

When appraisals are disputed, or deals become intractable, he's required to testify in court. Yesterday, for example, Mr. Von Ancken spent several hours as a witness.

There have been occasions when cases went to the Supreme Court. In 1976, after Mr. Von Ancken recommended that it would be unwise to raise a building above Grand Central Terminal, the issue was driven all the way to the country's highest court. It validated Mr. Von Ancken's point of view, and Grand Central Terminal remains quite possibly the city's most distinctive landmark structure.

Of all the buildings and properties that he has appraised, Grand Central Terminal is his enduring favorite.

"I have other favorites, too - such as the Empire State Building, and the Seagram Building," Mr. Von Ancken said. "But Grand Central - that's a great love."

He speaks about appraisals in almost reverential tones.

"I really like to examine buildings," Mr. Von Ancken said. "New York buildings - I know them all. They are my friends."

He attributes his special regard for the city's buildings to his upbringing in Astoria, Queens, and his stint at City College's School of Engineering. As a young man, Mr. Von Ancken would frequently amble through New York streets, noting architectural details.

He initially wanted to become an engineer.

"I had this passion for building bridges," Mr. Von Ancken said.

But when he found out that the city had a surfeit of engineers, he enrolled at Baruch College to study real-estate and business administration. After graduation he found a job in commercial leasing, and that, in turn, led to appraising buildings in fraying neighborhoods in Harlem and Brooklyn's Brownsville. He also appraised buildings for the state and city governments.

By the time Mr. Von Ancken was 24, he had become an expert at appraisals.
Now at Grubb-Ellis, he not only evaluates properties, he also analyzes markets, inspects properties for highest and best use, prepares market feasibility studies and forecasts expected income from investments.

Mr. Von Ancken has also become one of the nation's busiest authorities on air rights. Just this week, for instance, his appraisals concerning the value of air space above buildings contributed to a record deal: the veteran developers, William and Arthur Zeckendorf, agreed to pay $432 a square-foot for air rights over Christ Church and the Grolier Club at Park Avenue and East 60th Street. That's twice the current rate for air rights.

And while he believes that more and more developers will make go after unused air rights - especially in land-squeezed Manhattan where taller is better - Mr. Von Ancken cavils these days about a recent Supreme Court decision concerning eminent domain.

That decision, in effect, subjects homeowners to the caprice of community leaders - particularly those associated with developers and retailers. By declaring certain neighborhoods as "blighted," certain neighborhoods could be razed in favor of commercial projects or costly residential developments.

"Is that fair?" Mr. Von Ancken said.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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