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One of Warren Buffett best investments

Warren Buffett -- Oracle of Omaha
Warren Buffett -- Oracle of OmahaBiography.com

In a letter to shareholders last month, billionaire investor Warren Buffett cited a Greenwich Village retail strip that he bought in 1993 as one of his best long-term investments.

When the Oracle of Omaha made that cash investment, graffiti dotted the 37 storefronts and handwritten discount signs plastered the merchant windows. The property, along 8th Street between University and Broadway and also wrapping around to 9th Street, was home to an incongruous group of tenants from hot dog joint Annie’s Franks & Fries to Flowers by Arno, along with a couple of darkened storefronts. One of the row’s largest occupants, the now-defunct Woolworth’s, was paying $12 per square foot.

Fast forward, and the 73,700-square-foot property, which has been dubbed “University Walk” and now has 29 stores, boasts national eateries such as Chipotle and Cosi and retail stalwarts Staples and Duane Reade, along with local favorites like the trendy cupcake spot Crumbs and the Knickerbocker Bar & Grill. The property has returned 10 times the initial cash investment of $8.2 million, a performance Buffett touted to shareholders.

Last year, he thanked Silverstein for getting him into the investment, according to a recent email Silverstein wrote and distributed to the media. But it was the Rose family who transformed the property.

The property’s fortunes didn't start out rosy. During the Savings and Loan Crisis, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation foreclosed on it and, in 1991, handed property management responsibilities to the Brookhill Group. “When we got it, 30 of the 37 tenants were not paying rents,” said Ron Bruder, founder of the Brookhill Group. “It was in disarray.”

By the time the property went to auction in 1993, all the tenants were paying, the monthly cash receipts had doubled and 57 percent of the tenants renewed, extended or renegotiated their leases, said Bruder.

The group put up $8.2 million in cash for the $20.2 million purchase, according to the younger Rose. Fred Rose served as leasing agent and Malkin as managing agent. The others were passive investors. Still, the property desperately needed to be redeveloped, said Bruce Spiegel, senior managing director at Rose Associates, who has overseen leasing there since the beginning.

“The storefronts looked like they were leased one-off, not collectively,” Spiegel said.

The transformation didn’t happen overnight; the investors honored existing leases and waited for renewals to come due to make major changes. When Gristede’s lease was up, Rose and Spiegel forced the grocer to renovate if it wanted to stay.
Woolworth’s — which was paying just $12 per square foot for 22,000 square feet of ground floor and basement space — was pushed out once its lease expired. Market rate for the ground floor was between $75 and $100 per square foot, Spiegel said.

Spiegel and the investors didn’t lease to just any tenant. They wanted a mix of local, regional and national names which they were able to attract.

“Fred was an experienced, high-grade real estate investor who, with his family, would manage the property,” Buffett said in his annual shareholder letter. “And manage it they did.” “I've yet to view the property,” he added.