WTF Happened?

Fourteen months ago, the W Hotel was the hottest property in the city. Today it has filed for bankruptcy protection.

Ahearn’s white hair is fashionably slicked back, and he’s wearing oversize glasses to examine the pile of spreadsheets he’s brought. He looks vaguely like a college professor, and the fact is he’s used to being right. For more than 30 years, he’s been quoted as the authority on the downtown market; when everyone predicted luxury sales would drop after the housing bubble burst in 2006, he correctly predicted they would not.

Ahearn bristles at any suggestion that sluggish condo sales at the W are the fault of anything other than the economy. “It was the financial crisis,” he insists. “For the first time in Boston, the market just stopped.” What’s more, he says, pulling out another spreadsheet, the economic meltdown means no new luxury condo units will enter the pipeline for at least three years — meaning the market should only get better for units that are currently available. “What happens after the Clarendon, 45 Province, and the W?” he says. “A big goose egg.”

To take advantage of that opportunity, Ahearn is pushing another new marketing campaign; instead of only gazing inward at the appeal of the W brand, it looks outward, touting the W’s sweeping views of traditional Boston landmarks — the Common, the State House, the Back Bay townhouses. “Nowhere in the Boston condo market can you get views like this,” he says.

That was definitely a selling point for Gregg D’Andrea, a personal trainer who moved in back in November. “I find myself staring out the window for hours,” he says. D’Andrea is the kind of buyer the W has tried to attract from the beginning — stylish and outspoken, he spends as much time in L.A. and Miami as in Boston. “I love Boston, but deep down inside, my style is those other cities,” he says. “So I try to live that style here.” Every morning, valets have his car waiting at 5 a.m., with a to-go coffee in the cup holder, for the drive to his gym in Needham. “That alone is almost worth living here for,” he says.

But while D’Andrea may represent the W’s ideal demographic, he also represents the hotel’s biggest challenge: D’Andrea pulled an offer he’d made on a W condo once the hotel filed for bankruptcy protection. The W finally offered him the opportunity to rent his current unit in the hopes that he’ll eventually buy…but he’s in no rush. “I’ll wait out the year and see if they get out of this,” he says.

What’s holding him back is the fear that the building, desperate for buyers, will put its condos up for auction — drastically decreasing the market value of a unit for which he’d have recently paid top dollar. That auction strategy was recently used at a nearby building, the Bryant, which was failing to attract buyers. Two years later the Bryant has sold out — though it’s done so at $200 per square foot less than it was originally asking. For his part, Ahearn is dead-set against such a strategy. The W is better off sticking it out, he says. “Prices are going up. Given enough time, we’re poised to do very well.”
But how much time is enough? Back when Ahearn was on the stand, testifying in bankruptcy court, Prudential’s lawyer Emanuel Grillo cut through all his optimism, reminding Ahearn that he has yet to meet any of Sawyer’s original sales projections. “Do you know who Bill Parcells is?” Grillo asked.

“A football coach,” Ahearn answered after a wary pause.