It’s a fantasy question that has been posed by kids all over the world for generations. If you had all the money in the world, where would you live? Would your house look like a castle? Or a UFO? Maybe the Batcave? Now, a new generation of LA property developers is racing to build homes for a tiny sliver of fabulously wealthy people who have been pouring into the city to take advantage of the city’s unparalleled climate, its proximity to celebrity and a 21st-century economy that is eager to cater to their every whim.
High above the Sunset Strip, you’ll find a winding street called Hillcrest Road. At the end of it is a cul-de-sac that has emerged, over the past few years, as the gleaming crown of LA’s new gilded age. There, modern-day versions of the Palace of Versailles have sprung up, one after another, along a quarter-mile stretch of Beverly Hills which, in local parlance, has been dubbed “Billionaire’s Row”.
The moniker took hold in 2015, when a 35-year-old Swedish programmer named Markus Persson plunked down $70m for a brand-new high-spec mansion in what was – briefly – the priciest house sale in Beverly Hills history. Since then, even that staggering sum has been surpassed by prices that have become simply cartoonish – $100m, $250m and soon, possibly, $500m. It seems like just a matter of time before we get out of the $100 millions and into the billions.
I try to touch all the senses: form, sight, sound, touch and feel. I want you to have the most amazing experience in the world
Persson had just sold his video game company Minecraft to Microsoft, which turned him into an overnight billionaire and put him on a collision course with a mere multi-millionaire: Bruce Makowsky, who built his fortune selling designer handbags and shoes on QVC. In 2010 Makowsky moved from NYC to California and reinvented himself as a Willy Wonka-style developer who dreams up houses more in tune with Iron Man’s Tony Stark than the Joneses.
“It’s a feeling that you get, which is the same when you are on a mega-yacht, spending time with friends and family with incredible staff, food and lots of entertainment,” said Makowsky. “I live this lifestyle so it’s easy for me to understand it.” In February, Makowsky grabbed international headlines for his newest creation – a $250m bespoke home that he built not far from Hillcrest on 924 Bel Air Road, which is, at least for the time being, the most expensive home to hit the market in the United States.
The home is 38,000 square feet and spans four levels. It has 12 bedrooms, 21 baths, and comes with a staff of seven. When you pull into the marbled driveway you’ll see a helicopter, the same model that was used on the 1980s television show Airwolf. Inside there are three gourmet kitchens, five bars, two commercial elevators, a massage studio/wellness spa, a fitness centre and a James Bond-themed, 40-seat movie theatre. The main outdoor deck features an 85-foot Italian glass infinity pool with a swim-up bar, a pair of mini Sea-Doo jetskis and a small catamaran that are there for, well, just because. A massive outdoor hydraulic theatre-sized screen that cost over a million dollars can emerge at the flip of a switch to create an outdoor concert venue. Each room is adorned with a $5,600 toilet and a wall in the living areas has ceiling-high tubes filled with candy that cost $200,000.
“I try to touch all the senses: form, sight, sound, touch and feel. I want you to have the most amazing experience in the world,” said Makowsky.
A confluence of events brought LA to this moment. But to be clear, it wasn’t always like this. Several versions of LA have long existed. The image that the city has presented to the world, through its depiction in cinema and on television, is that it is inextricably entwined with the glitz and wealth that goes with Hollywood. But the reality is quite different. Up until very recently, LA has been a welcoming metropolis for people from all walks of life. But a vibrant tech scene, known as Silicon Beach, and an open spigot of foreign capital that has come pouring into the economy from China has turned the real estate market on its head. LA now ranks right up there with New York and San Francisco as one of the most expensive places to live in the United States.
“Listen, I still think LA is still very underpriced. I think it’s half the price of New York and a quarter the price of London,” Nile Niami, another super-developer, tells me as we stand on a deck that offers sweeping views that stretch from downtown LA to the coast. We are back on Hillcrest, one house over from the Minecraft Mansion, and Niami, a former producer of films like the The Watcher, which starred Keanu Reeves, and The Patriot with Steven Seagal, is overseeing a video shoot on his new property. Like Makowsky, Niami found a second career building homes with a clientele that includes P Diddy and the Winklevoss Twins. He has just put the finishing touches on 1175 Hillcrest, a seven-bedroom, 11-bath $100m mansion called Opus, which hit the market last month. In addition to the 280-degree views, the home has two kitchens, Roberto Cavalli floors, an iridescent infinity pool that complements several indoor fountains and water features, and a fully stocked 15-foot-tall Cristal champagne room serviced by a sliding golden ladder, which cost $250,000.
The proximity of their mega-mansions spurs on the notion that Niami and Makowsky are locked in some sort of arms race to create a billionaire’s nirvana. Tour their houses and you’ll see that they are clearly feeding off each other, engaging in a game of one-upmanship. Both developers are incorporating new lavish elements into their homes, namely cars and art. Opus comes with a gold Lamborghini Roadster and gold Rolls-Royce Dawn along with a $3m contemporary art collection that includes three original Damien Hirsts. Makowsky’s $250m home in Bel Air comes with an auto gallery with more than $30m in cars including a baby Formula 1 racing car that goes from zero to 60mph in 2.8 seconds. There are Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Bentleys and at least half-a-dozen motorcycles. There are also over 130 art installations that range from chrome sculptures of skateboards and guns to photography installations to an interactive digital work. The cost of the linens alone could feed a refugee camp for weeks.
Niami’s Opus is arguably the most expensive trial balloon in real-estate history as its listing sets the stage for one of the most anticipated property events in recent memory: the $500m custom home now under construction at 944 Airole Way that is being marketed as “The One” (no one has ever accused either man of being short on ego). That home is going to have a 74,000-square-foot main residence with a 5,000-square-foot master bedroom, a 30-car garage, four swimming pools, a 45-seat IMAX theatre, a tennis court and a 20,000-square-foot lawn of synthetic turf. There will be a “Monaco-style casino” and three smaller houses spread across the four-acre property. There is a nightclub, a four-lane bowling alley, and a lounge surrounded by tanks that will be filled with jellyfish. Understated it’s not.
For most people, all of this likely sounds like some sort of parallel universe; an unfettered dream of superhuman achievement, wealth – or simple hubris. Many local real estate experts say these listing prices can’t possibly be met, that they are simply naked grabs for media attention by the developers. They could yet be wrong. Last week, the video messaging company Snap debuted the largest IPO in LA’s history, which created a new batch of millionaires and several billionaires, all of which has Makowsky plotting his next move. “I don’t think anyone fathomed that there would be so many billionaires,” he said.