No one complains about bank bonuses in Greenwich, Conn.

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 7, 2010 

GREENWICH, Conn. — After one of the leanest years in memory, life in this upper-crust enclave is slowly returning to normal. The Greenwich version of normal, anyway.

Caterers' cell phones are ringing again. Luxury car dealers are sending the Porsches out for test drives. An architect is booking multimillion-dollar jobs for his "masters of the universe" clients, titans of Wall Street who've made this leafy Connecticut suburb of New York one of the wealthiest towns in the country.

When the financial industry tumbled, Greenwich's fortunes fell with it. Now, as the federal bailout has helped lift investment banks to surprisingly robust profits, the news that major financial firms will dole out billions of dollars in salaries and bonuses this year came as welcome relief here, even though the rest of the country is still grappling with 10 percent unemployment.

Discreetly, Greenwich is starting to spend money again, and spending here — where the median household earns $126,549, almost two-and-a-half times the national median, based on 2008 census estimates — isn't quite like spending anywhere else.

At the Ferrari dealership, a handful of middle-aged men in sweaters and jeans milled about the showroom on a recent Saturday, running their palms over sports cars so select that the prices weren't listed. However, a new 458 Italia tops out at 202 mph and north of $300,000.

Along Greenwich Avenue, a half-mile strip of upscale shops that's been dubbed the Rodeo Drive of the East, signs in the windows of real estate agencies announced homes that sold recently for as much as $5 million. Thirty-three houses in Greenwich sold last month, compared with seven in January 2009.

"Last year was a big downer," said Michelle Brunwasser, a partner in the chic Weber art gallery. "Things are definitely better now, and a lot of it has to do with the bonuses."

Amid a national outcry over Wall Street salaries, some large investment banks such as Goldman Sachs are forcing employees to defer some compensation and accept company stock instead of cash. Yet in Greenwich, home to scores of hedge funds that might not be applying the same austerity measures, plenty of people seem ready to splurge on big-ticket jewelry, artwork or new wings on their houses.

Brunwasser was readying for an appointment the following day with a prospective buyer for her gallery's prime piece, a large oil painting by the German-born landscape artist Wolf Kahn.

The price: $85,000.

"People here are happier, and they want to surround themselves with beautiful things," Brunwasser explained. A few moments later she added: "It feels a little strange saying this, considering what the country is going through."

The town of 60,000 people, 40 minutes by train from midtown Manhattan, is the hub of southwestern Connecticut's exclusive Gold Coast. The local society magazine is replete with pictures of black-tie charity galas, an engagement party at a New York Ritz-Carlton, a wedding on Italy's Lake Como.

Martha Stewart and Mel Gibson own homes in the area, as does Ralph Lauren, who opened a palatial, 19,000-square-foot store last year along Greenwich Avenue, where white-gloved police officers — not traffic lights — direct cars and pedestrians.

Yet several retailers closed their stores last year, including national brands such as Banana Republic and Coach. "For lease" signs hang in several empty storefronts, and store owners point out that while people are strolling down the avenue again, relatively few of them are carrying shopping bags.

With many formerly high-flying residents still out of work, there are signs that the financial crisis has chastened Greenwich, but they're subtle.

"Modesty is in, for the first time in a while," said Ron Arbusman, who runs Viggi, one of about a dozen jewelry shops along the avenue.

One of Arbusman's clients buys his wife a Rolls-Royce every few years, and she was angling for a new one. "But he did not want to be flashy," Arbusman said. The woman settled for a Mercedes S550 sedan, which starts at $91,600.

Richard Granoff, the president of a high-end architecture firm, has several projects under way, but they're smaller than the homes he built before the financial collapse, which often surpassed 10,000 square feet. The new designs are more like 7,000 or 8,000 square feet.

"One year ago everyone was staring into the abyss. There were downward expectations on income, downward expectations on bonuses," he said. "Wall Street got through much better than expected, but people are more conscious of flaunting. They're rethinking their values and priorities."

Some luxuries remain de rigueur: the "killer" kitchen, as Granoff calls it, and the swimming pool out back. In a sign of Greenwich's new restraint, one client chose to build his tennis court on level ground rather than recessing it, which saved about $75,000 in stones, drainage and other construction costs.

As Granoff surveyed a project on old-money Lake Avenue, a $1 million remodel of a Tudor-style villa owned by a Wall Street executive, he observed that real estate isn't a bad investment for these sensitive times.

"You don't move into a house you've designed until two years down the road," he said. "No one knows you're spending that money."

Susan Kane, who runs a high-end catering business out of nearby Stamford and counts numerous Wall Street executives and their spouses as clients, already has been hired for nine weddings this summer. Kane has learned to create elegant menus on slightly tighter budgets, substituting flank steak for filet mignon, for example, or opting to serve a large tuna loin on a bed of Thai noodles.

"That feeds a lot of people," Kane said.

The days of eye-popping parties — such as the wedding a few years ago at which the Beach Boys performed — might be over for now, she said, but the people of Greenwich are starting to see better days ahead.

"I already see it," Kane said. "A lot of my clients are traveling. They're going to Miami. They're going skiing. They're all over the place. It's a sign that people are ready to spend again."

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