Renovating for WeWork, Other Modern Office Tenants
The building at 368 Ninth Ave. in midtown Manhattan was never meant to be an office tower. Constructed in 1930, it was a warehouse for Sears, with some offices and a call center space thrown in, and at one point housed an oyster bar. While it had been repurposed for offices over the past nine decades, the structure didn’t scream 21st-century workplace, much less trendy co-working space.
The building—now owned by Nuveen Real Estate, the new name of the former TH Real Estate—needed to be redesigned and redeveloped in response to broader changes in the neighborhood, which includes Hudson Yards across the street. Otherwise it would have been difficult to compete with the shiny, more modern properties and lure tenants like WeWork, which will have a 236,000-sq-ft co-working location in the building.
“The whole ground floor was essentially loading docks and then a series of freight elevators,” recalls Jonathan Ninnis, principal and CEO of OC Development Management (OCDM). Before the project began, there were two tiny lobbies, one on 31st Street and the other on Ninth Avenue, with their own entrances wherever there was space not taken up by the docks.
“We have found that all types of tenants, not just co-working companies, are focused on amenities to both attract and retain talent,” says Galina Breslav, a senior director at Nuveen, the investment management arm of Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association (TIAA).
According to Dodge Analytics, the project cost $15.76 million.
OCDM spent “a year and a half in design management mode,” Ninnis says, noting the firm specializes in turnkey project management and construction management services. “From day one, it was about helping the owner select the design team,” he notes. That team eventually included architecture firm Gensler; structural engineer Severud Associates; and MG Engineering, the mechanical engineer on the project.
Together, they’ve expanded the lobby to 10,000 sq ft, with fireplaces, lounge areas, soft seating, small meeting areas and even phone booths for private mobile calls throughout. They’re revamping the cellar and upgrading the building systems; adding three new elevators; creating a new, 2,000-sq-ft rooftop space; and building out 6,311 sq ft of retail space and storefronts.
OCDM and the team also worked on the first two levels of WeWork’s 11 floors in the 17-story structure, able to switch seamlessly between base building improvements and the WeWork spaces, Ninnis says. (Another contractor is working on WeWork’s remaining nine co-working floors.)
Gensler, meanwhile, became the permitting entity for WeWork as well as for the project at large.
“Since this building is so old, there’s been a whole lot of back and forth with the building department. At one point we had to transfer all permitting to one entity, Gensler,” says Scott Wilson, a senior associate and developer practice area leader at the architecture firm. “In order for WeWork’s plans to be approved, it had to go through the Gensler ‘code check,’ if you will. We had to approve [things first].”
WeWork, which declined to comment for this story, “was able to maximize the amount of tenants they could fit on those floors,” Wilson says. “They have a specific model that works for their business.”
MGE also had to make sure its work adhered closely with WeWork’s requirements, as the mechanical engineer replaced the building’s central HVAC system with self-contained VRF, or variable refrigerant flow, systems on some individual floors and a central plant system servicing other levels.
“The tricky thing with WeWork is, there’s so many different users and occupancies. You want to be able to give them some kind of zone control,” MGE principal Peter Gerazounis says. “We were the base building engineer. WeWork had its own engineer. … [MGE] reviewed what WeWork’s engineer was proposing for their spaces.”
MGE associate Francis Ossandon adds that because the client “really wanted to maximize the double occupancy on these floors,” the team had to calculate how to circulate enough air to the co-working company’s floors. “We had to be strategic about where to add self-contained systems so that existing ductwork would be large enough to handle them,” he says.
Ossandon explains there was “a bit of back and forth in coordination with WeWork’s design” to help the tenant’s engineers locate supply ducts. Additionally, the building’s infrastructure upgrades, such as a sanitary line in the cellar had to be rerun with larger pipes to accommodate WeWork’s bathrooms and pantries. “They also had certain requirements for water pressure for toilets and fixtures,” he says.
WeWork will also have exclusive access to the new rooftop space, with unobstructed views of the city to the south and the east and a perch above the new Moynihan Train Hall. The contractor is putting in railings, lighting and pavers, but that may have been easier said than done.
“In this case, there wasn’t a lot of good information about the existing construction of the roof,” says Severud principal Brian Falconer, explaining the team had to consider roofing materials, slope toppings and the concrete. “We had to look at what the capacity of the existing roof was, which determined what kind of space could be built,” he says.
“We decided not to reinforce the roof,” Falconer continues, saying it will support modest landscaping like small plantings. “We were active in doing a survey of the existing structure; we measured reinforcement bars and slab thicknesses and opened up different areas.”
The team also had to sort out access to the roof, slated to open in the third quarter of 2019. The team had to extend an elevator shaft upward and replace the current access staircase—a steep utilitarian affair that was more suited for use by occasional maintenance staff, not masses of office workers.
New elevators and stairs are also critical features of the new lobby, the centerpiece of 368 Ninth Avenue’s base building redevelopment.
“The building had an abundance of freight elevators that were accessible from Ninth Avenue but were barely operational,” Ninnis says. “We were able to take two very large elevators and turn them into passenger elevators. Also, for an existing freight elevator, the owner decided to use it as a ‘swing service’ elevator. We really added three elevators to passenger capacity.”
The team also built a new hydraulic freight elevator going down into the cellar, with crews digging through 4 ft of rock, a job that took almost five weeks. The chipping guns used to cut the rock made the whole building vibrate, so some work was done late at night, early in the mornings and on the weekend.
The project also required the slab above the basement to be lowered 2 ft. From July to October 2018, the team had to work with utilities to relocate sewer, gas and electrical connections.
“Working with engineers, trade partners and utilities, we removed or relocated every piece of MEP infrastructure. That let us demolish the ground floor slab,” Ninnis says. “We placed a crash deck above utilities during demo. We also had to support existing foundation walls—take out one bay, put steel in, take out another bay, put steel in and so on.”
The work created a better foundation for the lobby and new retail spaces, team members say.
“Some loading docks had been previously converted in not the most thoughtful manner into occupied space,” Ninnis recalls. “We had all these elevation changes because of the sidewalk and also because [the docks’ heights were meant] to accommodate truck tailgates. Ultimately, what the architect decided was to lower slabs from the Ninth Avenue facade, put in staircases … and then [raise] the lobby space.”
Wilson adds: “It was never meant to be an office space, so we had to figure out how to build a lobby that accommodates this 4-ft differential.”
Gensler design director E.J. Chung remembers: “There was no such thing as a lobby; it was just corridors. Right now, that’s the biggest transformation.” The new lobby, set to open by the end of July, is the antithesis of the white mausoleum-like entrance halls of many New York City buildings.
From the entrance way, visitors will have to climb up eight steps to the lobby floor. Its polished concrete floor has wood board imprints, giving it a warmer look that’s reflected by the wooden ceilings, Chung says.
The prior ceiling was a concrete flat slab. To accommodate the new one, the team demolished the acoustical ceiling tile to expose the concrete, which is the underside of the 2nd floor slab. They went through a painstaking process of relocating and disconnecting existing electrical, sprinkler and low voltage conduits to get a clean exposed ceiling.
Falconer adds that the concrete frame building posed other challenges.
“Basically when you have a steel structure, it’s kind of ‘stick built’—it’s not continuous, there are all sorts of pieces. But concrete is cast continuously, so everything is pushing against each other simultaneously,” he says. “So when you convert, you disrupt the continuity,” which affects stability.
Notes Falconer: “We had to upset steel into the concrete slab. And also had to add additional support along edges where we cut the concrete structure.”
Team members say the complications were worth it because the pre-Depression era structure now accommodates the co-working era of the future.
“This sort of genre of project is really unique ... to reposition an older building from the inside out,” says Tom Vecchione, Gensler design director and principal. “It’s a really exciting dialogue when we find lost artifacts,” he says, noting the surprise discovery of an old oyster bar—a find that may just scream 21st-century, hip working space.
Editor's note: Scott Wilson, senior associate and developer practice area leader at Gensler, left the firm June 28.