By David M. Levitt and Kara Wetzel on July 31, 2013.
July 31 (Bloomberg) -- David Cheikin is betting that skateboard millionaires will be happy where the Thundering Herd once roamed.
As vice president of leasing for Brookfield Office Properties Inc., Cheikin is leading the push to remake lower Manhattan’s former World Financial Center into a destination for technology and media companies. Once home to the Merrill Lynch & Co., the brokerage firm known for its bull logo, the Hudson riverfront complex is now Brookfield Place New York, and much more than the name is changing.
Brookfield is stripping away brass and marble trims and adding bicycle parking, free Wi-Fi in public spaces and electric-car charging stations. At Merrill’s former headquarters, clear glass is replacing the imposing, dark-tinted facade built as a barrier to the public, Cheikin said.
“We’re just trying to work out ways to make it more in line with how people want to work today,” he said.
Downtown landlords with millions of square feet of empty space are transforming offices that were designed for the global financial elite to better appeal to New York’s technology and media firms. They’re pitching their properties as an alternative to the converted factories of midtown south, where a frenzy of demand has pushed up rents and driven vacancies to the lowest in the U.S. The image makeover is only part of the challenge as the area faces a glut of space from skyscrapers that are nearing completion at the World Trade Center site.
Consolidating financial companies have left landlords with at least 6.3 million square feet (585,000 square meters) of space to fill, almost 7 percent of the lower Manhattan office market, according to data from brokerage Newmark Grubb Knight Frank. Another 2.4 million square feet remains unrented at two new trade center towers scheduled for completion by mid-2014. At Brookfield Place, vacancies loom on about a third of its 8 million square feet.
Across the street at 1 World Trade Center, the Durst Organization is preparing a marketing campaign to convince creative firms that they’ll feel at home in the Western Hemisphere’s tallest building. Almost half of the tower, scheduled to open next year, is available for lease.
Durst, equity partner with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey on the 1,776-foot (541-meter) skyscraper, is targeting companies that are in “phase-two growth, after the incubation startup stages,” said Tara Stacom, the Cushman & Wakefield Inc. executive vice chairman who is working with the developers on the leasing effort.
“There’s something that the new construction can accommodate for all these tech users that the old construction can’t, and that is growth,” Stacom said. “A lot of these tenants are one size today, and they’re 200 times that size in less than a decade, and in some cases less than half a decade. We’re only now going out to speak to this audience.”
Tenants could agree to take a small space at first, then expand into larger offices in the tower, Stacom said. As rents soar in the older buildings of midtown south, available government incentives and the efficiencies of new real estate would make the trade center more cost-effective, even at an asking rent of $75 a square foot, among the highest for downtown, she said.
The tower’s open, column-free space offers more flexibility and the developers are even ready to duplicate a look that’s become popular with technology firms, leaving the ductwork exposed, Stacom said.
About 1.4 million square feet are unspoken for in the skyscraper, which is slated to open to tenants next year and will have Conde Nast Publications Inc. as its anchor tenant. Another 1 million square feet are available at Silverstein Properties Inc.’s 4 World Trade Center, to open before year-end.
There’s “a mismatch between the unprecedented amount of class A space currently available and the preferences of the tech sector for loft space in a neighborhood with a non-corporate vibe,” according to tenant brokerage Studley Inc.
“Tech and creative-sector companies in Manhattan are indisputably growing by leaps and bounds,” Steven Coutts, senior vice president for national research at New York-based Studley, said in a July 24 report. “Nevertheless, this sector still lacks the heft to fill the void” left by contracting banks and other traditional office users, such as accounting and insurance companies.
Downtown Manhattan has the lowest rents and the highest office availability of the borough’s three major submarkets. The availability rate -- empty space and offices due to become vacant within 12 months -- was almost 16 percent at the end of June, up from 10.8 percent a year earlier, data from CBRE Group Inc. show. Asking rents jumped 20 percent to an average of $47.13 a square foot, a reflection of landlords’ expectations for the high-end space added to the market in the past year, according to Los Angeles-based CBRE.
Rents in midtown south -- including such neighborhoods as Chelsea, the Flatiron District and Soho -- averaged $63.44 a square foot and the availability rate was 10 percent.
Brookfield has about 2.7 million square feet of former Merrill offices to fill at its namesake complex. Bank of America Corp., which took over the space when it bought Merrill in 2009, is keeping about 775,000 square feet and will stop paying rent on the rest in September when its leases expire.
At Merrill’s former headquarters at 250 Vesey St., the vacant restaurant that once housed the Hudson River Club, where brokers dined on grouse and pheasant, has been removed. It’s now an open area where anyone can gaze at the Statue of Liberty in the distance. The change is part of a $250 million makeover of the World Financial Center’s retail space that will include an upscale food market and eateries that overlook the marina.
Another selling point, according to Cheikin, will be the completion in the next two years of a $3.94 billion transit hub designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. Brookfield is close to completing a 55-foot glass entryway supported by a pair of cyclone-shaped steel columns that will link Brookfield Place with the transportation center.
Across town on the East River waterfront, SL Green Realty Corp. is marketing about 900,000 square feet at 180 Maiden Lane, a black-glass tower south of the Brooklyn Bridge. Most of that is space that American International Group Inc., once the world’s largest insurer, will vacate next year.
SL Green, Manhattan’s biggest office landlord, is spending $40 million on renovations that include making over the interior plaza, as well as AIG’s cafeteria, auditorium and health club to transform them into “communal-type amenities,” said Steve Durels, director of leasing.
“I want the cafeteria to look like it’s a Starbucks, and I want the fitness center to look like it’s a Soul Cycle,” Durels said. “And I want the auditorium to look like the presentation space you’d find in a W Hotel.”
Most importantly, he said, the ground-floor atrium will work like an indoor park, with seating areas where people can get a coffee and work on their laptops. Half of the floor will be covered in artificial turf, where tenants could arrange a volleyball, badminton or bocce game.
So far, downtown landlords’ efforts to land creative firms have borne little fruit. Some of the industry’s biggest names -- Yahoo! Inc., EBay Inc., LinkedIn Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Facebook Inc. -- have opted to go elsewhere. Yahoo took four floors in the century-old former New York Times headquarters in Midtown, while LinkedIn went to the 82-year-old Empire State Building. EBay chose a onetime department store on Sixth Avenue in Chelsea that dates back to the 1890s, when the corridor was known as Ladies’ Mile.
Facebook went to the East Village, taking about 100,000 square feet in 770 Broadway, which was designed in 1905 by Daniel Burnham, the architect who conceived the Flatiron Building. The social-media company joins tenants including AOL Inc. and the Huffington Post in the 15-story property.
“Those firms are all iconic,” said Miles Rose, founder of SiliconAlley.com, a Web-based community for New York’s emerging technology industry. “The big, plain boxes don’t work for either their corporate culture or their workers. Older, iconic buildings have character and they have presence.”
Of the 50 largest Manhattan leases made by technology, media, information and fashion tenants in the past two years, only 10 were in buildings completed later than 1970, according to Compstak Inc., a New York-based provider of leasing data.
When 10gen Inc., maker of MongoDB data-management software, sought to expand out of its Soho offices last year, “downtown wasn’t exactly right for us,” said Eliot Horowitz, co-founder and chief technology officer. “We wanted some place that was pretty wide-open and feeling kind of lofty. We sort of wanted a Soho feel, but with a lot more flexibility and a lot more space than you can actually get in Soho.”
10Gen wound up taking about 32,000 square feet at the Times Building, he said. This month, it expanded its commitment to almost 50,000 square feet.
Some creative companies that have gone downtown have favored the market’s older buildings. When HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. agreed to leave its longtime Midtown headquarters, it took 180,000 square feet at 195 Broadway, a colonnaded tower built in 1916 that was originally the American Telephone & Telegraph Co. building. WeWork, a company founded three years ago to provide shared office space to startups, took 120,500 square feet at 222 Broadway, a 27-story property completed in 1961 that once housed Merrill offices.
Brooklyn, across the East River from lower Manhattan, may emerge as competition for technology and media tenants. Developers have plans for about 630,000 square feet of offices at the former Domino Sugar plant on the Williamsburg neighborhood’s waterfront. In an industrial district near the Brooklyn Bridge, 1.2 million square feet of buildings long-owned by the Jehovah’s Witnesses are under contract to be sold to a partnership that may make much of the space into offices.
There are about 20 million square feet of warehouses along the western edge of Brooklyn and Queens, from Sunset Park to Long Island City, that are ripe to be converted to support creative firms, according to Tucker Reed, president of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, an advocacy group for businesses in the area.
New York’s Economic Development Corp. projects that fast-growing technology companies will need an additional 20 million square feet of space over the next 12 years, and they’ll be seeking rents of less than $40 a square foot.
Melissa Coley, a Brookfield spokeswoman, declined to say what rents it’s seeking at Brookfield Place. The landlord last week said it had rented about 191,000 square feet combined to Bank of Nova Scotia, Oppenheimer Funds Inc. and fitness-club chain Equinox Holdings Inc. Earlier this year, it landed GFK SE, a German retail-research firm, for 75,000 square feet at 200 Liberty St., formerly 1 World Financial Center. GFK is moving from an older building in Chelsea.
The World Trade Center site is poised to get its second large media tenant. GroupM, an advertising planning and placement firm owned by WPP Inc., is working on terms to lease 515,000 square feet at 3 World Trade Center, according to two people with knowledge of the talks.
The skyscraper, slated for completion in 2016, is being developed by Larry Silverstein, who considered capping the tower at seven stories if he couldn’t land an anchor tenant. If he goes ahead with building it to the full 80-story height, he’ll have another 2 million square feet to fill.
The 70,000-square-foot spaces planned for 3 World Trade Center, called “trading floors” on the developer’s website, can be designed for “any industry,” according to Jeremy Moss, Silverstein’s director of leasing. GroupM is planning to use some of the five base floors, according to the people.
Greg Taubin, a broker at Studley who represented 10gen, said certain technology tenants will be tempted by landlords’ efforts, while others “won’t go below 14th Street, period.”
“It’s very tenant-specific,” he said. “But as midtown south continues to be tight for these types of tenants, certain buildings downtown will be the beneficiaries of this.”