By Roland Li
On a sweltering morning last week, a line of visitors, luggage in tow, snaked inside the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. In an adjacent space, workers were constructing an upcoming jewelry exhibit, with half-built walls and tables emerging from the showroom floor.
And high above, on an intricate lattice of scaffolding, personnel from Tishman Construction were transforming the building’s roof, unseen and unheard by the masses below.
The renovation and greening of over half of the Javits Center’s 12-acre roof is part of a $463 million renovation for the 25-year-old convention center, which sees over 3 million annual visitors. An earlier plan called for a $1.4 billion expansion that would have almost doubled the structure to 1.3 million s/f. But a procession of New York governors followed and projected costs swelled to $4 billion.
On the eve of the economic crisis, Gov. David Paterson scaled back plans. The focus shifted to renovations of the existing structure, which has 700,000 s/f of exhibit space, but would eventually include 110,000 s/f of new construction, known as Javits North, which runs from 39th Street to 40th Street. The new structure diverges from the original form, because it must avoid an adjacent New York Police Department parking lot and exhaust vent for the Lincoln Tunnel. The city had considered selling the land after it abandoned construction, but ultimately reversed its position.
FXFOWLE Epstein is the architect for the renovation, and financing is provided by municipal bonds, backed by a hotel key tax of $1.50 for rooms in Manhattan.
The Javits Center’s existing roof had sprung leaks for the past decade, requiring an on-site roofing contractor and even containers suspended under the roof, referred to jokingly as “diapers,” which catch water. With the roofing material nearing its natural lifespan, a renovation became a major goal.
Tishman has divided the roof into nine slices, suspending 20,000 pounds of equipment and gantry cranes that can move horizontally on scaffolding. During the process, Tishman consulted with structural engineers Weidlinger Associates to ensure that the underlying structure remained sound. Each section takes around four months to complete, and construction is scheduled to finish by 2013. The fourth segment is currently being built.
The 6.75 acre green portion of the roof will be filled with vegetation, which absorbs water, and a membrane that does not allow water to drain. So far, the results have stopped leaking, even during the snowy winter months.
Each day, there are around 50 to 100 workers on the roof platform, depending on timing, and up to 150 in the entire building.
Although the process would be about a year shorter if the convention center was shut down completely for construction, the current plan allows the highly profitable showrooms to operate at full capacity.
But the most challenging part of the project has been moving construction forward with minimal disruptions to the existing facilities, said Glen Johnson, Tishman’s project director.
“It’s a lot of stop and start between shows,” said Johnson.
So far, the response has been positive from operators, who are briefed on the construction each quarter. Crews use sound blankets to block the noise of construction and stagger work around exhibitions.
Along with roof work, new sprinklers and lightning have been installed. Sections of walls and floors are pressure cleaned with water, and then repainted. Tishman is also replacing parts of the curtain wall, installing more modern glass, including a skylight that will allow more light into the 150-foot lobby known as the Crystal Palace.
The original Javits Center was designed by James Ingo Freed of Pei Cobb Fried & Partners, using a modern space frame structure in which its dark glass façade rises in a stack of cubes. Construction began in 1979 and finished in 1986, with the center replacing New York Coliseum, which was later demolished and replaced with the Related Companies’ Time Warner Center.
Expansion plans have been simmering for decades, with some saying that the Center would be outpaced by larger buildings. There was also controversy in the mid-1990s when investigations suggested that jobs were awarded based on Mafia ties, and later, the hotel industry balked when it was suggested that the key tax be tripled, to $4.50, in order to fund more construction. (It remains at $1.50 per room.)
Although the more ambitious goals for the Javits Center have not been realized, its renovation remains a bright spot amid shrinking budgets and uncertain projects. As Tishman’s Johnson notes, construction is on schedule and financing is secure, a rarity in the current construction climate.