By Konrad Putzier
The fate of low-income home owners has dominated the media coverage of Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath.
But beyond the headlines, owners of large commercial and residential buildings are waging their own struggle to recover from the storm – albeit with much lower stakes. So far they have done surprisingly well.
A recent report by Jones Lang LaSalle showed that the downtown Manhattan office market has rebounded strongly since the Hurricane.
In the 47 downtown office buildings directly impacted by the storm, new leasing in the twelve months after the storm was up 33.8 percent compared to the twelve months prior, despite doubled insurance rates.
“It’s hard to envision an even stronger bounce-back without Sandy,” said John Wheeler of Jones Lang LaSalle, who authored the report. He added that rents in the affected area have also increased.
Much of this rebound has to do with improvements in building infrastructure, which have reassured tenants.
“Landlords have done a good job articulating what has happened and what will happen if another event occurs,” said Wheeler. “The takeaway is that the potential for a repeat is very small, not just because it was a 500-year storm, but because of infrastructure measures taken.”
The JLL report said that 85 percent of landlords have made their office buildings more storm proof. 70 percent have moved switching gear to a higher level, and just under 40 percent have made arrangements for retaining walls.
A spokesman for the Durst Organization, which owns several downtown office buildings, said the company moved HVAC systems from the basement to the roof, which meant buildings had to be re-piped. It also relocated electrical feeders and purchased back-up equipment for elevators.
One of the most popular measures in the wake of the hurricane has been the purchase of an AquaFence, a portable retaining wall up to seven feet tall that can be assembled around a building on short notice and prevents flooding.
Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management, said his company not only moved electrical equipment to higher floors, but also bought AquaFences for three of its downtown buildings. “These cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, not millions. For a one million square feet building, that isn’t too expensive.”
Moreover, AquaFence comes with the great advantage that the structure of a building doesn’t need to be changed.
The Norwegian company AcquaFence opened its New York branch after the hurricane. Its local head Adam Goldberg said 16 buildings in downtown Manhattan have been equipped with an AcquaFence, among them Vornado’s 40 Fulton Street, SL Green’s 180 Maiden Lane and Pan Am Equities’ 2 Water Street. He added that the company has another 40-50 projects “in the works” – the vast majority office buildings.
Unlike commercial landlords, their residential counterparts have had a much harder time making their properties storm proof. The smaller average size of residential buildings is one reason.
Goldberg said he has orders for AquaFence from five residential buildings, but admitted that the product’s price makes it more appealing to owners of large commercial buildings, who tend to “have deeper pockets.”
Angela Sung Pinsky, REBNY’s senior vice president for management services and Government Affairs, said the residential landlords she works with are hampered by their tenants’ leases: “I would imagine that that it’s very difficult to relocate electrical equipment in a lot of buildings. In commercial real estate you control leases, and you can simply not renew it. But in condos you just can’t just force people out to make space for electrical equipment,” she said.
Despite these obstacles, Pinsky said residential landlords have “done quite a bit” to make their buildings storm proof.
For example, Magnum Real Estate Group recently moved boilers to the roof of its East Village rental building Bloom62 as a preventive measure, even though it wasn’t even flooded during the storm.
The New York City Housing Authority, which owns several storm-damaged public housing projects, said it is “planning to weather-proof and raise important equipment above flood levels.”
While landlords face the difficulty of improving buildings that were never designed to be storm proof, developers of current and future projects have a much easier task.
When Sandy hit New York, the condo project 560 West 24th Street was in its planning phase. The developers, Adam Gordon Holdings and Tavros Development, decided that additional measures were needed to make the building storm proof.
MADGI Architects, the architects on record along with Steven Harris Architects, extended the foundation wall nine foot above the ground, creating what they call a “sealed bathtub foundation.”
MADGI also designed a concrete utility vault for the basement and equipped it with submarine bulkhead doors, which it bought from a Connecticut company that normally supplies ships.
MADGI principal Richard DeMarco said the additional costs were small in light of the entire construction because they were included at such an early stage.
“(These measures) will definitely be the new standard at the Highline and other low lying areas,” he said, “especially with all the waterfront development currently taking place.”