By Konrad Putzier
Douglas Durst, the mild mannered and environmentally conscious anti-Trump of New York real estate, turned to the audience to see if anyone had questions. He was in Copenhagen and had just given a talk on green building, one of the Durst Organization’s specialties. But when a young man with Patrick Swayze looks spoke up, he wasn’t interested in sustainability.
The young man was Bjarke Ingels, and the question evidently left an impression on Durst. He ended up hiring the Danish star architect. Now, a couple of years later, Durst and Ingels are building a building that looks like pretty much anything but a building. 625 West 57th Street, which overlooks the Hudson River between 11th and 12th Avenues, has at times been described as a pyramid, a shark tooth, or – in the reported words of a skeptical community board member – as “something that landed here from out of space”.
Its design makes 625 West 57th Street an outlier among Manhattan’s many new residential developments. As new luxury condo towers are sprouting up across the island, they are becoming increasingly hard to distinguish. Midtown’s skyline will soon be dominated by half a dozen luxury condo towers that all have more or less the same height and shape – that of a giant matchstick.
Famous skyscrapers like the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building were built for the views from New Jersey or Queens. Towers like 432 Park are built for the views from the 60th floor. They are spectacular to look out of, not so much to look at.
There are good reasons for the exterior blandness of residential development. Building high on a small plot means there are few ways to experiment with shape (good luck finding a plot to build a 1,400-foot pyramid). More importantly, an unusual design is often risky. By paying sky-high prices for land on 57th Street and dumping dozens of apartments into a luxury market that may already be close to saturated, developers like Extell or JDS are taking a tremendous risk to begin with. Picking a design that might antagonize buyers would only amplify that risk. Better, perhaps, to play it safe and stick with the matchstick.
625 West 57th Street is a counter proposal to the prevailing trend. It is a giant test case that will help answer a question every developer in Manhattan has asked themselves at some point: what is the value of truly unique architecture? If it succeeds, maybe Durst will prove that taking a risk and designing an apartment building unconventionally can be worth it. If it fails, it may well encourage more developers to keep it bland. Either way, it will likely assume an even larger impact on Manhattan’s skyline than its jagged peak already has.
Driving down the Joe Di Maggio highway or looking over from Weehawken, 625 West 57th Street commands attention. The building topped out last month at 450 feet and workers have begun installing windows. The Durst Organization hopes to complete construction in the winter of 2016 and begin leasing in the following spring – with a possible “soft start” beforehand. Once completed, it will be one of Manhattan’s largest rental buildings. It will feature a basketball court, a 25-yard swimming pool, a golf simulator, a 25,000-s/f interior park and 709 rental apartments.
While its sheer size and amenities are impressive, there is no doubt the buzz 625 West 57th Street has generated stems almost entirely from its shape. It is the kind of building that instantly makes you wonder who on earth built it, and why. Surely, one would think, a building that unusual has an amazing story behind it. This is perhaps why the tale of how Durst and Ingels met is so often recounted (Real Estate Weekly heard it second-hand from Helena Durst, Douglas’ daughter and a vice president at the firm).
The legend of the building’s inception also has the welcome side effect of diverting attention from a more sobering fact: 625 West 57th Street owes its unusual form in large part to a demanding city official.
The Durst Organization had long struggled to put its plot on the Hudson River to productive use. In 2000, the firm revealed plans to build a giant data center on the site, which was still zoned for manufacturing use. But then came 9/11, and the city decided that having data centers in Manhattan was too risky. So the plan got shelved. In the following years, Durst entertained a number of proposals, including a school, before finally settling on a rental building. But first, the plot needed to be rezoned. This meant the project’s fate suddenly rested on the city’s planning commissioner at the time: Amanda Burden.
“(Burden) made it clear to us that she wanted a building that was iconic and beautiful, because of the location, which is an entranceway to the city where the highway touches down to grade” recalled Jordan Barowitz, Durst’s director of external affairs. In other words: no unique design, no rezoning. It was around that time that Durst met Ingels. Needing a stand-out design, the developer suddenly found an ideal fit in the famously unconventional architect.
“If you need zoning approvals, having an interesting design can be of help – at least it was in this case,” said Carol Rosenthal, a lawyer at Fried Frank who represented Durst in the rezoning process for the site.
But while the unusual design was in some ways a prerequisite for approval, it made the technicalities of rezoning difficult. Zoning assumes that a building’s apex is set back from the street line. 625 West 57th slopes to the north and reaches its highest point right on 58th Street – which is not permitted. So Rosenthal had to negotiate an exception that allowed the building to reach its full height without any needing a set-back from 58th Street.
Once construction started, the design posed more practical difficulties. “It’s been a bit of a learning experience, having to work on this gradient has been difficult,” said Helena Durst. For example, the firm had to install tracks along the sloped roof for cleaning and maintenance.
But despite the difficulties, the Durst Organization is certain that the design will pay off. “As beautiful as the design is, it is also extraordinarily practical,” argued Barowitz. The plot has its narrower side facing river, meaning only few apartments would have river views under a rectangular design. Ingels sloping façade maximizes surface area to the south and west, ensuring that most apartments get a glimpse of the water. Moreover, it doesn’t block the river views of the adjacent building, the Helena, which is also owned by the Durst Organization.
Perhaps more importantly, the building’s design and its prominent location could become a useful selling tool. “The design is part of our marketing campaign. We believe it’s a place where people will want to live,” said Barowitz.
The building’s fundamental proposition, then, is that the views from the outside can be just important to a development’s success as those from the inside. Time will tell if the bet will pay off financially. But Durst is not alone in its belief in the efficacy of unique design.
Rival developer Forest City Ratner built what is arguably downtown’s most distinct-looking residential tower – New York by Gehry at 8 Spruce Street – and a stadium that looks like no other. Susi Yu, FCR’s executive vice president of residential development, said the firm didn’t regret picking an unusual design for 8 Spruce Street. And while the exterior certainly helped leasing, Yu believes its benefits went beyond financials. “We understand this is what is going to be standing when we are all gone in 100 years,” she said. “We need to ask ourselves: what does it mean in terms of leaving something behind?”