A Wall Street. The address is fairly easy to remember. But that’s where the simplicity ends.
This is Harry Macklowe we’re talking about.
Known as one of the biggest risk takers in New York real estate, few people are as prominent in Manhattan as Macklowe. He is best known for building skyscrapers, office buildings and ambitious residential developments throughout his six-decade career after founding Macklowe Properties. He’s the man who always looks up, both to the stars and to devise a plan to add another floor. Among his past projects were the iconic General Motors Building which houses Apple’s flagship store (you can thank Macklowe for that giant cube out front) and 432 Park Avenue, where Macklowe razed the iconic Drake Hotel to build the third tallest residential tower in NYC, much to the chagrin of the neighborhood. He likes the big ones. He likes shine. And he loves art, so much so that his bitter divorce from his first wife resulted in a record $922 million art collection.
The fluted limestone tower of One Wall Street is his latest odyssey. With 51 floors spread over two blocks of Manhattan, it is the largest office-to-residence conversion in New York City history. If size alone has failed to convey this, the cost of the whole effort will. Macklowe Properties (and its financial partner, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani of Qatar Royal) is seeking a billion dollar debt package to refinance the former office tower. This is after Macklowe Properties secured a $750 million loan from Deutsche Bank in 2018 to fund the tower’s reconstruction. It was such a gargantuan project, in a city already known for gargantuan projects, that I had to see it for myself.
By a miracle of the R train, I’m ahead of my tour. Construction is still ongoing, not that you can tell. Not a single whir of a jigsaw or the sound of a hammer pours down the hall, or rather the “Red Room”, as it is called. I could devote pages to the Red Room alone. Designed by muralist and Art Deco queen Hildreth Meière in 1931, 13,000 square feet of mosaic tiles of amber, oxblood and gold line the 33-foot-tall walls in a crisp, dazzling canvas . The glamor of the room is enough to make a Fabergé egg blush.
I later discovered that the red room renovation alone was a painstaking 16 month process of repairing, grouting and polishing each individual tile with non-chemical, non-abrasive techniques. You can imagine how relieved the restorers were to find an unopened box containing thousands of original tiles in the basement of the building.
The Red Room is both a relic of a glittering bygone era in New York real estate and a selling point for potential buyers. Residents of One Wall Street will have bragging rights to live in a true New York landmark, the one that just won the Lucy G. Moses Preservation Award last April. “These are the Oscars of historic awards,” Richard Dubrow, director of marketing at Macklowe Properties, tells me as we walk in. Matthew Chook, senior vice president of sales, runs behind him.
Lilla Smith, director of architecture and design for Macklowe Properties, is also on hand to lead the tour, though her official title is “the star of the whole show” according to Dubrow. Smith has been hard at work on the details of the conversion since Macklowe bought One Wall Street for $585 million in 2014. Alongside Macklowe himself, Smith is the mastermind behind the architectural gymnastics required to pull off a conversion of this magnitude. Essentially, One Wall Street is a 1.1 million square feet of New construction, wrapped in the Art Deco shell of Ralph Walker’s original architecture.
Macklowe’s previous conversions had never gone so far as to completely gut the interior of the respective building. “Before, we were taking existing elevators and existing infrastructure and apartment types built around it,” Dubrow says. “Whereas here we’ve taken the approach of basically eliminating all elevators, stairs, cables, pipes, everything and starting from the inside again so we can optimize the building for residential use.”
So how is Macklowe’s vision for One Wall Street optimized for residential use? For starters, there are plenty of units, 566 condos to be exact, ranging from studios to three bedrooms. “Units start at just over a million, for a studio,” says Chook. In contrast, a 3 bed/3.5 bath is listed on the One Wall Street website for nearly $10,000,000. I ask how many units have sold so far, but Smith, Chook and Dubrow were also silent on the subject. Macklowe Properties isn’t releasing numbers yet, but my tour guides hinted that buyers were already flocking.
Then there’s the list of amenities that extend beyond the length of a CVS receipt. A busy hall. A playroom for children. A lounge for teenagers. A co-working space at the height of a WeWork. A private health club. A spa. A classy bar. A fitness center. A private pool is located on the 38th floor (a rare feat for any developer). And, the gold standard for any apartment in New York, an in-building laundry room. Of course, that’s without delving into the 174,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor that’s also open to the public.
When I ask Smith what were the biggest challenges in converting an office building (besides polishing the mosaic tiles in the Red Room), she answers bluntly: retail. “The challenge was to open up a large retail space that could stretch along Broadway and wrap around to New Street.” Currently, Whole Foods and Lifetime Fitness have signed leases on the site.
Smith, Dubrow and Chook all lead me through the building. When I’m shown a two-bedroom apartment, Smith regales me with geographic details on the Calacatta marble in the kitchenette. “It’s only available in one quarry in Italy,” she explains. She leads me to the bathroom which is lined with marble slabs, which she tells me Macklowe chose himself. “Yeah, Harry likes white.”
Dubrow accompanies me to the balcony of the apartment and we are greeted by the beauty of the Manhattan skyline. In all directions there is a historical marker. The empire state building. Statue of Liberty. Trinity Church. A world trade center. The New York stock exchange. Even the scaffolding-covered pharmacy around the corner seemed iconic. Everything was there. Suddenly, the insistence on retaining the Art Deco details of the building’s original design made perfect sense.
The aesthetic themes of Art Deco were rooted in the collective optimism of the Roaring Twenties and, later, the abandonment of austerity of the following decade. Sleek symmetrical designs that could only be achieved mechanically were an ode to new technologies and the dawning of a new era. Robert McGregor, one of the last founding members of the Art Deco Trust, described the movement perfectly. “Art Deco reflects confidence, vigor and optimism using symbols of progress, speed and power.” Standing on that balcony at One Wall Street, I felt the wistful glory of the past and the waiting future collide.
Harry Macklowe envisioned One Wall Street as a mini-Rockefeller Center and an inflection point for Manhattan’s Financial District, or FiDi as it’s also known. Admittedly, Macklowe did not foresee the outbreak of the coronavirus and the seismic economic consequences it brought when he bought One Wall Street nearly a decade ago. Nonetheless, One Wall Street appears to be opening at an opportune time. “The pandemic has really driven home that a mixed-use neighborhood will be a healthier neighborhood,” Smith said, “and that’s what we set out to accomplish.”
Office-to-residence conversions are widely described as a new trend in the wake of pandemic-induced remote working, but Smith informs me that the conversion of older, “less privileged” office spaces into habitable units had begun. in midtown Manhattan years ago. Just before the 9/11 tragedy, 55% of midtown Manhattan office tenants worked in finance or insurance. By September of last year, that number had fallen to 30%. Empty offices have become apartment buildings, but none are as large or complex as One Wall Street.
At its peak, Manhattan’s Financial District was buzzing with office workers and money, but over the past twenty years the buzz has died down. Today, after COVID-19 dampened financial markets, there is a glut of empty office space in Manhattan. So does this mean that the redevelopment of One Wall Street was a very, very costly mistake? Probably not.
We are now in the era of remote working, and that grants a dynamic shift of power to mixed-use developments. One Wall Street combines residences, retail and a sleek coworking space that lends itself perfectly to the live-work-play spirit of post-pandemic living. Plus, it’s a great location for a mixed-use location. Walkability is a major determinant of the success of any mixed-use development, and you can’t get more pedestrian-friendly than NYC. One Wall Street is expected to remain under construction until the end of this year, so it’s too early to say whether the commercial prowess and public amenities of Harry Macklowe’s animal project can really breathe new life into the area, but it is promising.