Say it saint so… St. John’s project blindsides C.B. 2

A rendering of the redesign of the 550 Washington St. project, between Houston and Charlton Sts. It includes nine new stories added atop the existing three-story base of the historic St. John’s Terminal building. Courtesy COOKFOX Architects

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | The massive project at the St. John’s Terminal has taken a radically different turn as a new developer is now set to build a 100-percent commercial building on the site’s southern portion, south of Houston St.

Hundreds of units of affordable housing — as well as market-rate housing — have been foregone with the scrapping of the original scheme.

In addition, it looks doubtful that a 15,000-square-foot recreation center the community had pushed for as part of the project will now be built.

Per the original plan, the historic, hulking St. John’s Terminal building — which was the terminus of the High Line when it was a working freight railway — will still be opened up at Houston St., which it currently spans. An early scenario would have seen two High Line rail beds left spanning the street, reminiscent of the High Line park to the north, but that did not make the final cut of the plan that the city approved two years ago. However, in the latest redesign, the ends of tracks will be left projecting out of the building a bit, like an overhang.

Most significantly, the mega-project has now been split into two distinct sites being done by different developers.

Community Board 2 appears to have been blindsided by the revised project design, after the new developer, Oxford Properties Group, bought the southern part of the three-block-long property this January from Westbrook Partners and Atlas Capital Group. The sale price was $700 million, The Real Deal reported.

One major concern of C.B. 2 members is that Oxford’s building will become a “private campus,” not connected to the surrounding community. Instead, they want it to have some amenities that could attract locals to the currently desolate spot.

As Tobi Bergman, a former chairperson of the board, put it, “The community got left out of this redesign. We’re kind of in a tough position because we didn’t do this as part of a seventh-month-long ULURP [Uniform Land Use Review Procedure].”

The building’s original three stories will be retained as a base. A fourth floor added in the 1960s will be removed, according to Dean Shapiro, Oxford’s vice president of real estate. On top of this original base, nine stories will be added. The building will offer the type of very large floor plates that appeal to commercial tenants.

Oxford expects to break ground in mid-2019 and for the completed building to be occupied by 2022. Oxford will also demolish the northern part of the St. John’s Terminal for Atlas and Westbrook and also demo the part of the terminal that bridges Houston St.

The project will feature a parking facility for 200 or more bicycles, complete with showers and lockers. Shapiro, an avid cyclist himself, said they anticipate that many of the roughly 4,000 people who will work in the building will bike to work, partly because it’s right across from the Hudson River bikeway. One C.B. 2 member thought that 200 parking spots for bikes was a bit low for so many employees.

However, Shapiro noted the building, in fact, will “have the capacity to accommodate an unlimited number of bikes.”

While the developer has the right to go higher, they intend to keep it relatively squat, which, according to Shapiro, will make it more contextual with its surroundings. Yet, they are still using all their available as-of-right development rights.

“We’re using the volume,” Shapiro stated. “We have to in order to make money.

“The Village is low-scale,” he added. “Given what we’re going for, it’s better to be closer to the ground.”

The architect is COOKFOX, headed by Rick Cook, which also did the design for the original mixed-use plan for the site.

It’s not clear if the building would have one or multiple tenants, and Oxford does not currently have any lease agreements in place.

A design rendering of a view of the building’s northern end. This glassy part of the project’s exterior is meant to evoke a sense of openness and a feeling of how the High Line’s tracks used to feed into the building’s second floor when the location was a busy freight-train terminal.

Atlas and Westbrook retain the northern part of the property, north of Houston St., and intend to move forward with their part of the original plan, for a mostly residential building. Under an agreement with the city, they are required to make “best efforts” to ensure their part of the site will include a much-needed supermarket.

However, non-supermarket big-box stores — specifically of more than 10,000 square feet — are not allowed in any part of the St. John’s site.

Three years ago, a development group called St. John’s Partners, including Westbrook and Atlas, announced a plan for 1.7 million square feet of development — mostly residential, with 1.3 million square feet of that slated for residential use and 400,000 for commercial — on the unique, sprawling site, between Clarkson and Charlton Sts., bounded by West and Washington Sts.

This original project was to have nearly 1,600 apartments, with about 475 of those slated for affordable housing. Of that amount, 175 units were earmarked for low-income seniors; the rest would have been for low- and moderate-income families.

Now, though, the only affordable housing that remains as part of the overall St. John’s construction is planned for north of Houston St., in the Atlas/Westbrook part of the project, and it would all be senior affordable housing. This is where the senior affordable housing was always planned to go.

However, 30,000 additional square feet now will be allotted for senior affordable housing on the northern part of the St. John’s site — for a total of 140,000 square feet of senior affordable housing. It was not immediately clear exactly how many more apartments that would translate into, but one source said it might boost the total number as high as 200.

The current change in the project is known as the “hybrid plan,” combining the residential northern portion and the southern commercial half. The original project configuration was known as the “mixed use” scheme.

Another view of the northern end of the planned building, showing how it would be cut back slightly from Houston St. to allow for the creation of a public plaza running parallel to Houston St. Old High Line tracks would poke out of the building a bit here as an overhang of sorts. But the project will no longer have park-like bridges spanning all the way across Houston St. containing original High Line track segments, as in the original plan.

In December 2016, the City Council approved the Hudson River Park Trust’s sale of 200,000 square feet of unused development rights from Pier 40 to the St. John’s developers for $100 million. A rezoning was also needed as part of the process to allow residential use. This was the first-ever development-rights sale from the park under the amendment to the Hudson River Park Act of 1998 that was pushed through secretively in Albany at the very end of the state legislative session five years ago.

Under the city’s approval of the St. John’s project in 2016, the $100 million from the park air-rights sale was mandated to go toward repairs of Pier 40, at Houston St., the Lower West Side’s crumbling “family sports pier.”

Oxford’s part of the St. John’s project now will not use any of those purchased park “air rights” and will, instead, be built under the “as of right” zoning, meaning under the site’s original zoning. All of the 200,000 square feet of air rights purchased from Pier 40 will be used in the project’s northern part, where the tallest tower was slated to rise 430 feet under the original plan.

What the City Council O.K.’d two years ago was actually two plans — on the one hand, the mixed-use one for a largely residential development, and on the other, the hybrid plan. Back then, though, no one seems to have realized that the hybrid plan could, in the end, actually become the de facto main plan. C.B. 2, for example, spent most of its time during the ULURP public-review process offering suggestions about the original largely residential plan, while the hybrid plan was just an afterthought, if even that.

This past Monday morning, Oxford Senior V.P. Shapiro laid out his group’s new project in detail to The Villager, in advance of a presentation he would make later that night at C.B. 2’s 550 Washington St. Working Group, chaired by Bergman. (The concerns by C.B. 2 members cited throughout this article were raised at that working group meeting.)

Oxford is the real-estate arm of Ontario’s municipal employees’ pension plan.

As for why Oxford’s part of the St. John’s project is now commercial, Shapiro said, “It was very attractive as an office site. It’s the floor plates. It’s the community in which it resides. And it’s the outdoor space: It’s right on the river, and it’s right across from Hudson River Park and Pier 40.”

The building’s “biophilic” design features 3 acres of open space, including terraces facing the river. According to Oxford’s Dean Shapiro, 550 Washington St. will offer “the widest sunset” viewing on the Hudson. Most the building’s open space will actually be located indoors, though.

Asked what kind of commercial tenants he envisions for the building, Shapiro said it could range from finance to biotechnology.

“Traditionally, you would say it’s creative and tech,” he said. “But given the evolution of what we’re seeing, it could be anything: JP Morgan, LinkedIn, Genzyme.”

In short, Hudson Square is attracting an “educated, technically savvy, generally young workforce,” he explained.

“Aetna moved its headquarters to Hudson Square — that sends a real message,” he said.

The Connecticut-based life insurance behemoth plans to relocate to 106,000 square feet of space in two newly interconnected buildings that have been rebranded One Soho Square, at the northwest corner of Sixth Ave. and Spring St.

In addition, Disney is poised to redevelop the block at Varick and Vandam Sts., where City Winery is currently located.

Today’s companies are looking for locations that transcend the same old type of office space, and that’s precisely what Oxford’s building will do, he added.

“The lines in the workplace are getting blurred between work, social and lifestyle,” he explained. “People don’t want to be in a straight office. They want to be in a cool office space.”

The average age of office space in New York is 80 years old, he added, so new buildings are coveted.

Shapiro is a huge fan of architect Cook, who Oxford retained to do the new redesign for the St. John’s site’s southern portion. Cook is a leading proponent of “biophilic” design, using nature to enhance working and living environments. The new building will feature green outdoor spaces overlooking the Hudson and a green roof. However, of its total 3 acres of open space, most will actually be inside the building.

In an interesting design element, the original High Line tracks that run through the 1934 industrial building’s second floor will be preserved with their tops visible in the floors. Six sets of tracks, each 580 feet long, run through the existing St. John’s building’s southern portion. The terminal originally had a capacity for more than 225 freight cars.

“People really like to be in buildings that were used for something else before,” Cook explained. “There’s a feeling of authenticity.”

In a previous iteration — when the northern and southern sites were united in one development project — the plan was to uncover a portion of the old High Line rail beds that currently span Houston St., and preserve them as a public park space, as seen in the illustration above. That design element, though, did not make the final cut of the so-called “mixed-use” plan for the St. John’s site that the city approved two years ago. Now the project has been flipped to the so-called “hybrid” plan, which was a sort of Plan B that the city also approved two years ago.

The existing facade of the three-story base will be preserved, though its northern end will be opened up with glass to evoke the High Line entryway. The new upper floors will be clad in zinc. Shapiro called it “an architectural marriage of old and new.”

The building will also be cut back a bit south of Houston — the first truck bay and the area above it will be sliced out — allowing for the creation of a green public plaza along Houston St. This plaza will be raised up from 7 to 9 feet to put it above the flood plain.

A cobblestoned street of sorts will be created at the south end of the building, at Charlton St., just north of the Department of Sanitation garage. According to Oxford, this street really will be more for pedestrians and cyclists — the bike garage entrance will be there —as well as for taxis, Ubers and Lyfts to make drop-offs and pickups. But a C.B. 2 member worried that it would be used by drivers trying to maneuver around Holland Tunnel traffic.

Oxford also wants to add a crosswalk across West St. around Charlton St. Asked by The Villager if adding a bridge instead was an option, Shapiro, said it would be too difficult, partly because a “run-up” area to the bridge would be needed. As it is, it will be a challenge to get the crosswalk since it requires approvals from the state.

“We’re crossing a state highway,” Shapiro noted.

Asked if Oxford’s building would have a gym, he told The Villager it won’t, but that there will be “real recreation” in Hudson River Park right across the street. A rec center was only required if the southern part of the project was developed residentially.

The current St. John’s Terminal spans Houston St., above. Under the previous iteration of the plan, the whole 1934 building would have been demolished. Under an earlier scenario that was not ultimately approved by the city, this section at Houston St. would have been spanned by an elevated park or sorts, resembling the High Line park. Now, however, this bridged area will be completely demolished, though the southern part of the building now will be preserved as a solid based for Oxford to build on top of.

Being near the huge new Sanitation garage is not an issue, he said, calling it “a beautiful building” and also “a dry facility,” meaning the trucks are empty when they park inside it.

Another concern at Monday night’s working group meeting was raised by a facilities manager for U.P.S., whose distribution center is on the opposite side of Washington St. from the St. John’s Terminal. Under the development plan, the sidewalk on Washington’s west side would be widened and a bike lane added there, as well.

“You’re taking away 9 feet of turning radius,” complained the U.P.S. rep, who said he didn’t want his name printed.

An Oxford official at the meeting said this is what they are being asked to do by the city under the approved plan.

A rendering of the residential north towers in the original St. John’s Partners plan, viewed from the north. At 430 feet tall, this was to be the development’s highest point. This site is now an entirely separate project being done by Atlas and Westbrook. Meanwhile, the St. John’s site south of Houston St. is now being developed commercially by Oxford. Courtesy COOKFOX

Over all, Shapiro said, Oxford is psyched to do this project and do it well.

“We feel an incredible obligation to get this right,” he told The Villager. “This is a development that’s been hiding in plain sight for a long time. We need to nail this. We think it’s going to be beautiful.”

Shapiro noted that Eugene M. Grant owned the building for decades but no one could ever pry it lose from him.

“It has been the object of lust for developers for decades,” Shapiro said.

This is Oxford’s first solo project in New York City. It is currently partnering with Related Companies on a major project in Hudson Yards.

A native Manhattanite, Shapiro now lives nearby in the Village on W. 12th St. Coincidentally, his favorite area to hang out in is Hudson Square, in which the St. John’s Terminal is located. His favorite bar is the Ear Inn, on Spring St., and he used to enjoy McGovern’s bar down the block before its new incarnation as a restaurant.

“I liked McGovern’s when it had the bands in the back,” he said. “I won’t go there now.”

David Gruber, a working group member, called Shapiro an “engaged developer,” which could bode well for their efforts to negotiate with him about tweaking the project.

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