Google it? Tech giant eyes Downtown expansion

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. Google is reportedly interested in the property. Images courtesy COOKFOX Architects

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Updated Dec. 13, 12:01 a.m.: Amazon’s megadeal to create a headquarters in Long Island City — and the fact it was greased with $3 billion in state and city tax breaks and incentives — has dominated headlines over the past month. Under the plan, the Internet commerce giant would employ up to 25,000 people at the L.I.C. location.

However, another deal also involving an enormous Internet-based corporation — though notably without benefiting from any financial incentives — hasn’t generated nearly as much buzz.

In short, the “Googling” of Manhattan’s Lower West Side looks like it will continue, with the tech colossus seemingly set to add yet another massive former industrial property — part of the St. John’s Building, in Hudson Square — to its portfolio.

Yet, there are concerns among locals about Google’s sites being too “self-contained,” traffic impact, whether it would ratchet up development pressure in the surrounding area, the fear of “Downtown becoming Midtown,” and also whether the building would include a publicly accessible recreation center.

About a month ago, news broke that Google was eyeing the southern two blocks of the St. John’s Building site, at 550 Washington St. Oxford Properties Group plans to create a 1.3-million-square-foot, 12-story commercial building at the location, which is the former terminus of the High Line. The design, by COOKFOX Architects, would retain most of the existing structure as a base, then add additional floors on top.

The Wall Street Journal reported Oxford and Google are close to inking a deal. The project, which is set to be completed by 2022, could bring up to 8,500 Google employees into the neighborhood. Add those to the 7,000 workers Google already has in Chelsea, plus the 3,500 more it plans to add at Pier 57, and it would total 21,000 Google employees in the city — just a few thousand shy of what Amazon would have.

However, the parties are playing it close to the vest so far. A Google spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment about the potential deal.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the property’s developer replied, “Oxford has no comment.”

Similarly, Ellen Baer, president and C.E.O. of the Hudson Square Connection Business Improvement District, had nothing to say on the big news.

“I don’t know anything [about it],” she said. “I only know what I read in the papers. … I don’t really like to comment on hypotheticals.”

An aide for a local politician told The Villager that all the area’s elected officials are currently also in the dark about what’s going on with Google and 550 Washington St. He added that local pols want Google to include a rec center that would be open to the public during some hours. (An earlier version of the St. John’s project was required to have a rec center, but not this one.)

Google already has a massive presence along the Lower West Side — namely, in Chelsea. In 2010, the tech behemoth purchased 111 Eighth Ave., covering the full square block between 15th and 16th Sts. and Eighth and Ninth Aves., for $1.9 billion. Constructed by the Port Authority as an “inland terminal” for rail freight and a trucking depot, at 2.9 million square feet, it ranks among the city’s largest buildings.

The building’s “biophilic” design features 3 acres of open space, including these future terraces that would face the river — a great spot for Google employees to eat their (free) lunches. According to developer Oxford, 550 Washington St., once completed, will offer “the widest sunset” viewing on the Hudson. Under the deign, most of the building’s open space will actually be located indoors, though.

Fast-forward eight years to this March, and Google closed a $2.4 billion deal with Jamestown to buy the entire Chelsea Market building, at 75 Ninth Ave., which occupies the full square block just west of 111 Eighth Ave. Another former industrial building, this was where Nabisco once made Oreos. Google is also reportedly planning to expand this property by 300,000 square feet.

Moving along to the next huge building directly to the west, 85 Tenth Ave. — also once a Nabisco property — the tech giant occupies an additional 240,000 square feet.

Continuing the “Googling” of this Chelsea corridor as far west as it can go, Google is also leasing 320,000 square feet as the soon-to-be anchor tenant at Pier 57 in Hudson River Park.

Dan Miller, a Community Board 2 member, is a past president of the Greenwich Village Little League. He and a bloc of others on the board are deeply emotionally invested in the future of Pier 40, the 14.5-acre pier right across the West Side Highway from the St. John’s Building, specifically because of its playing fields. Currently, the W. Houston St. pier’s corroded steel support piles are being fixed up with $100 million that was paid to the Hudson River Park Trust by the St. John’s Partners development group, in exchange for 200,000 square feet of development rights from the pier. This past January, Oxford bought the southern half of the St. John’s site from St. John’s Partners. Because the southern part of the site is being developed commercially, all the “air rights” will now go to the project site’s northern part, which St. John’s Partners still owns, and which will be developed with a mix of market-rate and affordable housing.

The Trust, which is building and operating the 4.5-mile-long Hudson River Park, has expressed interest in redeveloping Pier 40 with commercial office space, to increase the park’s revenue. The fields would remain, in some form. But Miller has previously voiced concern to The Villager about corporate employees taking over the playing fields for company events, cutting into youth sports leagues’ use of the pier.

“I’m more concerned about infrastructure issues, like public and private transportation, the clogging of narrow Washington St., and overcrowding of the C and 1 trains,” he said. “It’s likely Pier 40 will be considered in plans as an additional drop-off zone for employees, whether it be via ferry — not yet discussed, as far as I know — or vehicles using its circular lot.

“The fields are for public, not private use,” Miller stressed. “I’m hopeful Oxford and Alphabet recognize Pier 40’s importance to our community.”

David Gruber, a former chairperson of C.B. 2, expressed concern that Google employees don’t patronize local eateries because of what could be dubbed the “salmon factor” — they get free food on the Google “campus.”

“If it becomes Google, the restaurants are not going to get the business from their thousands of employees because Google provides all the food for them,” Gruber said. Describing Google’s flagship Chelsea building, he said, “There’s food every 100 feet — and it’s all free. Guys are making poached salmon with steamed vegetables. They don’t want people to leave.”

Like Miller, Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said his group is concerned about the impact Google would have on the area.

“As a commercial development, regardless of who it is, it’s going to generate a lot of traffic,” he said. “And there’s not a lot of public transportation there. Residential use at that site would have led to less traffic.”

In addition, Berman, cited the development pressure the tech industry has been putting on the West and East Villages.

“The concern I have about Google is it further identifies this part of town as the beachhead for technology,” he said. “ ‘Google’ says, this is the best new spot for the industry; this is where tech is.”

Phil Mouquinho, a longtime Hudson Square restaurateur, closed down his place, P.J. Charlton, at Greenwich and Charlton Sts., last July because a developer was constructing two 30-story high-rise towers, one on each side of it.

Mouquinho is also on the Hudson Square Connection BID’s board. He noted that the goal of rezoning the area about five years ago was to push it from being 96 percent commercial and 4 percent residential to 75 percent commercial and 25 percent residential. But that’s not happening rapidly, as seen in the possible Google deal.

“There’s a glut of residential,” Mouquinho explained, noting the price of residential units is coming down. “They need commercial,” he said.

He added that Disney plans to commercially redevelop the entire nearby Trinity Real Estate-owned block currently home to City Winery. Disney will pay Trinity $650 million for a 99-year lease for the block.

“It’s good because it’s going to populate an area that’s been dead for years,” he said of Google. “It’s bad because of the traffic it’s going to bring and because it’s self-contained,” he added, referring to the company’s gratis grub.

Martin Sheridan has owned the Ear Inn bar on Spring St. for 40 years.

“It’s not just Google,” he said. “Midtown has moved Downtown. I can’t believe the amount of f—ing building going on. Actually, we’re one of the last ones left.”

Recalling the area when he took over the Ear Inn, Sheridan said, “It was the end of the working waterfront. It was desolate. It was garbage trucks on the street. It was a total f—ing mess.”

Of the rapid changes on the West Side that now stretch all the way up to Hudson Yards, he reflected, “I’m so surprised. I knew this would happen — but not this fast.”

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