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Tackling Big Things in Small Places

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Photo by Ofer Wolberger
Crowded House: The Pace housing project is located within two blocks of five other major construction jobs, including the World Trade Center and the Fulton Street Transit Center.
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Manhattan contractors are used to building in small spaces. But when an owner-developer joint venture team offered to custom-design a 24-story tower for Pace University housing at 180 Broadway, the idea of "small spaces" took on a new dimension. The $60-million project is in a particularly congested part of the city—and within two blocks of five other major construction jobs, including the World Trade Center redevelopment and the Fulton Street Transit Center, which is across the street.

The 156,000-sq-ft structure on the 7,000-sq-ft site is also across the street from the historic Corbin Building, which is undergoing construction at 192 Broadway on one of Manhattan's busiest thoroughfares. As recently as January, the Pace and Corbin projects began sharing John Street, their only side street, with a Con Edison project team replacing a gas main.

The Pace project team, led by construction manager Tishman Construction, wound up evaluating—and at times re-evaluating—logistics, including where and when deliveries could be made, the placement of the crane, and working around a newspaper kiosk that has shared sidewalk space with the project from the beginning.

"It's like trying to work on a postage stamp," says Scott Fehmel, Tishman project manager.

But the complexity of the Karl Fischer Architect-designed building, which will include three floors of retail space, is about more than the construction and traffic congestion that surrounds the site, says Robert F. DeWitt Jr., senior vice president of construction at SL Green Realty Corp., New York, part of the joint venture team. "It's also in a heavily populated residential area, where people have been [enduring] construction for 10 years straight" due to the WTC project, he says.

That was one of the several hurdles that SL Green and joint venture partner Jeff Sutton of Wharton Partners had not counted on in 2007 when they acquired the site for future development. "At that time, we thought it would be solely for retail," DeWitt says.

But when the possibility of securing Pace as an anchor tenant arose, plans changed. SL Green saw the chance to build its first dormitory as a way to broaden its largely commercial and retail owner portfolio, DeWitt says.

With Pace committed, SL Green and Sutton secured a five-year, $90-million construction loan facility led by Haleba Bank and partnered with Harel Insurance Investments and Financial Services as the third member of the joint venture. Hard project costs will account for two-thirds of the loan. Pre-development expenses, including leasing costs, air rights, legal fees and commissions, account for the rest.

Under the deal, Pace will lease 19 floors for student housing and one for amenities from the joint venture for a period of 30 years. The joint venture retains interest in the three bottom floors, which it hopes to lease to a single-use retail entity "that complements the downtown area," DeWitt says. He expects tenant interest to grow after the Fulton Street hub is completed in 2014 and foot traffic increases. He expects to secure tenants by December.

"We built this building because of Pace. We were not going to do it on spec," DeWitt says.

For Pace, which had long been searching unsuccessfully for an existing building to rent, the lure of having a custom-designed space to accommodate its needs made the 180 Broadway project a welcome solution, says William McGrath, senior vice president and chief administrative officer at Pace (see story below).

Before the project even began, however, it faced major concerns from the community about noise and safety issues. The project team became proactive, DeWitt says, and began "getting in front of the community board and the Downtown Alliance." The team set up a 24-hour hotline and placed vibration monitors in each of the surrounding buildings as well as in several individual apartments and on nearby train tracks as required by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, he adds.

Many safety precautions have been implemented, including the addition of a solid "cocoon" on the sides of the building that are open to the streets, says Frank DeGennaro, project executive at Tishman. The cocoon rises as the floors are completely poured.

The demolition phase that began in April 2011 was a major undertaking in and of itself, DeWitt says. Initial plans called for simultaneous demolition of three buildings on the site. The team had to change its plans, however, after discovering that a zoning code required that a portion of 2 John Street was to remain standing and the new structure built into that. Only afterward could the rest of 2 John Street be demolished.

The team brought the issue before city officials, who were already eyeing making changes to the zoning code. In the end, the City Planning Dept. included the team's suggestions into its modified code. That allowed the team to follow through with initial plans and take down all buildings simultaneously.

The whole process took two to three months but has had no impact on the target completion date of December, DeWitt says. He adds that the team also had to coordinate with several city agencies to close the John Street MTA subway entrance adjacent to the site. This allowed for the excavation and foundation work to be completed in only 16 weeks.

That kind of coordination with city officials and others is characteristic of the project. "Our team was confronted with a magnitude of logistical challenges unique to the downtown area," says Edward V. Piccinich, executive vice president, management and construction at SL Green. Other ongoing work in the area has "added to the coordination and staging at the tight [Pace] construction site, and logistics are reviewed at the start and end of each shift," he says.

Logistical issues played a role in the team's choice of a staging area, which was originally planned for John Street. But when it was learned that the neighboring Corbin project was already occupying one of the street's lanes, the Pace team decided to hold off erecting the five-story John Street entrance to the dorm and use that space for staging instead, DeGennaro says. Even figuring out where to place the crane required extra effort, he says. The crane, which had been on John Street, had to be moved to Broadway and, eventually, wound up in the concrete superstructure. The newspaper kiosk—which has remained in place throughout construction at the corner of Broadway and John—and the hoist on Broadway give the team only a 25-ft window to make all crane pickups.

"Logistically, this is the most difficult project undertaken by Tishman so far," DeGennaro says.

The project, which is SL Green's largest ground-up development to date, required "surgical demolition" and has had a tight schedule from the start, DeWitt says. SL Green has done two other ground-up projects that were also located in highly congested space, but neither of those were in such highly trafficked areas with competing construction, he says.

 

A Swift Building Pace

Pace University launched a five-year strategic plan last year that includes several construction projects on or near its campuses in Manhattan and Westchester County, N.Y. Plans include relocating residential students who reside far from the campuses to new housing that is within walking distance, says William McGrath, Pace senior vice president and chief administrative officer.

“There’s been a shift at Pace over the years from being a commuter school to more of a residential school,” McGrath says. When completed, 180 Broadway will provide roughly 600 beds for students.

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