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How 1 million square feet of New York office space was turned into apartments

One Wall Street provides a timely model for converting empty office buildings into residential units. The question now is how to create affordable adaptive reuse housing that won’t just cater to the elite.

How 1 million square feet of New York office space was turned into apartments
[Image: Macklowe Properties]

The story goes that when Harry Macklowe, the prominent New York developer at the helm of Macklowe Properties, got into development in the 1960s, he acquired his first commercial loan from Irving Trust. Then located at the intersection of Broadway and Wall Street, the Irving Trust headquarters occupied all 50 floors of a grandiose Art Deco skyscraper. Now the story has come full circle, as Macklowe Properties nears the conversion of that same building—from a pillar of finance to a luxury condominium.

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[Image: Macklowe Properties]
Macklowe Properties, also behind the infamous 432 Park Avenue, purchased One Wall Street in 2014, but the conversion has taken on a new meaning amid pandemic-fueled changes in work patterns. As of October last year, only 28 percent of Manhattan office workers had returned to their desks, and a third of the major employers surveyed by the Partnership for New York City anticipated they would need less office space over the next five years.

The pandemic has changed how—and how often—we use offices. Companies all over the U.S. have been reducing their office footprints or shuttering offices altogether, and cities are now weighing whether to convert empty office buildings into housing. One Wall Street offers a timely (if expensive) model for this, and while that model may only apply to luxury living, it makes a solid case for adaptive reuse in a corner of Manhattan that is growing more residential every year. As more boardrooms become bedrooms, the question now remains to figure out how to transform these buildings into affordable housing that won’t just serve the elite.

[Image: Macklowe Properties]
At 1.2 million square feet, One Wall Street is the city’s largest-ever conversion of an office tower to housing. Standing one block from the New York Stock Exchange, the Art Deco landmark was the work of architect Ralph Walker, who designed a myriad of other Art Deco buildings in the city. Now, the conversion is being helmed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects in a collaboration with SLCE Architects, and the building is slated for completion later this year.

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[Image: Macklowe Properties]
One Wall Street is actually two buildings: a 50-story tower from 1931, and a 30-story extension to the south, which Irving Trust commissioned in the early 1960s, almost doubling the building’s footprint. Protruding from the southern tower’s original facade, a glass annex now rises to about six stories and encompasses a 44,000-square-foot Whole Foods at its base, plus about 20 residential units above it. In total, the building now boasts 170,000 square feet of publicly accessible space across both towers.

“We took this opportunity to make what we call a mini-Rockefeller Center here,” says Richard Dubrow, director of marketing at Macklowe Properties, while on a recent tour of the building. On the side of the building that faces Wall Street, Macklowe Properties has spent $1 million restoring the famous Red Room, a 9,000-square-foot, mosaic-filled atrium created by artisan Hildreth Meière. Once a banking hall for Irving Trust’s most loyal clientele, the dazzling space will be occupied by a yet-to-be-announced retailer.

[Photo: Michael Young/courtesy Macklowe Properties]
A three-story athletic center is mostly tucked underground (without much daylight), and a six-story addition on top will house more units, plus a 75-foot indoor pool, a private restaurant, and a landscaped terrace on the 38th and 39th floors.

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[Photo: Michael Young/courtesy Macklowe Properties]
As I’m ushered around the building, from the decadent Red Room to the luxurious, Miele-studded apartments, it’s easy to forget this was once the headquarters of a bank. (By the time Macklowe purchased the building, it had switched hands to The Bank of New York Mellon Corporation.) That’s because, Red Room aside, everything else inside the building was completely gutted and rebuilt from scratch.

Future residents will enter the building through a previously shuttered entrance on Broadway, which was restored to look like its original architect had intended it. Further above, swathes of offices, complete with fluorescent light and drop ceilings, metamorphosed into 566 living units ranging from studios to four-bedroom apartments. At the crown of the building, where the boardroom once stood, there is now a triplex penthouse that may fetch $40 million.

Office buildings, especially pre-war ones, don’t always make for easy conversions to housing. They weren’t built to maximize daylight, deep floor plates make it hard to utilize the core, and many windows didn’t open. (At One Wall Street, the Landmarks Preservation Commission allowed the developers to put in new windows while preserving their gently curved design.)

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[Image: Macklowe Properties]
To avoid awkward layouts—and ensure that every apartment comes with windows—Macklowe moved the elevators from the perimeter to the center of the building. They also reduced the number of elevators from a mind-boggling 36 down to 12, split across the northern and southern towers. (The original elevator doors couldn’t be reused because they didn’t meet current building codes, but Dubrow said they will be reused in the Whole Foods downstairs.)

Most floors are laid out in an H-shaped figure, with two rows of apartments on each side, and the building core, which gets no daylight, has been given over to a series of storage rooms that can be found on virtually every floor. Perhaps the building’s biggest perks are the natural setbacks, which have been turned into outdoor terraces (they weren’t accessible before). I visited a two-bedroom unit on the sixth floor, and a three-bedroom unit on the 25th floor, all of which boasted unique layouts—elongated kitchens with chamfered windows, bedrooms with private terrace access—in part because of the setbacks.

Sales launched in October, but the developers aren’t releasing how many units have sold. What is clear is that, with about 190 different floor plans, the converted building provides an antithesis to the cookie-cutter apartments found in most new buildings. What is also clear is that, with enough capital, and the freedom that comes with gut renovations, almost every building, particularly more slender towers with compact floor plates, can be turned into housing.

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Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the square footage of the building.

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