Walker Tower – JDS Development

It seemed as if the world was coming apart at the seams when Michael Stern took a tour of the historic Art Deco Verizon building in New York City in 2008. As Stern was in the elevator heading to the roof, he received an alert on his phone indicating that Lehman Brothers had just collapsed to begin the tumult in the U.S. economy, and it appeared the timing just wasn’t right for Stern to make a deal.

Nevertheless, Stern, managing partner of JDS Development Group, pulled the trigger, purchasing the structure that will become Walker Tower once the retrofit is completed in 2013.

“I heard about the building from a friend and walked it the day Lehman collapsed,” Stern says. “I received a news alert on my phone saying Lehman just crashed, and I’m on the roof of the tallest building in Chelsea just west of Sixth Avenue. I saw the views and I said I have to buy this building – even though the world just fell apart.”

A year later, after enlisting Property Markets Group as his partners in the venture, the building was his. Today, it is being converted from a commercial structure into one of the “finest residential buildings” – as Stern describes it – in New York City. It will feature 50 residences of one to five bedrooms, each of which will offer spectacular views of New York City, from the Midtown skyline down to the rising World Trade Center and beyond.

The building has historical relevance as one of many famous Art Deco structures in New York City designed by prestigious architect Ralph Thomas Walker. According to the CORE Group – the real estate brokerage company selling the units – the building was constructed in 1929 for the New York Telephone Co. and features lavish entryways, ornate detailing and sweeping interior spaces that are not found in today’s condominium buildings.

Every window in the building has been resized – some growing to as large as 10 feet tall and 5 feet wide – to give views even to units on the lower floors that are protected by contextual low-rise zoning districts on one side and a landmarked historic district on the other. Units also will feature 14-foot-high ceilings, and half the apartments will offer private outdoor spaces, as well.

In the common areas, amenities will include a state-of-the-art fitness center on the ninth floor, children’s playroom, sauna and an expansive rooftop terrace. Additionally, there will be a residents’ lounge that doubles as a party space. Residents will be treated to white-glove service with 24-hour concierge available and porters on duty at all times. “This is a super high-quality residence,” Stern says.

Thus far, the core and shell of Walker Tower have been completed, as well as the low-rise elevator. JDS Development is working on the high-rise elevators, completing the skin of building and putting finishing touches on the interiors.

Complex Sophistication

The retrofit of Walker Tower calls for more than simply converting former office space into residential units. In creating residential units from this commercial structure, John Cetra of Cetra/CRI Architecture PLLC – the lead architect for the project – says he aimed to incorporate many of the tower’s existing features in the design of the redevelopment. These features include the depth of space, high ceilings, access to sunlight and picturesque views.

“The aim was to create the best type of residence that we could create with the incredible space we had to work with,” Cetra says. “We wanted to take advantage of those characteristics to really work them into the plans.”

To maintain these features, a number of special techniques and processes had to be considered by Cetra/CRI. For instance, despite appearing to be a uniform color from a distance, the façade actually consists of nine different colors of brick.

“We were doing some selective brick replacement of the ones that blended the most with the various colors within the walls,” Cetra explains. “That was an interesting challenge. The color is not standard, so we tried to get it to match as close as possible.”

Multitude of Hues

Along with varying colors, the façade features multiple shapes of brick and bricks oriented in different manners that create a texturized appearance. Cetra says this required the construction team to order some customized bricks to avoid removing bricks already in place at the risk of destroying them.

“Although a lot of the bricks are simply standard and rotated to create a chevron pattern, it gives the wall articulations, which is rich and a great play of light,” Cetra says. “Some bricks had a design element in the middle of them, so those had to be custom made. But sometimes if you try to take a brick out of the wall or knock cement off, it doesn’t come off without destroying the bricks. So, we had to have them custom-made to the shapes.”

While preserving as much of the exterior façade as possible, Cetra aimed to keep some of the intricacies of the interior design intact, as well. This included a number of ornamental grills made of nickel and steel and an electric bolt logo used throughout the structure.

“Wherever we could, we preserved everything,” Cetra says.

Cetra/CRI Architecture says it provides services in urban design, architecture and interior design.

“The challenges of new construction, renovation and adaptive re-use are addressed with intelligence, resourcefulness and sensitivity,” Cetra/CRI Architecture says.

Self-performed Excellence

JDS Development, which is self-performing the project, has relocated seven elevators in the building as well as all three staircases while maintaining emergency egress for the continually occupied commercial space on the ground floor.

JDS Development also has added four floors of residential space and three mechanical floors to the structure, while maintaining operations in the commercial space. A new mechanical, electrical and plumbing system is the most sophisticated ever installed in a condominium development, according to Stern. All units will feature hydronic radiant heat, zoned humidification, outside make-up air and a state-of the art central chiller plant with modular chillers will cool the building.

Sales Under Way

Stern says Walker Tower units are selling strongly with some units trading at more than $3,000 per square foot.

Even with all the challenges that accompany a retrofit of this magnitude, Stern is ecstatic with the progress on the structure so far. He says anything can be accomplished if the right mix of experienced personnel is brought onto the team that can plan ahead for any problems that might arise.

“I’ve learned the value of putting the right team in place,” Stern says. “When you have the right team and the right people, no challenge is insurmountable.”

By Brian Salgado, Building and Construction Northeast

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