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Fancy Flats in Old Boxes

By: Alex Frangos

April 7th, 2004

For rent: newly converted luxury “loft” with strange layout in ugly 1970s office building.

A new type of apartment and condo conversion is taking hold in some cities, and, frankly, it isn’t pretty. Facing a tightening supply of elegant Pre-World War II buildings to turn into lavish living spaces, plus high vacancy rates in the office market, real-estate developers are turning to boxy office towers built in the Nixon era — and transforming them into the hottest new home addresses around.

In Manhattan, an erstwhile Bank of New York back office at 90 Washington Street, completed in 1970, reopened last fall promoting “loft studios perfected.” Brochures are filled with dazzling color photos of New York views, but none show the building itself, a drab, boxy, brown and white tile 27-story high-rise. Even the architect who supervised the conversion, blocks from the World Trade Center, Avinash K. Malhotra, admits it’s “not really a very pretty building.”

The former headquarters of the Getty Oil Co. on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles is a similar tale. The 22-story marble-clad monolith, which sat vacant for 10 years and almost became a building housing telecom equipment, save for the Internet bubble bursting, has its first open house for renters next month. One-bedrooms will go for around $1,150, larger units for over $3,500. What will prospective tenants see as they drive up? “It was your typical 1960s-designed modern building,” says John Reed, the architect on that redo. “I wouldn’t call it a historic landmark.”

Inside such conversions, form often follows the original office function, which presents a problem: Floor sizes are too large to get light deep into the apartments. “The views were very beautiful, but the apartment layouts were difficult,” says Nancy J. Ruddy of Cetra/Ruddy Architects, the New York firm that worked on the interiors at 90 Washington. She says new apartment buildings are usually 60 feet deep but “a lot of these office buildings are 100 feet deep.”

After World War II, corporations were bent on making office buildings as efficient as assembly lines. So, instead of the slender brick and tile beauties of the 1920s and ’30s, companies slapped up whatever could give them parking-lot-size floor space to accommodate herds of office workers. And thanks to cheap fluorescent lighting, staff could be stuck in the middle of the building, away from natural light.

While floor sizes of the postwar office buildings seemed big when they were built, today they can’t compete with newer office buildings, which typically have twice as much space per floor, around 25,000 square feet. So they find a new life as apartments — and to make the jump from office to residential, their floors have to be carved up into deep and narrow apartments shaped more like recreational vehicles than homes. Those “perfected” lofts at 90 Washington, for instance, are typically no wider than 12 feet, and as long as 40 feet.

Architects have some tricks to make the spaces feel homier. Kitchens and bathrooms are stacked away from the windows, leaving what light there is to living areas. Entrances are placed in the middle of the apartment, rather than the end. When people enter, they aren’t confronted with the full length of the space.

Some of the 90 Washington units are so long, the developer has installed “home occupancy” spaces — basically interior windowless rooms toward the back. They can’t be called bedrooms, since the New York City Building Code requires bedrooms to have light and ventilation. Do tenants use them as bedrooms? The developer and his architects won’t say.

“We try to size those spaces so they are large enough for multiple uses,” says Ms. Ruddy. “It’s better to do that rather than make a long skinny apartment that feels like a bowling alley.”

Another disadvantage of the giant-size floor space is the maze of corridors. They tend to be longer and turn more than regular buildings. To avoid the feeling of an “anonymous rabbit warren,” at 90 Washington, Ms. Ruddy changed the wall colors at each turn and installed high-end light fixtures to “help the walking distance feel more interesting.”

To compensate for shortcomings inside the units, landlords are installing extravagant common spaces. The Getty building, renamed the Wilshire at Western by the developer, Upside Investments Inc., Calabasas, Calif., will sport a conference center and entertainment space, in addition to the heated rooftop pool and martini bar — liquor license pending.

The buildings have other pluses. They are usually tall, so higher-floor views can be breathtaking. Some residents at the old Bank of New York tower can see the Statue of Liberty on one side and, for now, the Empire State Building on the other (redevelopment of the World Trade Center site will eventually block views of the latter).

Ceiling heights are also generous, usually at least 10 feet. In offices, wires and duct work, hidden above drop ceiling panels, take up close to two feet of height. As apartments, those items are gutted, and the heating and electrical systems go through or along the wall.

Proximity to transit and downtown amenities is another bonus. Ted Hamilton, a developer in Dallas, is in the planning stages on two adjacent buildings “in the dead center of downtown Dallas on the light rail line.” The Getty building is across the street from Los Angeles’s Red Line, which is a direct link to downtown.

In Fort Worth, Texas, Tony Landrum of TLC Realty Advisors is swapping offices for condos and apartments in the 37-story Bank One tower, near Sundance Square, the downtown cultural center. “It’s a landmark for the city — ground zero where you want to be for activities,” Mr. Landrum says.

Completed in 1974, the tower was devastated by a tornado in March 2000 and had to be stripped “all the way back to structure,” Mr. Landrum says.” The building is slated to open in its new guise in January 2005.

Driving some of the conversions are tax incentives and rebates to encourage investment in historic buildings. The success of Mr. Hamilton’s project in Dallas hinges on his two buildings receiving historic-site status by various public authorities. If qualified, he will receive close to 20% of the project cost in rebates and tax abatements, or around $16 million of the $92 million project. The hitch is that one of the buildings was built in 1958, on the cusp of the cutoff date for historic eligibility.

Another factor drawing prospective tenants to the converted office buildings is that 1950s and ’60s are cool again in design circles, with furniture and clothing reflecting the three-martini-lunch ethos. Mr. Hamilton is banking on that in Dallas, where he plans to preserve an apartment once used by corporate executives. “It looks like Ricky Ricardo’s apartment,” he says.

As with any construction project, things can go wrong. At 90 Washington, tenants revolted when move-in dates got pushed back and amenities such as a gym and golf driving range didn’t materialize until months after they were promised. Lack of heat on frozen winter nights and broken elevators, according to tenants, didn’t help matters. A few dozen tenants contacted a local attorney, Adam Leitman Bailey, who organized a rent strike. Negotiations with the landlord, Moinian Group, are ongoing.

Allan R. Holmquist, the building manager, admits there are problems but says the company is “almost done” with resolving all of the complaints. “We’re confident we will come to some kind of agreement” with the tenants, he says.

Whatever the problems, the building is almost filled. David Burke, who has a ninth-floor unit, says the space is large by New York standards. “It’s narrow,” he says. “But that’s fine. Other studios have columns and I was able to get one without.”


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