Tom Acitelli Jan. 14, 2010, 2:30 p.m.
Just 11 years ago, the space was a massive loading dock. Now huge screens dominate a comfortable-looking sunken meeting space, the conference room where “Google NYC” video-chats with other offices of the Internet giant. The room in Google’s Manhattan office at 111 Eighth Avenue is itself emblematic of changes in New York in the past decade. What had been a mild-mannered storage facility has been converted into some of the most desirable and technically well-equipped office space in the city.
The Works Progress Administration, spawned by the New Deal, built 111 Eighth Avenue in 1932, when the scale of a project was no object. The brick-and-steel, 18-story building has multiple tiers of applied masonry and occupies the full block between Eighth and Ninth avenues between 15th and 16th streets. It was owned and operated by the Port Authority, who used it to handle freight trucked down the West Side highway from the docks.
In 1972, the Port Authority moved its storage and office facilities to the World Trade Center. In an auction, they sold 111 Eighth to the Sylvan Lawrence Company, the partnership of Sylvan Lawrence and Seymour Cohn. At the time, the building’s only notable feature was the huge loading dock, big enough to move a semi-truck, which dominates its center. It was lightly occupied by storage, printing and “back-end” office tenants-an unlikely candidate for prestige.
In 1998, as Sylvan began to dissolve and sell off assets, it sold the 2.9 million-square-foot building to Taconic Investment Partners in a $387,500,000 transaction for four properties: 95 Wall Street, 99 Wall Street, 100 William Street and 111 Eighth Avenue. Taconic felt that what is now New York’s second-largest building was hardly meeting its potential.
At first, Taconic focused on leasing to telecommunications companies, both because it could provide the needed technical infrastructure and because the specialized brokers leasing to those companies quickly came to trust Taconic. According to a New York Times article in 1999, the real estate investment company was so pleasantly surprised with the formula it had developed that it exported the concept and was planning to develop warehouse space for high-tech firms in Chicago.
The very sturdy floors and fiber-optic infrastructure of 111 Eighth drew tech companies like Barnesandnoble.com and later WebMd.com. “It is a highly technical space,” said Taconic Co-CEO Paul Pariser, but he was quick to point out that tenants in a variety of industries now call 111 Eighth home, including fashion, television and advertising companies. “We didn’t want to be a one-trick pony.”
The purchase was a ballsy move. “I saw the framework for it to be one of the finest office buildings in the city of New York,” Mr. Pariser said. “It had a picture window to the city. But we had to find new technologies to make it modern.” In 1998, during the Giuliani-era cleanup, the surrounding neighborhood was relatively bleak. The building had no-name tenants that were paying in the teens per square foot for carved-up space. After $50 million in capital improvements, 111 Eighth was poised to maximally benefit from certain shifts: Companies flocked uptown after 9/11; the meatpacking district began to flourish. The huge floor plates, in combination with the cachet of being meatpacking-adjacent, were exactly what the image- and lifestyle-conscious technology and fashion companies sought. Besides, trendy space does not usually come in bulk.
The building’s prestige was formalized when the ultimate telecom tenant moved there in 2006. Google fought Infiniti Broadcasting and Bertelsmann Music Group for the space, beating them out for the sheer size: more than 270,000 square feet. Google joined original anchor tenant Deutsche Communications as well as Nike, Lifetime Television and management consulting firm CT Corporation. Google was also able to grab 200,000 square feet of contiguous space, a rarity in Manhattan. That city-block-size space, on the fourth floor, has an almost uninterrupted panoramic view. And despite its obvious aesthetic value, the space has a low-frill/high-functionality feeling. It somehow nearly embodies Google’s philosophy.
Google’s self-cultivated image as benevolent monopolist of your online hopes, fears and identity can at times be hard to swallow. Alas, the Google themes of collaboration, transparency and individuality-be they marketing mantra or defining ethos-purposefully permeate its Manhattan hub. The office space feels like a playground in all ways: primary colors throughout; M&Ms, legos and large exercise balls peppering the common spaces. It feels open yet carefully assembled. (In the small supplemental space Google takes across the street at Chelsea Market, there is a fully functional slide and a graffiti wall.)
At 111 Eighth, tenants build out their own spaces mostly, and Google has crafted its in a typically heady yet playful way. Googlers race around the office on razor scooters, which they can later park in the thoughtful “lots” outside of conference rooms. Every workstation is as close to a window as possible; no one has his or her own office-instead, there are small rooms for private phone calls in the center of the office. Conference-room walls are literally transparent, in an absurdly direct manifestation of Google’s corporate ideals.
The building is an opportunity, a reciprocally beneficial opportunity, for Taconic and Google to showcase custom-built space. Google fills out its brand, and Taconic fills out its high-end tenant roster. So far, it is working out very well. The building is 98.5 percent leased and has a waiting list. Asking rents vary greatly, from the high $50s per square foot for basic space, up into the $80s for highly technical space, according to Mr. Pariser.
“It has franchise value as a building,” he said. “It’s unique.”