Little Pink Hardhats: PBC’s Alicia Popper Repositioned HSBC’s Headquarters

The pink construction helmets, three of which are proudly displayed in Alicia Popper’s office, collectively serve as touching reminder to the PBC USA Real Estate broker that construction workers and tenants alike appreciate her for her work.

“I’m accepted, I’m embraced,” said Ms. Popper, a senior vice president of leasing and construction. Standing inside her temporary office at 452 Fifth Avenue, a building she helped transform from the former HSBC headquarters into a multi-tenant building, Ms. Popper showed off a bright-pink helmet that bears the logo of the Otis Elevator Company. The helmet was, like Ms. Popper, attractive yet tough.

img 1293 Little Pink Hardhats: PBCs Alicia Popper Repositioned HSBC’s Headquarters“They go out of their way to get me pink hardhats,” Ms. Popper said.

She may receive another pink construction helmet when she is finished overseeing renovations at 452 Fifth Avenue, a Class A, 865,000-square-foot office tower that once held HSBC as its sole tenant. That changed in 2009 when IDB Group, the Israel-based parent company of PBC USA, paid $352 million for the tower. The company then embarked on an ambitious $22 million capital improvement campaign that included a $7.5 million renovation of the lobby (out with the rusted marble, in with the Jerusalem stone and French limestone).

The results, so far, have been satisfactory for Ms. Popper and PBC USA. Nearly all of the space has been leased out, and now, flush with a $400 million loan from JPMorgan Chase, the firm is in the process of building out 10 floors.

“Space was never available here,” Ms. Popper said. Walking the 29th floor of 452 Fifth Avenue, it’s not hard to see why HSBC would want to keep the space to itself. The floor offers a rare glimpse into an outdoor patio on the landmarked Lord & Taylor building at 424 Fifth Avenue and sweeping views of the New York Public Library and Bryant Park. The views from the top three floors, meanwhile, were so special that Edmond Safra, a Lebanese-Brazilian banker who once owned 452 Fifth Avenue, chose to build one elevator each for the top two floors.

To get to those upper floors today, a security guard-slash-chaperone is required (Mr. Safra, who was reportedly obsessed with safety, died in 1999 during an arson attack inside his Monaco home.) For a visitor, this is impressive. For a tenant, this can be exhausting.

This is why PBC USA currently has a bulkhead on the roof of the building that, when complete, will allow all five elevators in 452 Fifth Avenue to access the top three floors, Ms. Popper said. With that done, those top floors are expected to hit the market by November, with asking rents expected to hit as high as $140 per square foot.

The views help command those prices, along with the new infrastructure that Ms. Popper worked to help put in place.
Among the mission-critical projects in the building is the installation of a 750-ton cooling tower on the roof to service the tower tenants, which is set to be operational Aug. 1. There will be a new 750-killowatt generator that will be operational in October and provide enough backup power to provide comfort cooling to the tenants.

“These are basically self-contained environments,” she said. “We have such a unique product here in Manhattan you can truly run 24-7.”

PBC USA hired Ms. Popper away from Savitt Partners in January 2011, when she was tasked with oversee the repositioning and leasing campaign for 452 Fifth Avenue.

HSBC was still the primary tenant in the tower. The bank moved out of floors 12-30 in May 2011 and re-stacked into the base of the building, leaving PBC USA Real Estate with 18 vacant floors. “We first had to do demolition and start leasing,” Ms. Popper said.
One of her first moves in her position was having one floor demolished to showcase the space and the views.
Ms. Popper had the space whiteboxed—in other words, the steel beams and the deck were sprayed white, and a new cement floor was installed.

Doing so emphasized the floor’s views, as was the case with the 22nd floor in the building (which is currently available).
“We see floor-to-ceiling glass facing north. There are no perimeter radiator units. All heat and air is ducted in from above,” she said.
As a nice touch, the space features the distinctly green round tables and chairs from Bryant Park, a gift from the Bryant Park business improvement district (which PBC USA is involved with).

“In six months, we leased, the team leased, 240,000 square feet of office and retail space at record rents,” Ms. Popper said.

Among those new tenants moving into 452 Fifth Avenue are law firm Baker & McKenzie (105,803 square feet), Russian investment bank VTB Capital (16,428 square feet) and the masculinely named investment firm The Man Group (49,000 square feet). The fastest deal they closed was VTB Capital, which was closed out in eight weeks; the space was built out in seven weeks.
In addition to its views, the draw of 452 Fifth Avenue is what every Bryant Park area building has: proximity to Grand Central.
“This is the commute of heaven,” Ms. Popper said. “I call this an adult location … if you want to be in a neighborhood with flair, this is the neighborhood, and you’re still in Midtown.”

This is not Ms. Popper’s first time repositioning a property. During her days at Murray Hill Properties, among other firms she has worked for, she specialized in repositioning such buildings as 1412 Broadway and 1450 Broadway, incorporating tech companies into a predominantly garment tenant roster.

Long before repositions and pink hardhats came into the picture, the John Dewey High School graduate was an engineering major at SUNY-Stony Brook. A brief stint working as a national accounts manager at Standard Motor Products gave way to real estate, where she worked stints at Sylvan Lawrence Company and at Newmark & Company. At Newmark she worked for the leasing team for 111 and 115 Broadway and for 29 John Street, representing owner McDonnell Douglas Finance Corporation. She also represented such tenants as Neiman Marcus Group and ING Realty Partners during her stint at Murray Hill Properties.
“I’ve been prosecutor and defense attorney. I’ve worked both sides,” she said. “I’ve worked Midtown, I’ve worked Midtown West, and I have worked Downtown in the Financial district.”

Ms. Popper was raised in Marine Park, a part of Brooklyn that was both scenic and tough. She lives now in New Rochelle—“like Brooklyn North, but with lots of green grass and many trees”—with two daughters, both of whom are currently away at sleepaway camp.

The fact she and her daughters are still alive and well is not lost on Ms. Popper.

“We should have all been dead,” she said.

In April 2011, Ms. Popper and her two daughters were nearly killed by carbon monoxide poisoning inside their family home.
She said that on the day of the incident, she was aware she needed to replace her carbon monoxide detector but was unable to do so because of a hectic work schedule.

Later that night, she and her two daughters fell ill from what they believed was food poisoning. She was able to call 911 before falling unconscious. First responders from the New Rochelle Police Department and Fire Department immediately came to the family’s aid.
“We were basically dead and had to be resuscitated,” Ms. Popper recalled.

Both she and her daughters would eventually recover from the incident.

“The children didn’t suffer any brain damage … that’s the miracle,” said Ms. Popper.

“You are truly in the presence of the luckiest woman on earth.”

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