With so many moving parts, adaptive reuse projects frequently take longer to get off the ground and they involve unforeseen challenges—but the results can be more interesting than those found in new construction. “We [also] think that redeveloping historic buildings is an inherently green strategy,” says Bruce Becker,AIA, AICP, President of Becker + Becker, whose Fairfield, Ct-based firm developed, designed and planned The Octagon, a high-profile adaptive reuse project in New York.
Originally built in 1839 as part of the New York City Lunatic Asylum, the landmark Octagon Tower was preserved and is the focal point in this transformation that required construction of new residential wings. Today The Octagon is comprised of 500 apartments plus a daycare center, exhibition gallery, tennis courts and below-grade parking. The LEED Silver project also offers enviable views from its Roosevelt Island perch on the East River between Manhattan and Queens. A two-acre park was also developed as part of the project.
“The Octagon was a ruin when we inherited it, and there were many different opinions about how the property should be redeveloped,” says Becker. “It was a challenge to design a building that fit the requirements of the various historical agencies involved and that was also extremely energy efficient, used recycled and local materials, and so forth,” adds Becker.
High performance mechanical systems and materials, including a 50kw array of solar panels, allows the building to use 35 percent less energy than a conventional building. In addition, The Octagon uses 10 percent recycled materials and 20 percent local materials that were produced or constructed within 500 miles. At least 50 of the construction materials are recycled.
Funded through a combination of conventional financing, historic tax credits and New York State green building tax credit equity, the project construction costs totaled $100 Million. “Financing was a major obstacle,” says Becker. “We worked diligently to obtain an FHA commitment before fortunately hooking up with the Multi-Employer Property Trust (MEPT), which made a substantial equity investment in the project. Even with MEPT the project financing is complex and involves private equity, historic tax credits, green building tax credits and solar tax credits as well as various grants.”
According to Becker, the entitlement process was quite challenging. And, from a historic rehabilitation standpoint, there was also the task of selecting the most significant architectural moment in the building’s history (the Octagon Tower went through many changes during its time as a hospital) and designing the new construction components of the project to fit with the historical.
Despite the successful outcome of this adaptive reuse project, it wasn’t a highly sought after development opportunity. Becker + Becker became involved through a public RFP process. “I believe there were only two responses,” recalls Becker.
The entire project took about 10 years. “But once we started construction things moved very quickly,” says Becker. “It was just three years from the start of construction to having a fully occupied building. We exceeded expectations in both categories, but the lease-up timeframe particularly surprised people.”
Becker + Becker is part of an ownership partnership that includes the Multi-Employer Property Trust (MEPT) and Bank of America. The Octagon is managed by Property Resource Corporation.