Designers Unlock Value in Vintage Buildings

A recent panel held by the Urban Land Institute tackled some of the challenges in turning aging Manhattan buildings into condo projects for the 21st century.

49 Chambers. Image via Google Street View

Adaptive reuse of old buildings can transform urban neighborhoods and boost asset values while promoting sustainability and wellness goals. But converting vintage properties into appealing residential projects is a complex feat that requires a highly tailored approach.

Turning the old Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank building into a luxury condo development in Lower Manhattan, for example, involved creative repurposing of the Beaux-Arts landmark’s deep floor plates and underused roof and basement spaces, explained Matthew Stephenson, associate principal at design firm Woods Bagot, in a recent panel discussion held by the Urban Land Institute (ULI).

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“Just finding ways to soak that up within a condo-level residential project is really a lot of what made this project work,” he said. Woods Bagot worked with developer the Chetrit Group to transform the 17-story landmark, originally building in 1912, into a 96-unit community dubbed 49 Chambers, which launched to the market late last year.

In addition to capturing some of the elevator spaces and adapting them into additional kitchen or closet areas within the units, Woods Bagot proposed that the mostly vacant roof could be used for a 7,000-square-foot private recreation space with a dining area and living green walls. “We’re starting to see this approach becoming more and more common if not required,” Stephenson said. “It does unlock a lot of value within the amenities package of the building.”

From hospital to condos

The former Cabrini Medical Center in Manhattan’s Gramercy neighborhood posed a different set of challenges. The collection of buildings constructed between 1892 and 1973, totaling around 400,000 square feet, was converted into a residential project called Gramercy Square by razing two of the existing buildings and demolishing parts of other structures. A 17-story tower was preserved while a new building was constructed from the ground up to create the four-building development by the Chetrit Group and Clipper Equity.

The existing buildings had a variety of different window types but “there was not enough fenestration to really be usable residential footprints,” noted Stephenson. Some windows of the upper floors therefore had to be expanded. Sales of the condos launched in 2017.

Window design plays an important role in a building’s energy consumption, Ben Shepherd, director at environmental design consultancy Atelier Ten pointed out on the same panel. With adaptive reuse of historic buildings, “it’s not an all-or-nothing approach,” he said.

“It runs the gamut of lots of great design solutions—from full certain wall replacement to just a window replacement,” or something in between.

Improving operational energy use is crucial, but this is more challenging in retrofit projects, Shepherd said. “An integrated approach really has to happen to stay ahead of ever more stringent local laws focused on operational energy use and carbon emissions.”

One advantage of existing projects, even compared to new high-performance buildings, is that they already have a lot of sequestered carbon. “Reusing existing foundations, structures or enclosures saves new carbon from being emitted in the procurement the construction of new materials,” Shepherd added.

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