St. John’s Gets Another Do-Over: The Saga of 550 Washington Street

By Brian J. Pape, AIA, LEED-AP

A rendering of the newest office and retail design for 550 Washington Street shows this plaza on Houston Street, sloped up seven to nine feet to position it above our new floodplain. Credit: COOKFOX Architects.

If you don’t have your scorecard handy, you’re going to miss some plays with this development along West Street across from Pier 40 and the Hudson River Park Trust (HRPT) headquarters.
More than four years ago the developers of St John’s Terminal were considering an office/commercial scheme that would not require rezoning, which means the owners could have developed the area without going through the hassle of a ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) review, but which also would have meant no $100 million in air rights to save Pier 40, no ban on future air rights transfers, no community board review, and no new historic district.
Currently, the site has a manufacturing zoning, which allows for offices and hotels but not for residential use. The existing 1.2 million square foot St. John’s building—the original 1930s terminus for the High Line freight railroad viaduct—could be razed to make way for new construction. In 2015, however, a residential option was presented to the city, setting off a firestorm of opposition to its over-scaled towers.
Oxford Properties Group, the real estate arm of Ontario’s municipal employee pension plan, bought the southern part of the three-block-long property in January of 2018 from Westbrook Partners and Atlas Capital Group for $700 million. The developers, abandoning the residential design, are now offering the former option, as presented to Community Board 2 last month.

Office workers will enter a landscaped entry plaza and experience landscaped terraces and rooftop areas. The building’s “biophilic” design features three acres of open space, including terraces facing the river. Credit: COOKFOX Architects.

In an October 3, 2018 article on the YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) website, Sebastian Morris reported that Oxford Properties Group plans to redevelop the St. John’s Terminal as an industrial loft-type office building, with the addition of nine stories above an existing three-story structure, totaling 1.3 million square feet. Initial construction will remove some existing train tracks in the building, and the overpass now covering Houston Street. But six sets of track rails on the second floor will have their tops visible on the floors, running through the existing building’s southern portion, leaving vestiges of the building’s original purpose.
Dean Shapiro, a Senior Vice President at Oxford, said that approximately 4,000 people will work in the building. Hudson Square is attracting an “educated, technically savvy, generally young workforce,” he explained.
“St. John’s Terminal once formed the end of the High Line and our design will preserve the history and authenticity of this important piece of rail infrastructure that once connected the world to New York City,” said Rick Cook, founding partner of COOKFOX, which was retained for the new designs as well as the previous deign. “By opening the site with the removal of the overpass and incorporating the rail beds, we’re connecting the building with the neighborhood and at the same time creating a workplace that is connected with nature.” When complete, office workers will enter a landscaped entry plaza and experience landscaped terraces and rooftop areas overlooking the Hudson. Cook is a leading proponent of “biophilic” design, using nature to enhance working and living environments.
Oxford’s design of the building will not use any of the “development air rights” from the HRPT, but will use only the “as of right” air right under the original zoning allowance. The developers could have gone higher, but they intend for the building to be more contextual with its surroundings.
Atlas and Westbrook retained the part of the property north of Houston Street, using the 200,000 square feet of air rights purchased from Pier 40. The tallest tower was slated to rise 430 feet according to the previously approved plan. Under an agreement with the city, they are required to make “best efforts” to ensure their part of the site will include a much-needed supermarket. However, non-supermarket big-box stores won’t be allowed on any part of the St. John’s site. There are still many more steps in the development process, but they have taken the path of least resistance on this one; can you blame them?

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