Battleship B.S.: With Its New $516-Million Tower, Bear Stearns Bunkers Down for the Big One

Bear, Stearns and Company has built a new corporate headquarters ready for the worst New York has to offer.

Its new 45-story corporate tower at 383 Madison Avenue, set to open in October, is equipped to continue operating even after the lights go out, the water shuts off and the steam stops flowing.

At 1.2 million square feet, it will hold 4,500 Bear Stearns employees–nearly the entire New York work force–with room for 1,500 more. It will be a virtual city within a city, complete with four emergency electrical generators, its own steam turbines (should Con Edison run dry) and tanks that can store 109,000 gallons of emergency water.

And with 8,000 miles of cable, it will be the largest cable station in North America.

“In the event of a total blackout, [we] could go on for days,” said Jim Lang, the Bear Stearns senior managing director overseeing the project.

“Actually,” he continued, “with the self-replenishing batteries and a water source, we could go indefinitely.”

What possessed Bear Stearns to spend $516 million on such a high-tech structure? (That sum includes $275 million for the structure, $76 million for the interior and $165 million for the information technology.)

“We’re very concerned about deregulation,” said Melvyn Kass, Mr. Lang’s partner, referring to the change in regulations that frees power providers like Con Edison from the need to actually generate electricity.

Still, the structure seems an apt symbol for the mood on Wall Street. The dwindling profits, the layoffs, the rescinded offers, the scarce I.P.O.’s and venture capital–it’s all about survival right now.

In recent years, most of the big securities firms looked to mergers to strengthen their positions. They brought in new top talent. They tried online brokerages. They opened fancy new Park Avenue day-trading operations to draw in customers.

Bear Stearns did none of those things. Its longtime chief, Alan (Ace) Greenberg, 73, was with the firm since 1949 and only recently stepped aside–not out–to make way for another longtime executive, James Cayne, 67, to serve as chairman of the board.

But Bear Stearns has prepared for the onslaught. It has built in the heart of Manhattan a building fit for even the most paranoid Montana survivalist. One, it hopes, that reflects its scrappy but solid reputation. One in which it can consolidate its New York forces, primarily located now in outdated offices at 245 Park Avenue and a variety of other locations.

Bear Stearns, said T.J. Gottesdiener, the Skidmore, Owens & Merrill architect who oversaw the project, “wanted to solidify their image in New York City as a financial institution, and they wanted the building to be reflective of that. They wanted something that would be strong, powerful, but not ostentatious.”

He thinks that’s what they got.

“It’s not jarringly outlandish,” he said. “It’s not a lavish building. It fills out the block, it holds the street line, it tapers nicely, it’s got a beautiful crown. The stone has a certain solidity to it, and at the same time the glass gives it a light airiness.”

Space Age

Indeed, with its light-colored stone slabs and many windows, it doesn’t resemble a bunker. Yet the structure, which is still raw inside–the five-month move of Bear Stearns employees won’t start for another month–already looks as if it has anchored its block for a long time.

Getting it to that point has been the primary responsibility of Mr. Lang, who, dressed in a plaid work shirt and work boots one recent steamy morning, seemed to have just flown in from some Montana survivalist compound. Tough and sharp, a fast talker with an outer-borough accent, he’s worked for the last half-dozen years with Mr. Kass to pull the project together. In the three years since demolition began, he said, his hair has gone from black to gray.

He was taking The Observer up to the fifth floor of the new building, located in the half-block from Vanderbilt to Madison avenues and 46th to 47th streets, in one of the 23 babinga-lined, alabaster-ceilinged, laser-sensor-equipped elevators. “These go 14,000 feet per minute–that’s fast,” Mr. Lang said.

The elevator zipped past floors three through 11, which together hold a total of eight trading floors. At 44,000 square feet each and with hardly any visual obstructions, these spaces are beyond vast; they are, as Mr. Lang put it, “space age.”

They’re also the nerve center of the building: It is to the trading floors that 383 Madison’s electrical and telecom systems, its obsessive back-up plans, its dozens of data centers and its thousands of miles of cable are geared.

“The lifeblood of a firm like Bear Stearns is their ability to trade and transfer money on a second’s notice,” said Mr. Gottesdiener, “and to be able to do it 24 hours a day. They are so dependent on having that infrastructure running–for it to ever break down would be catastrophic.”

Bear Stearns will have 1,500 traders working in these rooms, with room for a total of 2,400. Each trading floor has 285 positions with two flat-screened terminals and a UPS (uninterruptable power source) connection. The saw-toothed ceilings conceal no-shadow, no-glare ambient light bulbs. Running beneath the raised floors are the miles of cable, placed there (and not above the ceilings, as is customary) for quick repair.

Bear Stearns built a series of mock-up trading floors at the West Side piers, trying to get everything right before putting together the real thing.

But before they even got to that point, the architects and engineers and contractors and contract managers had to figure out how to get it standing.

“The infrastructure needs were incredible,” said Mr. Lang.

There was the problem with the foundation. Fully two-thirds of the building’s precisely square base (200 by 200 feet) does not sit on solid ground. Rather, it sits above train tracks–two of the busiest MetroNorth lines in the city, in fact, which run north from Grand Central Terminal. Before they could install the two 44,000-square-foot base plates, Mr. Lang said, demolition crews had to “take the track beds out, ship all that stuff out to a special site in Jersey, and then put in new foundation walls between the tracks.” This had to be done while allowing at least one of the tracks to remain active.

The complications didn’t stop there. To accommodate taller tunnels for new double-decker Long Island Railroad trains, expected soon to run to Grand Central, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority insisted that Bear Stearns dig even deeper foundations. This cut drastically into the building’s basement space, forcing it to put much of its electrical and HVAC equipment on the upper floors.

In return, however, Bear Stearns got air rights to build a taller tower–and a connecting walkway to Grand Central for all those managing directors coming in from Greenwich and Bedford. And, anticipating the day when the LIRR runs into Grand Central, it also got a brand-new LIRR stop beneath the building, allowing its employees to zip off for Hamptons weekends.

But the structural conditions spawning those amenities were a headache for Jim McKenna, principal of the project for Turner Construction, the general contractor. In a building with normal underground space, the infrastructure equipment is installed first, allowing the building to rise up above it. But the infrastructure in 383 Madison had to be moved to the upper floors.

That, said Mr. McKenna, “put a lot more pressure on us. Typically, once you’ve finished the foundations and start the superstructure, the mechanical trades and electricians can get in to install the infrastructure. Here, the infrastructure was up on 10, 11, 12 and 13. So we had to wait to erect the structure to that point and then gear up the mechanicals.”

In all, Turner had to hire about 85 subcontractors–a normal project of this size requires about 50–to complete 383 Madison on schedule. At its peak, 1,400 to 1,500 masons, ironworkers, electricians, drywallers, carpenters, pipers, elevator mechanics and any number of specialty finishers worked in shifts around the clock.

Another conundrum lay in the building’s frame. The eight-story base of 383 Madison is square, but the 40-story tower is octagonal, a design that conformed to the city’s mandates about sunlight and doubled the amount of office space–but tripled the headaches involved in engineering the transference of the building’s vast loads. On top of that, Bear insisted that its eight sprawling trading floors, its auditorium and cafeteria contain less pillars than usual.

To figure it all out, Mr. Gottesdiener, the architect, ended up having to retain not one, not two, but three mechanical engineering and design firms. Finally, a three-dimensional computer model was made (at a cost of $80,000). It was adhered to religiously, lest the complex system of ring trusses and abnormally large and narrow base plates, custom-made in Canada, go awry.

Going Public

The restrictions and complications didn’t end there. Mr. Gant said that, to attain the air rights Bear Stearns sought so the building could ascend to its 773-foot height and rival its haughty neighbor, the Met Life monolith, Bear had to agree to certain concessions, including devoting much of its ground floor to two 200-foot public walkways that cover the entire foundation.

“We did studies and found that, on busy days, several thousand people pass on those blocks every hour,” Mr. Lang said. Consequently, the lobby is immense. Wide pillars stretch up to a 28-foot ceiling, 24-foot-high panes of glass line the base, and the gigantic black concierge desk looks like a lectern in the ponderous space.

Mr. Gant said that Bear Stearns wanted everything just so. No expense was spared. The trim and moldings are a finely finished babinga–there are 10,000 square feet of it in all. The floors are not marble but a more durable composite material that looks like marble called terrazzo (37,000 square feet of that–”More than any building built since the 1960′s,” according to Mr. McKenna).

The ceilings are made of MDF, a plaster-like fiberglass material that is also more expensive. The 30,000 square feet of granite slabs that cover the walls and pillars were mined in Maine, cut in Rhode Island and assembled in Florida. And then, of course, there are the 18,000 tons of steel in the frame.

But making the building unique is its survivalist ethos–the “guts” that seem geared more to a space station than a Manhattan office building. It contains four emergency generators; the normal office building of this size has, at most, two. The four are capable of delivering 7,500 kilowatts.

The building also has two telecom and three electric closets per floor, stacked atop one another in spines so that any single outage can be compensated for immediately.

The building also holds 109,000 gallons of emergency water (the normal building of this size holds about 15,000), and there’s back-up steam power, too. And every room is outfitted with the latest in wireless technology.

“We need a provider like [Con Edison], but we could get along without them,” said Mr. Kass.

The building is not layoff-proof (though, so far, Bear Stearns has been largely immune to the mass firings that have hit its trading rivals). Nor will it shield the foolhardy from the kind of bad investments that have left Wall Street as risky as the border between India and Pakistan. But it’s ready for New York.