The Bespoke Builders: Hines' Quiet Designs on New York

499 park exterior e1320799895356 The Bespoke Builders: Hines' Quiet Designs on New York

499 Park Avenue.

499 Park Avenue resembles a giant block of obsidian, perfect but for the even more perfect bluntings made to the corners of the obelisk. Running down one-third of the tower’s facade, the width of a single pane of glass, this is the one design flourish of the building. They were made with sculptor’s precision by the celebrated I.M. Pei some 31 years ago.

Inside, workers have been busy putting the finishing touches on the office duplex. The space atop this modernist ziggurat was being white-boxed, stripped back to its bare steel columns, a fresh coat of paint on the floors, grotty insulation still clinging here and there to a few beams. Light streamed in from all sides, the recently rechristened Ed Koch Bridge directly to the right down 59th Street, Central Park up and to the left. Everything had been cleaned and shined to make way for the brokers who would be streaming through the space, trying to find a new tenant for office space that had not been vacant since the building was finished in 1980.

The showstopper is the upper floor, where drop ceilings had been stripped out to expose a soaring 18-foot cathedral of steel and glass. It felt like Soho-on-Park. Not only was there enough headroom for two rings of a circus, but the renovations also revealed those signature cutouts on the inside, and the perfect views of the city they framed beyond—Mr. Pei was not simply being vain but practical with his spare geometric flourishes. He had built the tower for George Klein, who had occupied these two floors as his offices even after he sold the building to the Sumitomo Life Realty, a Japanese developer who later sold it to Hines Interests in 2003, which is now undertaking this renovation since the space had emptied out.

In this exquisite (if unnoticed) tower, created by one of the greatest architects of his generation—a building that would seem to need few improvements—Hines has still managed to keep itself busy. Finding opportunity, even in a top-of-the-line location, where it would seem all the potential had been reached—has been a hallmark of the firm, which got its start in Houston six decades ago.

Renting those two floors on Park is but the smallest of Hines’s projects in New York at the moment. While the name Hines may not be synonymous with big buildings the way Trump or LeFrak or Tishman Speyer is, the firm has actually been one of the busiest in the city over the past three decades, while continuing to rely on big-name architects and their reputations.

“When you think of who’s built office buildings in the city, Hines definitely comes up,” said Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York. “You might not think of them right away, but they are undeniably in the top dozen or half-dozen of developers in the city.”

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Starting with the Lipstick Building in 1986, Hines has built some of the area’s recognizable projects, from 450 Lexington, atop the old Grand Central post office, to gigantic offices for UBS in Stamford and Goldman Sachs in Jersey City—both as visible from a plane as the Empire State Building. Some have become symbols of Wall Street itself, be it the Bear Stearns headquarters on Madison or the Lehman Brothers tower in Times Square—now home to JP Morgan and Barclays, respectively. And there are luxury condos, too, for Andre Balasz and Aby Rosen.

The firm is embarking on three ambitious projects, which have finally begun to win it wider notice. There is Jean Nouvel’s MoMA Tower, famously cut down to size by City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden. In August, Hines announced plans for a boutique office building designed by Harry Cobb, Mr. Pei’s long-time partner, across from Bryant Park, a bookend to Durst’s celebrated tower. And The Observer has learned that Hines is also poised to revive 56 Leonard Street, a 57-story condo building planned for Tribeca, designed by Pritzker-winners Herzog & de Mueron, replete with an Anish Kapoor sculpture at its base. The project was announced a month before Lehman Brothers collapsed, and it nearly crumbled itself. Left for dead amid the wreckage of the real estate bubble, 56 Leonard is almost certain to rise anew.

Hines is having moment in the city. Then again, it has since it arrived 25 years ago. In a place where some of the world’s best architects famously come to do their worst work, Hines has been a pioneer in terms of quality design, architecture and sustainability, here, and at its 1,100 properties worldwide. That a firm employing such high profile architects has itself a low-profile is curious, but this is by no means unusual in the world of business and development. Not everyone needs their name on the building in big gold letters.

“I would say they are buttoned up, but I wouldn’t say that pejoratively,” Henry Cobb said. “It’s a certain sophistication.”

They are the Goldman Sachs of New York developers—pre-face-sucking vampire squid. Which is to say Hines is almost as anonymous as it is influential. Instead of shiny black towncars, gliding silently by, it has shiny office and residential towers, hidden in plain sight.