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.”
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.
If Hines is well-known anywhere, it is in the architecture and design community, where it has been a patron for so long. “There are many good developers, but I think Jerry is unique because he was the first to see architecture was an economic asset,” said David Childs, the influential SOM partner who designed 450 Lexington for Hines. “He was been ups-selling design in a way no one ever thought to do, though now everyone does it.”
Mr. Cobb recalled how he was working on a project for the firm in Washington, D.C., in the 1980s, and Mr. Hines took an exacting interest in every detail, down to the bathroom stalls. “The toilet rooms in a Hines building are nicer than in other people’s buildings,” he said. “It’s a little Steve Jobs-like.”
When people describe the great office buildings of New York, the most common examples given are the Seagram Building, and Lever House across the street. Other favorites include the Chrysler Building, Chase Manhattan Plaza, and CBS’ Black Rock. What stands out about all of them, beyond their designs, is the names, all of which are tied to a corporate client. Hines Interests was one of the very first developers to appreciate the commercial possibilities of architecture, one of the first developers to nudge its colleagues away from impersonation—ever notice how most Park Avenue towers look the same?—toward individualism and inspiration.
“I think Gerry Hines is the original, I think he recognizes quality like few others,” echoed George Klein, the builder of 499 Park Avenue and an admirer of Mr. Hines’.
Vision has been a guiding principle of the firm since its inception. Gerald Hines began as an engineer who went into development creating warehouse-offices. On his third project, a 10,000-square-foot space on the edge of downtown Houston, he employed the best architecture firm he could find (long since defunct). “I received three new jobs from just that one,” Mr. Hines told The Observer by phone, from his new base in London. “That was when I realized the potential of good design.” Mr. Hines might be called an architect’s best friend.
“I think it’s actually a very conservative approach,” he said. “We spend a lot of effort in trying to achieve architectural distinction because it may be more expensive but it’s lower risk. If we’re the first to get leased and the last to empty out, we get better rates of return and achieve better results.”
Leading the firm in New York is Tommy Craig, a presence in the office since 1983, when Mr. Hines opened his first shop outside of Houston here. Trim, with swept-back hair and a taste for baggily bespoke pinstripe suits, Mr. Craig looks the part of many of the bankers who often employ him. In fact, he was one, once, at JPMorgan for a few years after he graduated from U.N.C. Chapel Hill.
“I decided I wanted something more tangible,” Mr. Craig told The Observer during an interview in his office last month. To be there is to realize the scope of the firm’s work in New York. Pictures of his family lined one wall, dozens of industry awards and models of the buildings he built filled three rows of bookshelves on the other. A decent view of Park Avenue was just outside the window, but Mr. Craig does not have a corner office. Those are reserved for the conference rooms, so everyone can share in the views.
This is practical, as well as symbolic, since the firm is privately held. “That equity saved us,” Mr. Craig said. “It is the reason we never blew up, because we are very careful with our money.” This has also led to a highly adaptive firm, thanks especially to its global reach. “Because of all of our offices, we can tap into different markets and different pools of capital, but that all started in New York,” Mr. Craig said. “So many of our partners are here. You have to be successful in New York to be successful internationally.”
Hines first projects in New York, in the 1980s and early ’90s were spec-built office towers, like the Lipstick Building and 31 East 52nd Street, an angular postmodern-style tower also completed in 1986 and designed by Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo, the architects partly responsible for the Gateway Arch, as well as the Ford Foundation Building and U.N. Plaza. The next major project was 450 Lexington, finished in 1992, the work of SOM’s celebrated Mr. Childs.
“It’s one thing to build this kind of building on Park Avenue,” ür-commercial broker Mary Ann Tighe said of the Lipstick Building. “It’s entirely another to do it on Third Avenue, and then to fill it up so quickly, no less. That had a huge impact on the area.”
When the recession hit in the ’90s, the firm began to move from building on spec to partnering with firms in need of new buildings. Reversing the approach of the banks and businesses that had sought to build great buildings for decades, Hines would now do the hard work for them.This led to the partnerships with all the big banks. “The average person on the street may not know Hines,” a real estate executive said, “but Lloyd Blankfein and Jamie Dimon certainly do.”
The dot-com bubble led to another opportunity, as real estate was depressed and interest rates were good. Hines began shoring up capital and got into the business of acquisitions, buying instead of building top-quality towers. The one constant was the commitment to design—an easier proposition now that so many developers had begun to follow Hines’s lead. In New York, 750 Seventh Avenue, 425 Lexington Avenue, 600 Lexington Avenue and 499 Park all entered the firm’s portfolio. “We would buy, but only if it was up to our standards,” Mr. Craig said.
Now, the firm has come full circle. It is again building on spec, as with the project on Bryant Park, but there are also the residential projects. In Soho, Hines built 40 Mercer, Jean Nouvel’s take on the neighborhood’s cast iron buildings, which was done with Andre Balazs, who gets most of the credit for the project. (Daniel Radcliffe calls the building home.) With Aby Rosen, Hines created the KPF-designed 1 Jackson Square just off Greenwich Avenue in the Village.
MoMA is easily the most ambitious of its new undertakings, even after the planning commission’s sheering off of 200 feet when approving the tower in 2009. It will be one of the most dynamic contributions to the city’s skyline in a generation. “When you respect someone because of their ethics and good taste, it’s natural to want to work with them,” said Jerry Speyer, the man most often compared to Gerald Hines in New York. The MoMA trustee was instrumental in selecting the firm to build the new condo project.
There are similarly high hopes for Herzog & de Mueron’s 56 Leonard, even if Hines was unwilling to discuss them beyond a brief statement. “Many of their projects, including the Beijing National Stadium, known as the ‘Bird’s Nest,’ have become global landmarks, and we believe 56 Leonard will achieve that same status in New York and beyond,” the statement read, highlighting the work of the renowned Swiss architects, best known here for 40 Bond Street and the new renovations to the Park Avenue Armory here.
That the firm reserved its words about its latest project for a written statement underscores why they are not more widely known. “I don’t think he likes to let out more than what he knows is in effect complete and good,” Mr. Spinola said of Mr. Craig.
“They’re not one of those run-and-gun developers, they’re definitely running a big, button-down business,” one rival developer said. “They’re not cowboys just out there throwing up buildings.”
There is also the fact that most of its development is fee development, building out sites on commission. This is opposed to Hines assembling sites of its own, which is more lucrative, but also more risky—the Hines approach avoids the NIMBY fights and the headlines in the paper. “It doesn’t seem to me they’re big risk takers, but they’re very successful nonetheless,” Douglas Durst said.
In a way, the firm’s profile has been a victim of its own success—because its buildings are rarely vacant, given the level of detail and commitment to them, they are rarely in the papers, taking out ads, on the scene. Being ignored has its advantages, it seems.
Or maybe that does not even matter. So long as Hines continues to building some of the best building in the city and the world, even if so few bother to notice them for it, New York will still be all the better for it.