Enter the Matrix: High-Tech, High-Rise Data Farm Puts Down Roots in Lower Manhattan

But does it compute?

Douglas Durst, one of the city’s most prominent real estate developers and landlords, planned to build a data center tower over a decade ago on a parcel of land he owns at 11th Avenue and 57th Street.

“We had the plans for it and had demolished the site; we spent $20 million designing and preparing to build it,” Mr. Durst said. “The idea was, you could have a cheaper data center in Wyoming, but if something went wrong in Wyoming, you were in big trouble.”

Mr. Durst was forced to abandon the project after 9/11, when suddenly companies became concerned about locating important infrastructure in a city many began to see as a vulnerable target of terrorism.

Those fears have largely subsided, and fortunately, 375 Pearl Street boasts an imposing bodyguard; the building sits at the rear of the massive police headquarters building, 1 Police Plaza.
Meanwhile, the notion that data has become so critical that its location in the city will be worth the added expense and risk has again come to outweigh the drawbacks. Even a skeptic like Mr. Novic said as much. “One of our core competencies at BlackRock is risk analytics,” he noted. “Those analytics are becoming more intense as the environment gets more sophisticated. It used to be acceptable to run a risk profile in 12 hours, whereas now clients want to know the risk profile of their portfolios in real time, minute by minute as the world’s markets are moving—12 hours is unacceptable. It adds up to a lot more compute cycles.”

A burly man in his 60s with thin gray hair, Mr. Sabey has ambitions for a star-studded roster of tenants and sees his facility at the vanguard of society’s push into the digital age. His first and only commitment so far is the New York Genome Center, a gene sequencing and research facility that will host a collaboration between Cornell, NYU, Columbia, Mt. Sinai and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, among others.

“They take your DNA and bust it into thousands of pieces,” Mr. Sabey said. “And they will hold up these sets of genes using our facilities and our vast storage and run algorithms to identify why one person gets a disease and the genetic basis for it. This is the kind of thing that could be a game-changer for medicine.”

It’s this sort of technological potential that most seems to animate Mr. Sabey, the notion that every situation and transaction generates an array of data points that can be collected, sorted and analyzed for human benefit (or at least the benefit of his clients). In this regard, Facebook and its much maligned habit of collecting our personal information are just a warm-up.

“By taking big data sets and teasing out data,” Mr. Sabey said, “you can have face recognition on the streets. There are sensors in this city as part of Homeland Security, and you could analyze that and get expressions and you could tease that and say, ‘Oops, we recognize that face or this behavior set.’

“We’re going to find ways to use data in ways we haven’t before,” he went on. “Your drugstore knows your wife is pregnant before you do, by her buying habits. There is a sufficient database that knows those things and could say ‘We better send her some of this stuff.’ Those are actionable things that can be monetized. There’s a gazillion things coming.”

When Mr. Sabey gets going, he brings an evangelical fervor to his sales pitch that his tenants seem to appreciate.

“Dave Sabey is passionate about our mission, and seems to view us as far more than just another customer,” Chris Dwan, a computer specialist for the Genome Center told us. “He’s a fascinating guy.”