New York’s Aging Buildings

If the Flatiron Building were a person, it would be dead by now (and so probably would its children). The

If the Flatiron Building were a person, it would be dead by now (and so probably would its children). The Chrysler and the Empire State buildings would be getting there.

The nation’s No. 1 business hub, in fact, groans under the weight of a particularly geriatric commercial building stock, by national and even regional measures, a ceaseless reality that presents challenges-and the odd opportunity-for Manhattan landlords, brokers and service firms, not to mention for the city at large in its seemingly eternal struggle to keep firms from skipping to Jersey or (egad!) Connecticut.

The average larger midtown commercial building is 57 years old, nine years older than the president of the United States; the average midtown south one is a cheek-pinching 92; and downtown, it’s 63, according to data from CB Richard Ellis Research, based on buildings measuring over 75,000 square feet in midtown south and downtown, and over 150,000 square feet in midtown.

The majority of these buildings-55.1 percent in midtown, 93.7 percent in midtown south and 55.5 percent in downtown-are over 50, just old enough to remember Idlewild Airport but too young to have seen the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Still. Old. And getting older.


As Went Technology

The modern skyscraper is indebted to technology. Historically, buildings did not rise above five stories until the invention of the elevator in 1850, according to Daniel Walkowitz, a professor of history at New York University and president of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen.

The invention of structured steel in the 1850s also allowed taller, heavier buildings to be supported. Art Deco-style buildings in the 1920s to 1940s were built with aluminum and stainless steel. Modernist architecture uses iron, steel and glass.

New York’s history influences its architecture. It is younger than London and Paris (and much younger than, say, Jerusalem or Beijing) and was never significantly demolished and rebuilt, like Berlin or Tokyo, said Mr. Walkowitz. Nor did it develop rapidly in the post-World War II era with the aid of new technology, like Phoenix or Houston. Thus, it is a city with some of the oldest infrastructure in the entire country.

That infrastructure’s age is not limited to office buildings, either. According to the Bloomberg administration’s PlaNYC, by 2030, almost 70 percent of the power plants that supply the city will be more than 50 years old. By 2030, the water infrastructure will be over 100. Sip on that.


Out With the Old …

This older commercial stock may spur new development, as tenants demand new technology and greener features.

“It’s going to push forward all the big development projects that are stalled at the moment,” said Vishaan Chakrabarti, director of the real estate development program at Columbia University’s architecture and planning school, and the onetime executive, on behalf of Vornado Realty and the Related Companies, in charge of the oft-planned Moynihan Station transit hub over the current Penn Station. He cites Hudson Yards and the World Trade Center site as major development areas over the next decade.

“I don’t think the aging stock, in and of itself, is a problem,” Mr. Chakrabarti said. “The current obsolete stock is just an awful lot that’s very similar to each other.”

Older office buildings generally have larger, pre-Web floor plates, which are usually unsuitable for modern, smaller companies, or simply not economically advantageous. Older buildings may also lack the heating, plumbing and new technologies that make newer buildings more energy efficient. “I think it’s a no-brainer that you’ve got to do it LEED-certified,” said Stephen Siegel, CB Richard Ellis’ global brokerage chairman and a legendary commercial dealmaker. “It can be a windfall.”

Malkin Holdings started a revamp of the Empire State Building right around the iconic tower’s 75th birthday, in 2006, in an effort to make it greener and more attractive to tech-savvy companies. “In the building itself, even back in 1980, you had the long hallways, which seemed to have hundreds of doors on them, and it seemed as though it was a terrazzo floor and fluorescent overhead lights and most had frosted glass windows and gold lettering on them,” Anthony Malkin, president of Malkin Holdings, told The Commercial Observer in January. “And it looked like a combination of a hotel and an episode of The Twilight Zone.”

Demand for new, green buildings also has much to do with business realities. “As the job market comes around and employment returns, there is going to be a very significant need for new, state-of-the-art buildings,” said Robert Knakal, chairman of investment-sales firm Massey Knakal, referring to the inevitable end of the Great Recession.

“The impetus to build new buildings is based on economic incentive,” Mr. Knakal added. “I think the challenge for city planning is finding a balance between preserving the historic nature of the city while allowing for well-conceived and much-needed new development.”


New York’s Aging Buildings