Retail Traffic

What's Old Is New Again

Some of the most storied buildings in the country are in New York City, and many prominent landmarks in the city draw people based on lore alone, such as The Plaza Hotel, home of the fictional troublemaker Eloise, or the Empire State Building, site of King Kong's demise. The city is crammed with historically rich buildings, with large, undeveloped tracts of land practically non-existent, especially in Manhattan.

New York's concrete jungle is also a major shopping destination for locals and tourists from around the world, so retailers are clamoring to secure locations throughout the city. Given the tight space squeeze, fitting into the Manhattan landscape in particular can require some fancy footwork on the part of the retailer. Although a Manhattan location has a certain cache in itself, some retailers seek to set themselves apart even further by setting up shop in historic structures, providing their patrons a unique shopping experience in a notable setting.

Sounds easy, right? Find a historic building, sign a lease, open your doors and wait for patrons to flock to a new shopping nirvana. Not so fast. A retailer that is seeking a historic location requires time, flexibility, patience and a design and construction team that has experience working with historic properties and negotiating the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission, the virtual gatekeepers of these buildings.

Established in 1965, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) is responsible for identifying and designating historic properties and districts and regulating changes to landmarked structures. Aside from designating specific landmarks, the LPC can also designate historic districts, which are areas of the city that represents at least one period or style of architecture typical of an era in the city's history.

Working with historical or landmarked buildings can be tricky and time consuming. The commission must approve any restoration, alteration or new construction to any landmarked property, including buildings in historic districts. In addition, LPC approval is needed for any of three conditions: when a permit from the Department of Buildings is required for work, when the changes will affect the exterior of a building or when the building's interior has been landmarked.

Once an application is completed and submitted to the LPC, it can take from 20 to 90 business days, and sometimes longer, until the commission reviews the proposals, meets with the appropriate players or makes any necessary site visits.

Although additional time and planning is needed, retailers are finding these locations are paying off in more ways than one. For example, Grand Central Terminal, one of New York City's most famous — and well-traveled — landmarks originally opened in 1913. By the 1950s, the terminal was in decline and there was talk of demolition to make space for a new office tower. The LPC designated the landmark in 1967, and the property underwent a massive restoration and renovation that lasted two years, from 1996 to 1998. Today, Grand Central is a sought-after venue for events, with restaurants, cocktail lounges, shops and the Grand Central Market, home to purveyors of fine foods from New York City and around the world.

More recently, the New York flagship store for gourmet food retailer Balducci's opened in the historic New York Savings Bank building on Eighth Avenue and 14th Street in Manhattan. It was designated a historic property by the LPC in June 1988.

The new store, which was designed by New York City architect Steve Rabinoff and constructed by IBEX, was built around the building's single, narrow entrance on Eighth Avenue and includes an additional floor to the property that creates a building within a building feel for shoppers visiting the 30,000-square-foot location. The new shop opened on Dec. 15, 2005. It features fresh produce, prepared foods, a delicatessen and a world-renowned cheese and wine selection.

One of the most unique uses of a historic building is Manhattan's first and much-celebrated Home Depot, which opened on 23rd Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues in 2004. The store, designed by GreenbergFarrow and built by IBEX, is situated in two 19th century buildings, one of them a cast-iron property built in 1865 located in a landmarked district. The new, 120,000-square-foot store is built up, not out, and encompasses a street-level showroom, lower-level retail floor and a mezzanine featuring design-related products.

Even though the property itself was not landmarked, it is located in a landmarked district, giving the city review rights on the project. Due to landmark restrictions, the façade couldn't be altered, but the interior played off the property's historic character with accent details on the mezzanine and lower level. It is truly a magnificent retail venue and not the traditional looking Home Depot.

Historic properties are sought after by retailers for a number of reasons: prestige, aesthetics and a memorable shopping experience. In Manhattan, sometimes a retailer may have no other choice, given the lack of land and shortage of buildings with large floor plates available for retail uses.

Retailers seeking to open a location in a landmarked building should be prepared with an experienced designer and construction team to help navigate the sometimes complicated approvals process that accompanies these ambitious projects.

President, IBEX Construction.

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