The Ford Foundation’s Midtown East tower hasn’t changed in 50 years. This was a problem for a number of reasons, the most pressing being that it wasn’t compliant with building codes. The other, a plight shared by much of the neighborhood’s aging building stock, was that the office space was woefully outdated. In fact, the New York Times once called the labyrinthian journey to the president’s suite “the philanthropic equivalent to going to see the Wizard of Oz.”
Gensler, a large architecture and design firm known for its high-profile office work, was tasked with the landmarked building’s multi-million dollar renovation. The work includes creating more open and modern workspace in the 12-story building at 320 East 43rd Street, as well as a visitor’s center and an art gallery.
“The renovation work that we’re doing is very respectful of the intent of the original architecture while trying to bring it up to date with the 21st Century,” Rocco Giannetti, co-managing director of Gensler’s New York office, told The Real Deal. “It’s a balance between maintaining this beloved icon and creating a more functional work environment.”
The Ford building is one of several renovation projects that Gensler started in 2016, and according to an analysis by The Real Deal, the firm is one of the most active in the city when it comes to this type of work. TRD pulled permit applications filed with the city’s Department of Buildings in 2016 for renovations and ranked the architecture firms by the total projected initial construction costs estimated for their projects. The data includes Alteration 2 (A2) permit applications, which are for work that doesn’t materially change the use of the space — from commercial to residential, for instance — but can range from plumbing work to gut renovations. It should be noted that the estimated cost doesn’t represent the entire cost of these projects, which is likely higher than what appeared in the DOB filings. Still, the ranking shows the volume of work these firms are undertaking and highlights a part of the sector that rarely gets attention.
The most active architecture firms by renovation project in 2016
|Firm||Number of jobs||Total initial|
|Nelligan White Architects||87||$180,396,725|
|Skidmore Owings & Merrill||24||$137,107,434|
|Ismael Leyva Architects||23||$104,598,510|
|Studio A+T Architects||192||$83,866,626|
|Lawless & Mangioni Architects||153||$77,904,553|
|Ted Moudis Architects||83||$71,614,679|
|The Liro Group||64||$70,559,364|
|IA Interior Architects||33||$62,605,431|
|Chipman Design Architecture||22||$56,289,538|
Gensler topped the ranking with an estimated $775 million worth of work across 300 job filings — most of which were for commercial projects. The firm’s renovation work for Bloomberg L.P. at 919 Third Avenue was one of the largest by estimated initial cost. Bloomberg leases 458,998 square feet in the SL Green Realty’s building, which is just three blocks south of the company’s Headquarters On Lexington Avenue. According to DOB filings, Gensler is renovating the second as well as the 14th through 18th floors for Bloomberg. Details of the project beyond that were not available, and Giannetti said he couldn’t discuss the project due to a nondisclosure agreement.
Gensler is also working on the revamp of Citigroup’s headquarters at 388-390 Greenwich Street. The project is the design shop’s largest renovation in 2016 — 2.6 million square feet —and is expected to be completed by 2019. Citigroup closed on the repurchase of its Tribeca headquarters from SL Green in June, paying $1.76 billion for the two buildings.
TPG Architecture ranked second with a total of $193 million in total estimated costs. A representative from the firm didn’t return requests seeking comment.
Jeremy Singer, a principal at Woods Bagot, noted that when construction financing is tight —as it is now — renovation work tends to take off. Instead of seeking new development opportunities, property owners may decide to reposition their existing properties. Woods Bagot ranked fifth with an estimated initial cost of $101.6 million for its projects last year, which included work for MetLife at 200 Park Avenue. In 2015, MetLife expanded its space in the building by 430,000 square feet, adding to its 110,000 space in the tower, the New York Post reported.
Not being visible at street-level usually means renovation and interior work doesn’t attract the same level of attention as new buildings.
“We’re kind of like a sub-niche of a niche,” IA Interior Architects Erik Hodgetts said.”Our work doesn’t usually have a face to the outside world.”
IA ranked 12th with an estimated initial cost of $63.4 million. According to Hodgetts, about 95 percent of the company’s work is office space, and includes work for law firm King & Spalding at 1185 Sixth Avenue. Hodgetts said that clients and the public at large are becoming increasingly savvy about interior work. There’s more of an emphasis on office design and how that impacts employees, who spend a majority of their week where they work.
“This is something that directly impacts a huge chunk of the population,” he said. “More clients are coming with an idea of what a workplace can be.”
Eda Kouch compiled and vetted the Department of Building data.