New tower to lure Chelsea renters a few blocks north

Oct.October 29, 2007 10:27 AM

Few would have dreamed just 10 years ago that the rows of wholesale flower shops in the small old buildings along Sixth Avenue in the 20s would be replaced by drug stores and banks on the ground floors of block after block of residential skyscrapers.

But could this happen in the West 30s? Could Herald Square become Far North Chelsea?

A few influential developers think so. Determined to turn Penn Plaza/Midtown South into the next fastest-growing neighborhood, they’re building massive, amenity-rich towers to lure would-be Chelsea buyers and renters a bit farther uptown.

One is coming soon. The Epic, a 58-story mixed-use tower with 458 upscale rental apartments at 135 West 31st Street, will open its leasing office in February and plans to move tenants in by May. The building, occupying a site between Sixth and Seventh avenues stretching from 31st Street to 32nd Street, is being developed by a partnership of two iconic New York real estate families, the Durst Organization and Sidney Fetner Associates.

A debut in the strongest rental market

Conceived as a rental building from the very beginning, even while the condo boom was still in full swing, the Epic will open in one of the strongest rental markets the city has ever seen. “The rental market right at this moment has exceeded the expectations we had when we started the project,” says Hal Fetner, president of Sidney Fetner Associates.

According to Fetner Associates senior vice president Damon Pazzaglini, “The Chelsea corridor is one of the best rental markets in the city. The buildings on Sixth Avenue from the low 20s up to 29th Street are getting very high rents and none of those buildings have views that come anywhere near ours.”

Towering above the mid-rise structures in the neighborhood, the building will have unobstructed views starting from the 12th floor.

Built in accordance with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s 80/20 affordable housing program, the Epic will offer 92 units at below-market rents. But the remaining apartments, aimed primarily at young professionals, are expected to fetch top-of-the-market prices. These include 35 studio, 283 one-bedroom and 48 two-bedroom layouts.

“Mixed-use” hardly begins to describe the complexity of the project. The Epic’s retail space on West 32nd Street will include a 5,000-square-foot restaurant to service residents of the neighborhood. The 11-story base of the building will house two nonprofit organizations, each with a separate entrance and structural identity: the Franciscan Friars, which owned the site and whose air rights made the tower possible, and the American Cancer Society.

New facility for the Friars

Adjoining the historic church of St. Francis of Assisi on 31st Street, the Epic will provide a new facility for the Franciscan Friars, including a newly constructed six-story building with a multipurpose community hall, a 600-square-foot library connecting to a private meditation garden above the entry pavilion and a residence with 28 suites for the Friars on two floors.

The 32nd Street side of the building will contain the northeastern headquarters for the American Cancer Society and a 60-room Hope Lodge short-stay residence for cancer outpatients and their families. Though carved into the Epic’s façde, the Cancer Society has a separate entrance and architectural identity.

The tall, slender residential tower is set well back from the street and has a separate courtyard and pavilion entrance.

The project was initially conceived by the Friars, whose residence on 31st Street was in disrepair. “The old residences were in very, very bad shape,” says Father John O’Connor, Minister Provincial of the Franciscan Friars of New York, who was director of finances for the province at the time. “We have a number of men who are up there in their years and have never had their own bathrooms. The two buildings we had for them were kind of patched together. It was not a very homey place to live.”

Taking advantage of air rights

In 2000, the parish did a feasibility study to determine whether the time was right for a drastic redevelopment of the properties adjoining their church that they had assembled over the years. Ten experts were commissioned and concluded that, recalls Father O’Connor, “you should do this, and now’s the time to do it.” Apart from its historic church, the Friary had a precious commodity to offer: vast air rights.

An RFP (request for proposals) was developed and then circulated, attracting a big response from the development community. A dozen serious proposals were offered, from which the Friars chose Durst/Fetner’s.

“We found several components of their proposal exciting,” recalls Father O’Connor: “The new facility for ourselves, the affordable housing and the American Cancer Society, because in so many ways they share the same goals that we do in terms of caring for people.”

The Friars were impressed with the developers’ intention to build green. The Epic will be one of the largest residential buildings in the country to be environmentally sustainable without government subsidy. It will achieve at least LEED silver status at completion, possible gold. LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a voluntary rating and certification system developed five years ago by the United States Green Building Council.

“Protecting the environment is very much part of our tradition,” says Father O’Connor, “going all the way back to the days of St. Francis.”

The Friars also said they liked Durst/Fetner’s long-term commitment to the project, as reflected in the choice of rental apartments over condos. Fetner Associates owns several large apartment complexes, including the Victory at 561 10th Avenue, built in 2002, and the Chesapeake at 345 East 94th Street, opened in 2000.

Exterior architect FXFowle and interior architect SLCE constructed the tower of glass and aluminum, and it is designed to present a simple impression despite its huge vertical scale, “so as not to steal the church’s thunder,” says architect Bruce Fowle, principal of FXFowle. “Set well back from 31st Street, the building rises 12 stories before it cantilevers out and begins to take form, so that we’ve created the illusion that the building really starts at the 12th story.”

The developer contends the apartment finishes are condo-quality, featuring open California-style kitchens with one-piece granite countertops, granite backsplashes and Energy Star appliances; stone bathrooms; solid oak parquet floors; individually programmable central air conditioning; and floor-to-ceiling windows.

The Epic has two floors of amenities, each with a landscaped outdoor terrace. The sixth-floor residents’ lounge is equipped with a billiard table, large-screen TV and catering kitchen with large communal dining table. The fifth floor contains a basketball court, yoga studio and fitness center.

A dramatic architectural form at the top of the building will ensure its dominance in the surrounding skyline. Situated among low-rise structures, says Fowle, “it is very much a stand-alone building and we wanted to be sure it had a celebratory spirit to it.”

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