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07.30.2008
Verizon's New Clothes
Old waterfront switching station to get high-performance shell
A new look, left, for 375 Pearl Street, right.
Courtesy Cook + Fox

The tower at 375 Pearl Street hovers ominously above its waterfront neighborhood: a stark, largely windowless tower, disparaged by critics and unloved by neighbors. As a phone-company switching station that housed more equipment than human employees, it didn’t need transparency. It was a critical component of the city’s communication infrastructure, but its prime location and the advances in digital miniaturization that have obviated bulky copper wiring make it an appealing site for denser uses. Verizon consequently sold most of its interest in the tower. And soon it will shed an inefficient skin in favor of panoramic views, dramatic environmental gains, and enhanced amenities for tenants.

The developers, architects, engineers, and consultants on this project (and comparable ones like 1095 Sixth Avenue and 1175 Broadway) are not only making old buildings suitable for today’s marketplace, but implementing the principle that the greenest building is the one that is already built. “Existing buildings in New York are our greatest opportunity for creating a sustainable city,” says Peter Aaron, associate partner at Cook + Fox, who is working with principal Richard Cook on the revival of 375 Pearl. “According to the mayor’s PlaNYC, 85 percent of our CO2 emissions in 2030 will be created by buildings that exist now.” Cook + Fox is one of several local firms exploring curtain-wall upgrades and associated renovations to make these buildings better neighbors, creating high-value spaces more quickly and sustainably than new construction allows.

The modernizing of the forbidding 375 Pearl is an unambiguous boon to lower Manhattan. With its blank bulk, its oversized corporate logo, and its 360-degree harbor and river views wasted on inanimate objects , it’s a frequent flyer on lists of the city’s worst skyscrapers. One New York Times reporter recently called it “the tower that has no friends”; practically any change would strike observers as an improvement. But the renovations, set to begin once an anchor tenant is secured, are not limited to aesthetic remediation.

To transform an anti-icon of mid-1970s Brutalism into a lighter, greener component of the skyline, new owners Taconic Investment Partners and Square Mile Capital have assembled a design and construction team including Cook + Fox, Israel Berger Associates, and Tishman, along with structural engineers Severud Associates and mechanical engineers Jaros Baum & Bolles. The plan calls for full recladding on three sides and window replacement on the west face near the core. The curtain wall, made of very clear glass with a heat-gain-reducing custom frit pattern, will display the robust geometry of diagonal steel bracing beams, originally built on the perimeter under the assumption that the interior would never be seen.

Materials recycling here, said Aaron, is “a no-brainer”: some 300,000 square feet of limestone cladding can be “literally quarried from the building” for other uses, along with 40,000 cubic yards of concrete and 18,000 tons of steel. The building has good bones: slab heights averaging 15 feet (23 feet on some levels) allowing for daylight-harvesting lighting systems and energy-efficient underfloor air delivery, 40,000-square-foot floors with an unconventional side-load core creating large unbroken floorplates, clean-finished dustproof and fireproof concrete ceilings, and a framing system (built for racking telephone switches) that allows for inter-floor routing of cables and wiring.

Aaron reports that 375 Pearl will receive a new mechanical system and core with Class A elevators; high-efficiency chillers, pumps, and air-conditioning machines with 95 percent filtered outside air delivered to each floor; and a rooftop rainwater-capture system. The architects are studying additional energy-generating options including photovoltaics and wind turbines. An improved public plaza and a reoriented entrance will strengthen the pedestrian connection to the South Street Seaport neighborhood. This is one reskinning that will extend well beyond skin deep.

Bill Millard