If NEW YORK’S Lower East Side conjures up images of deteriorating tenement buildings with fire escapes and cold-water flats, and peddlers selling everything from pickles to garments, it’s time for a major rewrite. After generations as one of the most iconic immigrant, working-class neighborhoods in New York City, this downtown area is undergoing a significant transformation. In fact, so many of the low-rise brick buildings that dotted its well-known streets are gone that the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the area on its list of America’s Most Endangered Historic Places in 2008. What’s slowly moved in is the usual mix that young professionals keen on remaining in the city favor—art galleries, fashion boutiques, Euro-style coffee houses, restaurants, and cool condos and rental buildings that feature sought-after amenities of outdoor space, chic building materials, and upscale appliances and fixtures.
Despite a roller-coaster real estate market that brought many larger projects to a halt, small buildings like 60 Orchard Street, with two-bedroom condos priced from $1.2 million, are selling well. The market lesson may be that development today sometimes needs to happen just one small building at a time.
FROM UGLY DUCKLING TO SWAN
Although the nine-story building at 60 Orchard stands out today, with its crisp glass-and-black-stucco façade, the place sprang out of humbler origins as a four-story timber-and-brick apartment in the 1930s. And in the past decade, the structure sat vacant as the area began changing.
After developing other projects throughout the New York area, brothers Marshall and Bill Sohne spotted the building and decided it was worth buying and remodeling, largely because they saw the neighborhood undergoing a transformation. “We felt the area was getting ready to explode the way TriBeCa had,” says Marshall. “You see it in the sophistication of the people moving in, the newer restaurants and shops, as well as the increased number of [remodeling] permits on buildings.”
The brothers’ goal was to reuse the building rather than demolish it, to save money as well as retain the scale and character of the neighborhood, which still consists of several low-rise, mixed-use structures housing restaurant supply houses, seafood wholesalers, and factory outlet shops. A public elementary school sits at the end of the block. And not far away is the Tenement Museum, on the same street at 103, opened in 1992 to remember the area and America’s urban immigrant history.
But getting the project going took longer than expected. After the Sohnes purchased the building for $4 million in 2006, the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 stopped their plans to go forward for a year. “We wanted to sell the building’s units in a reasonable market, but at some point we knew we had to step on the gas and get going,” says Marshall, who took charge of strategic planning while Bill oversaw the on-site management.
The two hired G Ateliers Architecture in Brooklyn, with whom they had worked previously. Firm principals and architects Orlando García and Hernan Galvis took an increasingly hallmark approach of trying to maximize the existing floor area and building width while adding two floors at the top of the structure, keeping the project within zoning code parameters. They, too, wanted to match the scale and feeling of the neighborhood.
“We didn’t want it to feel like it was alien,” says García. Adds Galvis, “That was one of our biggest challenges—to make something contextual, so owners would still experience the neighborhood even when inside. But we also didn’t want to build an exact copy of another existing brick building on the street. As architects, we like to reinterpret for the current times.”
Their solution was a nine-story building within the existing, 25-foot width; a 3,000-square-foot ground-floor commercial space with mezzanine; and eight floors of nearly 9-foot-high condo units, the top-floor unit a duplex penthouse. All units, as in the 1930s original design, are floor-throughs. Open living–dining rooms measure 24 by 12 feet and look out on the streetscape through 18-foot-wide, folding glass walls. The walls lead to frameless Juliet balconies for a seamless indoor–outdoor look, along with light and air. Wide-plank stained oak floors in the main interior space blend with the dark-black porcelain tile of the balconies, for further melding. The open kitchens to the rear of the living–dining rooms were designed as an integral part of the public space and feature a practical peninsula for working, eating, and serving. Bedrooms at the rear have privacy but also look out through new glass windows and small terraces for more light and air.
Besides retaining the building’s width and keeping the height low to fit the area’s scale, the horizontal window walls at the front are reminiscent of the big frames on original area buildings. Bringing in the maximum amount of light throughout was deemed a key selling feature in an urban project, according to both the developers and the architects.
Despite its ultimate success, the transformation proved more difficult than anticipated. The architects found that the existing brick side walls needed better support due to the weight of the additional floors and a new elevator. The solution was a new steel infrastructure that shores up the sides while extending the rear of the building 15 feet. The team also curved one of the building’s side walls inside on each level, to comply with handicap-access requirements and provide clearances for doors, but also to create an edgier, hip design, according to García. Old beams that were removed were recycled into other projects, including a retail shop and bar in Brooklyn.
Six of the two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo units measure 1,200 square feet; the duplex penthouse is 1,500 square feet. All were designed in an open-loft style, which the developers and architects felt the anticipated target market of 30- to 40-year-old buyers would want. Additional enticing touches include the 5-inch-wide oak plank floors throughout the front, except in the bathrooms; built-in gas fireplaces; Euro-style, glass-fronted, upper kitchen cabinets; and vessel-style sinks and porcelain tiles in the bathrooms, which interior designer Hadas Metzler of Hadas Design in New York City selected.
“Bringing the outdoors in is something I always have in mind when designing. In this case, the black exterior comes in through the floor choices, and the exterior framed windows are seen throughout the units—for example, in the white kitchen cabinets with black frames,” Metzler says. “The contrasting white sharpens the black of the façade.” The bathrooms have a similar feeling, she adds, with gray porcelain tiles on the floors and walls complementing white fixtures.
As of mid-January, five units had sold, including the penthouse. “We’ve only got two left and may be in the process of leasing them, but we aren’t negotiating on the sales price. We would rent either unit for $7,000 a month, if we don’t sell,” says Marshall. The commercial space is in the process of being leased, too, with the occupant in the business of marketing and branding fashion merchandise, including clothing and art.
The only change the team says it would make if the project had just gotten under way today would be to include more energy-efficient systems and green materials. “This project started at a different time, when green wasn’t as big. The recession had also hit. But we’re now at a very different point,” Galvis says. Marshall Sohne agrees. “We got everything right, at the time,” he says. “Our current projects reduce energy consumption much more, but this building is still very tight.”
Barbara Ballinger is a contributing writer who focuses on real estate and design.