In New York City, converting unused office towers into housing is akin to solving a 25-floor Rubik’s cube. A tangle of interconnected problems stymies most conversions: indecipherable zoning regulations, onerous environmental reviews, heated public meetings, updated building standards, and outspoken NIMBYs concerned about threats to property value only present the first set of problems. After, the biggest hurdle lies in figuring out exactly how to refit buildings with cavernous floor plates into light-filled apartments—and do so economically. Given each step’s prolonged time frame, it’s a small miracle when any such project crosses the finish line, especially for the monolithic buildings in the Financial District.
Pearl House, which recently opened to tentative renters, is one such example. Located at 160 Water Street in the Seaport District, the project marks the city’s largest example of an office tower conversion. Gensler and investment firm Vanbarton Group partnered to scope out the ‘70s-era building, which now houses 588 market-rate units ranging from studios and two-bedrooms to penthouses with private terraces. Natural light abounds thanks to generous nine-foot, six-inch ceiling heights and large double-paned windows that bathe the interiors with sunshine. The building’s deep floor plate required Gensler to design three “blind shafts” running through the structure’s core; the space they excavated was then added to the top of the building in the form of penthouses and SkyHOUSE, the rooftop-level amenity space kitted out with a full-size bar, fire pits, gas grills, and a screening suite.
The three-year conversion progressed thanks to the As-of-Right Conversion of Older Buildings, a city mandate outlining which office towers are eligible for residential usage. Not every building qualifies—in the Financial District, towers built before 1977 are spared some zoning rules that otherwise complicate these conversions. Pearl House, though, arrives as a success story for a city in need of more housing (and a laptop class seeking “third places” to work remotely). One study suggests vacant offices could be turned into 400,000 new apartments across the country. In Manhattan, with office vacancy at 18 percent, buildings like Pearl House prove the potential to ease the zoning restrictions keeping outdated structures devoid of life.