U.S.

A 1970s Office Building’s New Life as a Rental

At first glance, 160 Water Street looks like one of the many office buildings packed close together on the border of the financial district and the Seaport neighborhood of Manhattan.

But an office building it is not — at least, not anymore. Pearl House, at 160 Water Street, is the latest in a surge of commercial-to-residential conversions driven by the abundance of unused office space and the advent of remote or hybrid work policies.

Parts of the building, including the lobby, remain under construction.Credit…Maansi Srivastava/The New York Times
Pearl House has 588 apartment units.Credit…Maansi Srivastava/The New York Times

The developer, Vanbarton Group, and the architect, Gensler, transformed a 1970s-era office building into the hip new rental. That meant constructing a new lobby, reallocating the square footage from mechanical shafts to new units and amenity spaces, and upgrading the facade, to make the windows operable by residents. The developer also added five floors to the top, for a total of 30 floors.

Residents began moving into Pearl House in December. The building has 588 units — studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments with monthly rents ranging from $3,600 to more than $7,000. But for some tenants, the amenities — which include a bowling alley, a game room, co-working spaces, a bar and a spa — may justify the high sticker price.

The apartments at Pearl House are staged with more personality than the typical model unit. They are playful, with interiors that look lived-in on purpose. According to Joey Chilelli, a managing director of Vanbarton Group, the idea was that “each person could be like, ‘I can see myself there,’” before even applying.

One studio looks straight out of a millennial TikTok or Instagram feed, with its evil-eye coffee coasters, bright duvet covers and flower-printed coffee pot on the stove. Another, called the “cowboy unit,” has a Johnny Cash poster on the wall, bottles of Jack Daniels whiskey on the countertop, and a handwritten journal containing the lyrics of Hank Williams’s song “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

Credit…Maansi Srivastava/The New York Times

The in-unit washer and dryer, front-desk concierge, and 24/7 package room sealed the deal for Aleksandra Gavazova, who works in business analytics at Liberty Mutual Insurance and is pursuing a graduate degree at New York University. But a sense of community was equally crucial, she said, since she moved to New York from Boston in January and had toured her unit via FaceTime.

“Most buildings nowadays have amenities, so it’s not like I was going to not have any amenities in a different building,” said Ms. Gavazova, who pays around $3,400 monthly for her studio unit. “But having a common space where people hang out to have that community feeling was pretty important.”

Like many newcomers, Pearl House will need to attract renters to a neighborhood that is in flux — and trying to shake off a reputation for stuffiness.

But Downtown Manhattan was a draw for Ms. Gavazova. “I personally don’t feel like I’m in FiDi,” she said. “I don’t necessarily think that there is a FiDi community, or I haven’t found it or felt it yet, but there is, for sure, a Seaport one.”

These interviews have been edited for clarity.

Joey Chilelli, managing director, Vanbarton Group

Joey Chilelli on the top floor of 160 Water Street.Credit…Maansi Srivastava/The New York Times

We are incredibly excited to breathe new life into this building. You’re going to have thousands of people here and all those different life stories. We’re changing the street and the neighborhood — the neighborhood is so much more lively today than it used to be. And we’re a part of that change and breathing new life. New retailers are going to be coming in because they want to be close to this base. Then, I fully believe that offices will see all of that activity and want to be around here, too. So it’s a cycle of sorts that we’re contributing to in a very good way.

Robert Fuller, architect and principal, Gensler

Robert Fuller oversaw the conversion of 160 Water Street into apartments.Credit…Maansi Srivastava/The New York Times

We don’t want it to feel like an office, especially when you walk in. I think, in the interiors, we’re more successful in that. And we tried to do little things where we could — respecting the bones of the building, but still trying to give it a little bit softer, more of a residential hospitality feel. What’s unique about conversions is that they’re all quite different and unique. The solutions vary, where I’d argue a lot of ground-up residential is very cookie-cutter in its planning and approach.

Aleksandra Gavazova, resident

Aleksandra Gavazova, who moved to Manhattan from Boston, was looking for high-end amenities in her new apartment.Credit…Maansi Srivastava/The New York Times

What I love the most about being in a new building is that all of the residents are moving in. They’re all new. Nobody knows each other from before. Some of them are moving from a different part of the city. But some of them, like myself, are coming from a different state or city. Everybody’s open to chat, mingle, make new friends and meet new people. That community feeling that’s created around this energy is what I enjoy. There is more of a communal feeling in the Seaport, the cobbled Stone Street, the Tin Building. When the weather is nicer, people go out by the water to a small boardwalk.

Gilya Bisk, property manager

Gilya Bisk says the FiDi and Seaport neighborhoods are on the rise, like Hudson Yards.Credit…Maansi Srivastava/The New York Times

What’s always been important in my career is having this place feel like home. I think that’s a differentiator between any building. There’s always going to be a new and sexy building that’s built, but what feels like home? Does the staff take care of me? Do they remember my name? Do they watch me when I walk the dog out? A lot of people, when they’re new to the city, they want to find their people, their friends. So you meet people, you develop a team, you have a sense of community in a place where New York can feel really lonely sometimes.

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