Amazon.com has revealed the transformation of what was once one of the most desirable retail destinations on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue into a state-of-the-art office building. The former Lord & Taylor flagship department store, developed in 1914, is now a 600,000-square-foot home for Amazon employees, who have been forced back into the workplace on a hybrid schedule. Despite the increasing number of property conversions, there is rarely talk of the complications that can accompany these endeavors. WRNS Studio, the mastermind behind the Lord & Taylor project, faced a slew of them. The architectural firm had to contend with such challenges as large floors, narrow staircases, and a lack of windows, which forced the designers to contrive a way to bring in light. In this case, the firm solved the problem by erecting a staircase adorned with special lamps and foliage that give office dwellers the impression that they are being exposed to a well-lit outdoor courtyard.
The issues WRNS Studio encountered on the Lord & Taylor project are common for practically every property conversion. Like the Lord & Taylor store, which Amazon acquired from WeWork for $978 million in 2020, older buildings usually don’t have the number or positioning of windows, bathrooms, or elevators necessary to create a cutting-edge workplace or modern apartment community. Adding windows and real courtyards can be both a major expense and a logistical problem that takes away important leasable space. Given the lackluster state of the national office market, there probably won’t be a rush of retail-to-office projects, but many jurisdictions are now advocating residential conversion more than ever due to the mounting housing shortage. The reality is that conversion projects can be complicated and expensive. Still, these conversions are happening as architects and engineers find ways to overcome the technical challenges. The difficult Lord & Taylor conversion will definitely have some answers for other conversion projects to come.