COVID-19 dealt a huge blow to the real estate development world when it first struck. Projects paused or were scrapped altogether, uncertainty around the future of buildings loomed (and still does), and work dried up for many architecture firms. It was an unprecedented time. Fortunately, the industry has begun to bounce back, and the road ahead looks much brighter than in early 2020. For Nancy Ruddy, co-founder of Manhattan-based architecture firm CetraRuddy, the changing trends the industry has gone through have created a landscape unlike any other she’s experienced in her career. “It’s the most exciting time I’ve ever worked in, I can honestly say that,” she said.
Ruddy is a seasoned veteran of real estate development. Along with her husband, John Cetra, Ruddy launched their eponymous design firm from the second bedroom of their Long Island City, Queens apartment in 1987, well before the area became a favorite for luxury high-rises and, notoriously, Amazon’s ex-HQ2 site. “Everyone spoke Greek and Italian,” Ruddy told me during a recent Zoom call. “It was like living in Europe.” Once they started to outgrow the bedroom office a year-and-a-half later, they moved the firm across the East River into a new office in Chinatown. The space was in a fifth-floor walkup above a fortune cookie factory. “We considered it good luck,” Ruddy said. “And it was.”
A New York story
CetraRuddy began getting more and more work and expanding its ranks, and less than two years later, the firm moved to Soho, where it operated for the next 28 years. In 2018, CetraRuddy moved downtown to the historic Battery Park area of the Financial District. The firm, with a staff of 80, occupies the entire 8th floor of 1 Battery Plaza, with views of the New York Harbor from every window. It was a big change for Ruddy, but that’s something she’s learned to roll with as an architect. “We really love being downtown,” she said. “We thought we would lose people, it’s really a different kind of neighborhood and experience, but everyone loves it.”
Over the years, Ruddy’s firm has designed commercial and residential projects in the US, Europe, and the Middle East, working with a long roster of high-profile developers including Vornado, Extell Properties, Related Companies, and CIM Group. Much of the firm’s work has been luxury condo buildings, like Tribeca’s 443 Greenwich St. (a magnet for the rich and famous) and, more recently, One Essex Crossing, a condo building that is part of a $1.1 billion mixed-use development on the Lower East Side. But Ruddy’s firm has also taken on assignments like designing Fotografiska, a contemporary photography museum in NYC’s Flatiron District that opened just weeks before the pandemic hit. Further uptown, CetraRuddy won several awards for its innovative design of Lincoln Square Synagogue on the Upper West Side, a project Ruddy once called her most memorable.
When the pandemic hit, Ruddy’s firm wasn’t immune. “It was a very hard time,” she recalled. The firm was fortunate to have 11 buildings under construction at the time, all of which eventually made it to completion. But construction on other projects halted. Some projects that sat on the back burner have stayed in limbo, some are being “dusted off” by the firm, and some will never be picked up again. Among those shuttered projects was RXR and Airbnb’s planned conversion of half of 75 Rockefeller Plaza into a hotel, which Ruddy called her “biggest heartbreak.”
Ruddy is happy with the firm’s size and doesn’t want to grow much bigger, but if they do, they have room. The firm has two other partners besides Ruddy, her husband, and eight additional principals. However, their new office was built to house 130 staff, and that extra space worked out well in the earlier days of the pandemic. “We want to stay at this size because John and I touch and are actively involved in every project,” Ruddy said.
CetraRuddy’s current docket has several projects ranging from a Hillel student center at the University of Rochester to an office-to-residential conversion of 25 Water St. in Manhattan (a former back office bank building that will have just over 1,300 apartments once completed). Ruddy and her team are also working on multifamily projects “somewhere in between affordable and market rate” in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Residential is a huge aspect of CetraRuddy’s work at the moment, with more than 5,600 housing units in the pipeline among its projects. It’s a considerable amount, even for a firm known for doing a lot of residential work. Many of CentraRudddy’s projects are adaptive reuse of buildings constructed during the 1960s and 1970s. Ruddy noted that these conversion projects are happening more and more, not just in New York. “It’s happening all over the country. People are relooking at historic and underutilized buildings,” she said.
The great reimagining
Adaptive reuse has been growing in popularity for the last several years in the development arena, especially as the shift to remote and hybrid work has led to falling occupancy and companies rethinking their office footprints. Repurposing a building isn’t necessarily less costly than ground-up development, but it can make a lot of sense under the right conditions. In Los Angeles, a city with a staggeringly high homeless population, adaptive reuse has been floating around as an architectural tactic to help ease the ongoing crisis. A study conducted by the RAND Corporation earlier this year found that converting underused office buildings and hotels in the city could add between 9 and 14 percent of the housing units that LA needs to create over the next eight years. And in New York state, Governor Kathy Hochul recently launched a commission to look at how the state could redevelop shuttered prison facilities in a way that would lift up the economies of struggling communities around New York.
In Manhattan, Ruddy’s firm is working with Silverstein Properties and Metro Loft in the partnership’s conversion of 55 Broad Street in the Financial District from office to residential. The conversion is a first for Silverstein, a developer best-known for its redevelopment of the World Trade Center complex. Conversions like 55 Broad are typically more complex than traditional projects. Older buildings tend to have larger floorplates, inoperable windows, and facades that must be completely overhauled. “It’s very different. It’s like a puzzle; there are more problems to solve,” said Ruddy.
Complex or not, converting buildings to new uses can be a way to open up underutilized areas and create more community, something that has taken on more importance since the isolating early days of the pandemic. “Hopefully we have learned from these three years of the pandemic and how we think about the next chapter of what we build and develop,” Ruddy said. “I think people are using better standards and ideas of urban planning.” She pointed to the industry focusing more on integrating nature in developments and putting more importance on indoor and outdoor connectivity.
In one recent project in Staten Island, CetraRuddy designed an office building that is part of a larger campus with residential-esque amenities and outdoor spaces. The site was landscaped to allow tenants to host meetings outside with small groups, and several walking trails are woven throughout the campus. “When I started it was really sad in New York, it was the early 80s,” Ruddy said. “I was told by every developer ‘location, location, location,’ it doesn’t matter what the building looks like.” Nowadays, it’s not just Millennials or even GenZ that are leading the charge and influencing what offices look like—it’s anyone who inhabits one. “Everyone wants a better quality of life,” said Ruddy, adding that choosing the right location is part of the equation, but adding the kind of amenities that make the office experience better than working from home is what will really bring people to the workplace.
As developers look at reimagining buildings more, the way those buildings look and feel has begun to converge. Typical residential amenities like communal roof decks, fitness centers, and green space are popping up in office buildings. In contrast, co-working spaces and private work areas for meetings and video calls are being integrated into residential buildings. As building types take cues from one another, sooner or later, the visions start to align. Ruddy has seen this between commercial and residential buildings, especially regarding co-working and remote workspaces. “There’s not a building being built in residential that doesn’t have remote work and co-working spaces,” Ruddy said. “I really see a crossover between these two different typologies.”
Even in her firm’s educational work, Ruddy sees the connection. Her team is working on a residential building for Columbia University and thinking about how important a building’s social spaces can be for students, especially freshmen entering a new chapter in their lives. Whether it’s residential buildings, offices, hotels, or college dorms, the wants and needs don’t change. “Everyone wants the same things,” Ruddy said. “Nurture, inspiration, and those elements that make you whole.”
As Ruddy looks ahead to more exciting projects, she sees more development on the horizon in the outer belts of major cities across the country. “I think people realized during COVID that if you’re not going in 5 days a week, you can handle a slightly longer commute to get more space, so we’re seeing a lot of suburban development,” she said, pointing to a residential project the firm is doing in Port Chester, NY, about 30 miles north of Manhattan. Her firm is also looking closely at global precedents and what countries like Norway and Sweden are doing regarding housing, urban design, and connectivity to nature. As office and residential trends continue to converge and evolve in this post-pandemic environment, creating spaces that add something important to the neighborhood while meeting the needs of the tenants and outside residents will be crucial for a project’s success. “I think smart architects and designers know you can’t just sit on your laurels and do well what you did two years ago,” Ruddy said. “You have to do things with meaning and context.”