In the country’s largest, most densely populated cities, changing a building’s use is almost inevitable. We’re seeing more and more building owners considering it these days as owners and companies struggle to keep office occupancy numbers up. One of the country’s largest office-to-residential conversions is currently underway in New York City’s financial district. But another Manhattan conversion recently completed in the heart of a growing life science and biotech cluster is one of the most interesting yet. Taconic Partners and Nuveen transformed a former Chrysler showroom on the city’s west side into West End Labs (WEL), a cutting-edge life sciences property that the developers believe represents the future of urban life sciences facilities.
Like a lot of the newest life sciences developments taking shape at the moment, state-of-the-art facilities, sustainability, and hospitality-like amenities are a big part of the vision for WEL. First, the development team looked to keep some of the main structural elements of the property during the redevelopment process. Most notably, that includes the reinforced concrete structure and what was once an auto ramp that extends through multiple floors of the building. Reimagined as The Helix, the ramp was transformed into several small conference rooms and a landing with open seating. “We wanted to blend new design elements and historical features,” said Matthew Malone, Senior Vice President of Life Sciences at Elevate Research Properties.
Tenant amenities include a landscaped rooftop terrace with several gathering spaces and views of the nearby Hudson River and a 300-seat conference and events center, while an updated modern lobby will offer a grab-and-go coffee bar.
The 400,000-square-foot development, which was completed earlier this year, has the largest floor plates available in the commercial life science market, at more than 54,000 square feet, according to the company. The sizable floor plates and the purpose-built mechanical, engineering, and plumbing systems designed to support life science tenants’ needs help make the building stand out in the market. “The unique availability of pre-built lab space enables a much faster speed to market for potential tenants in need of functioning lab space fast,” Malone said.
According to the construction management firm that oversaw the project, the building has 40,000 square feet of lab space, which took “meticulous” attention to detail to ensure temperature control and the required ductwork. On the sustainability front, WEL was designed to achieve LEED Gold and Fitwel certifications, and the team used NYC’s much-discussed Local Law 97 as a guide when designing its building systems. A new curtain wall improves the existing building’s thermal performance while allowing much more natural light, reducing lighting loads, and reducing the need for systems to compensate for the old facade’s performance. Additionally, the HVAC system at the property is designed with energy recovery.
Long before it began to be repurposed as a life sciences center, 125 West End Avenue was originally built in the 1920s by the Chrysler Corporation to be used as an auto showroom and repair facility. Later, it changed hands a few times, serving as a supportive facility for The New York Times printing plant that was once in operation nearby and as an office building housing the radio operations for the ABC network. In 2019, Taconic and Nuveen purchased the building with plans to transform it into a state-of-the-art life sciences property. For the WEL project, the former Chrysler showroom couldn’t have been a better fit. “The building was a perfect lab conversion candidate due to its high ceilings, column spacing, and floor load capacity,” Malone said. Located on West End Avenue on the city’s Upper West Side, the location is one of the key elements of the project. Mount Sinai West Hospital is nearby, and it’s just ten blocks north of the Hudson Research Center, an important project that helped establish Manhattan’s west side life sciences cluster.
Taconic is not new to the life sciences space. Its entry into the market began well before the pandemic and the peak of the life sciences market. In 2016, the company signed The New York Stem Cell Foundation to its property at 619 W 54th Street in a 42,000-square-foot lease. After signing the organization, Taconic had a “light bulb moment” about the very specific needs of life sciences and biotech tenants. They later rebranded the building as the Hudson Research Center, which is now almost fully leased. Six years later, as the company’s life sciences portfolio continued to grow, Taconic launched Elevate Research Properties, a subsidiary created to manage its life sciences properties and projects. Choosing to go into the space was a “natural fit” for the team, Malone said, given the company’s history and experience with data-center operations and other intensive property types.
The firm’s latest project is Iron Horse Labs, located on the city’s Upper East Side near many of Manhattan’s major hospitals, a stretch sometimes referred to as “Bed Pan Alley.” That project is in the early stages of construction. Additionally, Taconic’s Elevate is in the early design phase of a project in Kips Bay near NYC’s recently announced Science Park and Research Campus project, a redevelopment of a former college campus into a two million-square-foot life sciences ecosystem.
Altogether, Elevate’s portfolio totals about 1.4 million square feet in NYC. The company is betting big on NYC’s life sciences market. In launching its Elevate platform in 2022, Taconic said it would acquire, develop, lease, and manage more than $2 billion in life sciences properties. What’s driven the company’s confidence in putting so much capital into the space has in no small part been attributed to the strength of the city’s talent base. “New York used to be such a finance hub, then we saw TAMI, and now life sciences are coming in,” Taconic’s Matthew Weir said in early 2021. “So, it’s a really fascinating evolution of the city. And that’s ultimately Taconic’s fundamental thesis: Why have all these sectors been drawn here to grow and flourish here? We would say it’s ultimately due to the fundamental premise that talent wants to be here.”
New York’s life sciences industry is an area that city leaders have been focused on growing and expanding for years—and the efforts have been paying off. Private investment in New York state life sciences companies hit a record $2.6 billion in federal fiscal year 2022, a 14 percent increase from the previous year and a more than thirteenfold jump from $200 million in 2013, according to a report this month from the Partnership Fund for New York City. Only Massachusetts and California drew more venture capital funding in 2022. In 2021, New York City doubled its investment in the industry to $1 billion through 2026. Through the New York City Economic Development Corporation’s (NYCEDC) LifeSci NYC program, the money goes toward incentives to help create 40,000 jobs in life sciences. While leasing has slowed down after hitting record highs in recent years, Manhattan’s fundamentals are looking good at the moment. The life sciences industry has been steadily expanding, and more than 1 million square feet of life sciences space is under construction or renovation, according to a recent report from Cushman & Wakefield.
Taconic and Nuveen’s forthcoming WEL development, which signed its first tenant earlier this year with Graviton Bioscience’s 40,000-square-foot lease, stands to be one of the projects that will help further grow the city’s life sciences industry and define what the future of lab, R&D, and office space will look like in the country’s largest life sciences and biotech markets. Reusing existing structural elements and features as a way to retain some of the character of the building’s history while adding modern features has been a winning combination for many adaptive reuse projects and certainly adds uniqueness to this one. Of course, not every building is an ideal candidate for conversion like WEL ended up being. Still, building owners can certainly learn a lot from how the new building reinvigorated elements of the past to make them a vital part of the present.