Google to expand West Side domain

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Tech company will reportedly move into St. John’s Terminal upon completion of redevelopment project


  • Google will reportedly expand to the redeveloped St. John’s Terminal, at West and Houston Streets. Rendering: COOKFOX Architects

  • St. John’s Terminal, a former freight rail hub, is in the process of a massive overhaul and expansion project and will reportedly host Google’s new Manhattan offices. Photo: Tdorante10, via Wikimedia Commons

“[The tech industry’s growth has] introduced a kind of development pressure those neighborhoods have never experienced before.”

Andrew Berman, Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation

Last March, after news broke that Google had acquired the Chelsea Market building — a $2.4 billion addition to the tech giant’s massive tract of office space stretching from Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River between 15th and 16th Streets — these pages reported on the “Googlification of Chelsea.”

Now, less than eight months later, it appears that Manhattan’s Googlification won’t be limited to a single neighborhood. According to multiple reports, the company plans to again expand its already sizeable West Side footprint — this time along the Hudson River at Houston Street.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Google plans to lease or buy 1.3 million square feet of office space in the redeveloped St. John’s Terminal building. The former rail depot, a massive three-story structure stretching several blocks along West Street, is being overhauled and expanded into a 12-story commercial development by Oxford Properties Group.

The jump to St. John’s Terminal would represent a new southward tack for Google, which has become a dominant presence in Chelsea over the last decade.

Since Google began leasing in the former Port Authority building at 111 Eighth Ave. in 2006 (it later purchased the property, one of the buildings in New York City, for roughly $1.8 billion in 2010) the company has steadily expanded westward to the Hudson River, first at the neighboring Chelsea Market building, where it began leasing in 2008, and later at 85 Tenth Avenue. Google will complete its march to the riverfront late next year, when it will begin leasing 320,000 square feet of office space at Pier 57 upon completion of redevelopment work.

A Google spokesperson declined to comment on the company’s expansion plans, but noted that the company employs roughly 7,000 people in New York. The St. John’s Terminal space would give Google room for upwards of 8,500 new employees, according to the Wall Street Journal.

News of Google’s latest expansion came soon after word leaked that Amazon would name Long Island City as one of two locations where the ecommerce behemoth plans to build new corporate offices. On Oct. 13, Amazon made its choice official.

Amazon could bring as many as 25,000 new jobs to New York City, but public response to the news has focused in no small part on potential drawbacks to the deal, including the strain it would place on the city’s transit system and housing market and the hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks Amazon could be poised to reap from the state.

Google’s methodical expansion on the West Side has been a lower-key affair than Amazon’s national real estate search, but it too has been met with skepticism from some longtime Chelsea residents and business owners for contributing to rising rents and displacement.

Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said that the St. John’s Terminal site would be a major development and bring change to the neighborhood regardless of Google’s involvement. But the presence of the massive Internet company on the edges of Greenwich Village could serve as a magnet for additional tech firms with appetites for unique office space outside the customary Midtown milieu.

Facebook already has offices at 770 Broadway, near Astor Place, and a planned tech hub on Union Square could serve to attract more tech companies to Greenwich Village and the East Village — neighborhoods without extensive history as corporate hotbeds. “It’s introduced a kind of development pressure those neighborhoods have never experienced before,” Berman said.

“I don’t want to pin this on Google specifically, but the fact that we’re seeing tech companies interested in areas that weren’t traditionally office districts has real implications for these residential and mixed-use neighborhoods,” Berman said, noting the potential for the loss of old buildings, out-of-scale development and “changes in the character of the businesses and the people who can afford to live there.”

If the tech industry’s ascendance in New York has come to seem inevitable in recent years, it wasn’t so long ago that news of their expansion in Manhattan was seen more as a curiosity than a signal of impending dominance. As recently as 2004, the title of a New York Times real estate article seemed to convey mild surprise that Internet companies were still around in the wake of the tech bubble bust: “Some Dot-Coms Are Alive, and Even Expanding.” The story devoted a single sentence to the growth of Google’s New York offices, then in Times Square.

For Google, new offices at St. John’s Terminal would reflect another case of the company utilizing buildings with history in the West Side’s bygone days as a center for industry and shipping. 111 Eighth Ave., the former Port Authority Commerce Building now owned by Google, originally served as an inland freight terminal for goods heading to and from the piers and railroads. Oreo cookies were once baked in the Nabisco factory now known as Chelsea Market.

St. John’s Terminal, built for New York Central Railroad in 1934 at a cost of $19 million, was originally the southern terminus of the High Line, 75 years before it became a manicured mecca for camera-toting tourists and lunching workers. The terminal’s remaining railroad tracks will be incorporated into the design of the overhauled building.

A century ago, the West Side’s proximity to New York Harbor and the freight rail network made it desirable real estate for industry; in 2006, the location of 111 Eighth Ave. along a key fiber-optic cable corridor was a selling point for Google.

Kenneth T. Jackson, a history professor at Columbia University and the editor of “The Encyclopedia of New York City,” said that the West Side’s transformation shows the city’s continuing adaptivity in the face of economic change. New York City is already home to more technology workers than anywhere other than Silicon Valley — many of them employed by the start-ups and midsized firms that have long been the backbone of the city’s “Silicon Alley” — a number that is poised to continue growing as blue-chip companies expand. “The more high-tech jobs there are in the city, the more employers will be attracted,” he said.

Rapid growth of the likes of Amazon certainly poses challenges for the city, according to Jackson — “You can’t move 25,000 people anywhere and not be disruptive,” he said — but “New York can absorb this better than just about any place.” Accommodating growth is a relatively good problem for the city to have, in Jackson’s view, and certainly better than the opposite, as when the city was forced to cope in the 1960s with the closure of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which employed 75,000 workers at its peak. “New York City has also experienced the reverse, and the reverse is worse than what we’re going to see,” Jackson said.

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