The average New Yorker couldn’t give you directions to St. John’s Terminal or tell you what it’s like there. Originally three stories tall and three blocks long, it runs north-south along West Street in Lower Manhattan. Built by the New York Central Railroad in 1934, it was intended to accommodate two hundred and twenty-seven fully loaded freight cars, arriving and departing thirty feet above the ground, at the terminus of the elevated tracks that would later become known as the Highline. Last fall, Google announced its intention to buy the terminal from developer Oxford Properties for $2.1 billion — the largest single-building commercial real estate deal in the city since the pandemic began.
The tech company’s executives said they have important plans for the building. At the time, like any other large employer of employees, Google asked itself medical, economic and philosophical questions about the future of the workplace. Most Google employees worked remotely and would continue to do so for some time. “As Google moves toward a more flexible, hybrid approach to work, coming together in person to collaborate and build a community will remain an important part of our future,” said Ruth Porat, Google’s chief financial officer. wrote in a blog post. “That’s why we continue to invest in our offices around the world.”
A few weeks ago I took a tour of the site with architect Rick Cook, a founding partner of COOKING FOX Architects, and Dean Shapiro, an executive at Oxford Properties. Oxford, the real estate arm of the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System, acquired and brought in the building in 2017 COOKING FOX to rehabilitate it soon thereafter. “We’re in the future of the workplace,” Cook said shortly after shaking my hand. Cook is tall and lean with light blue eyes and a practiced, confident demeanor. He looked up at the unfinished building: nine gleaming stories of glass and steel rose above the three brown brick stories of its original facade like the second tier of a wedding cake. Cook has thought about the future of the workplace long enough to see more than one future come and go. 15 years ago, his office designed the Bank of America Tower, which officially opened after the 2010 financial crisis. Back then, the future was, among other things, vertical. “Skyscraper mode,” he said, shaking his head slightly. “Another generation.”
Today’s future is different. Cook mentioned lofty core values that he believes will define them: “health and wellbeing,” “flexibility and resilience,” and “authenticity.” Also, today’s future is more horizontal. When completed, St. John’s Terminal will be 12 stories tall but contain 1.3 million square feet of floor space. In comparison, the Bank of America Tower is 55 stories tall and covers 2.1 million square feet. The term Cook and others began using for a building the size of the terminal is “groundscraper,” a word that can be traced back at least to the 1920s, and to the Russian artist and designer El Lissitzky, who argued that horizontal movement is more natural to humans than vertical movement.
Shapiro, who is shorter than Cook and more relaxed, told me, “A lot of developers would normally say, ‘Go as high as you can because height equals value.’ We fundamentally disagree.” Google, whose current New York headquarters in Chelsea is also classified as a groundscraper, did the same. It was agreed to lease the building shortly thereafter with an option to buy COOKING FOXThe plans of were drawn up.
Dressed in yellow vests and white hard hats, Cook, Shapiro and a few employees, led by a genius site manager named Giusseppe Nunez, entered the building. “Never put your foot anywhere you’re not looking,” Cook advised. “We’ve come a long way, but there’s still stuff to trip over.” We took the elevator to the twelfth floor and entered a cavernous, harsh space with wires and pipes running along the ceiling and on metal sheets stacked on the floor. Floor-to-ceiling windows on the west side of the room looked out over the Hudson River and beyond – a Steinberg view. “This is the penthouse for Googlers in the Northeast,” Cook said, staring at the horizon. “We say this is the widest sunset in New York.”
Cook is a proponent of “biophilic” design, a set of building principles that take into account the impact on the environment and human biology. Access to the outdoors is one of the principles, and the building’s huge wraparound terraces on the twelfth, eleventh and fourth floors will be planted with native flora, intended to provide rest and sustenance for both local fauna and Googlers. COOKING FOXThe Midtown offices of in the former Fisk Tire building also have terraced gardens — bees living in them COOKING FOX‘s beehives pollinate plants in Central Park, a few blocks away. “Biophilic design is so much more than just plants in the workplace,” Cook said. “It’s about a different theory of how to get people to feel healthy, lower cortisol levels, and feel connected to a larger life system. It’s a much deeper theory of thought.”
Google had asked landscape ecologist Eric Sanderson, founder of the Mannahatta Project and an old friend of Cook’s, to advise on plans for the gardens at St. John’s Terminal. “There’s a thing called the green area ratio that tells you how much green you can get on a site,” Cook said. “Can you duplicate the amount of habitat that the site had in 1609? Is there a way to reclaim so much productivity and build a million square feet of office space?”
Manhattan’s original sand shore was about a third of the way to the building’s site. Was it really possible to bring nature back, whatever that meant, to a place that hadn’t been nature for four centuries? Cook grinned. “I think the answer for sustainability, for carbon footprint, will always be denser cities,” he said. “Yet as human beings we need a connection to nature.” I asked if there was any tension between these two ideas. Cook reduced the tension. “There is the relationship between the two,” he said.
We went down one floor and looked at some renderings that had been taped to a window. There were pictures of Google employees sitting cross-legged on the lawn in the terraced gardens and standing at the kitchen counters. “From day one, Google said food inflow and outflow was extremely important to them,” Cook said. “The loading of these pantries and micro-kitchens, as well as the flow of food onto the floors, was a primary design criterion.” Google’s obsession with food flow had prompted a change in plans for the building’s ground floor loading docks.
Shapiro said something about the “basket of amenities” that companies were now seeking in office buildings and that developers were trying to deliver. For example, since the pandemic began, Cook says, more and more clients have been asking for well-filtered air in their offices. “What you’re seeing in the investment community is there’s so much reliance on ESG now,” Shapiro said, referring to environmental, social and governance issues as opposed to purely financial concerns. “Buildings that are not ESG conscious are of fundamentally less value than those that meet the requirements.” At times, financial and other priorities overlapped: preserving the base of the original St. John’s terminal rather than demolishing it and building an entirely new one Erecting buildings preserved some of the historic character of the site. It also saved money and a significant amount of carbon emissions, Cook said.