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Lower West Side Story


"I think the area's very different from SoHo," Martha Stewart is saying. "It's an unusual accumulation of high-tech people and very hardworking, long-hour-kind-of-job people. That's what attracted me to it. Right now, it's a place for people who don't mind a little funkiness, which I don't. People are walking around in shirtsleeves, if not bare-chested. It's real grungy still, and that's what appealed to me. But what most appealed to me is that I can drive a truck into the elevator up to my floor and unload things. It's very weird and wonderful."

The feeling of tabula rasa opportunity seems to flourish in the vast, raw interiors of this new alterna-midtown. It might be called the spirit of the great indoors.

When I first show up at the Deutsch agency, Donny Deutsch keeps me waiting for a good eight minutes in the reception area.

"I actually left my office the second I heard you were here," says Deutsch. Conspicuously personal-trained, Amagansett-tanned, and dressed in a tight black silk T-shirt, Gucci loafers, and no socks, Deutsch admits it took him all that time just to reach the lobby. "That's how big this place is," he says. "You get winded here. I walk four or five miles a day."

Deutsch, Inc., has rented the entire fourteenth floor of the Port Authority Building on Eighth Avenue. Until recently, Deutsch was planning to install a three-quarter-length basketball court right in the middle of his offices, where diesel-engine trucks used to park and deliver the Port Authority's mail after riding up in the building's brawny freight elevators. A basketball court would represent a considerable sacrifice of space in most buildings, but in the midst of Deutsch's nearly 100,000 square feet, the expenditure seemed paltry. (Deutsch's minions, however, rose up against their sports-addicted boss and demanded a lounge instead.)

"I heard they're actually having a real problem down there," says one Adland competitor. "You forget your notes in a meeting, it takes twenty minutes to go back to your office and get them."

In many ways, Deutsch is typical of the high-style, distinctly urban businesses that are landing in the West Chelsea chafing dish: It was Deutsch that created the first mainstream, big-budget ad aimed at gays for its client Ikea (which has also, in fact, been scouting the area for a Manhattan toehold). Inside Deutsch, young creatives chatter animatedly but noiselessly behind dozens of large glass doors. "We can't have people sitting in nooks and crannies," says Deutsch. "We're very dependent on people 'villaging,' if you will. Creative-type businesses need a space like this; I don't think a bank necessarily would."

Sure, the offices are off the beaten path, but clients hire an agency like Deutsch for that sort of thinking, he figures. "Had Grey Advertising" -- a more midtown, General Motors sort of agency -- "moved here," says Deutsch, "you would have heard, 'Grey moved to Ninth Avenue -- what a pain in the ass.' "

So far, the Lower West Side boom has centered on a few mother-ship buildings, the Starrett-Lehigh being one and Deutsch's new home, the Port Authority Building, being another. The Chelsea Market building and the New Media & Arts Center, each part of the old National Biscuit Company complex at Ninth Avenue and 15th Street, are the two other commercial buildings in the area to have reached an almost midtown maturity in the past couple of years.

These are, essentially, the model homes for the district. Deutsch cut his price per square foot ($32 in the old space) by more than a third when he moved downtown. Already, just five months after Deutsch got here, new Port Authority Building tenants are being asked to pay prices matching those at his old Park Avenue South offices.

But it is universally acknowledged that it is Stewart's move into the Starrett-Lehigh Building that is the neighborhood's true watershed moment. And indeed, a torrent of new businesses heading westward is now expected. Williams Communications Solutions, a telecom firm, has also just signed a deal for 65,000 square feet. The folks from the ad agency Mad Dogs and Englishmen have also had a tour.

"When I started working in Chelsea a few years ago, the landlords at the Starrett-Lehigh Building were content just to keep doing deals at $7 a square foot," says real-estate agent Susan B. Anthony, the premier gallery-space specialist. "You couldn't even get their agents on the phone."

But last August, the building was sold, for $150 million, to a deep-pocketed partnership headed by investor David Werner and featuring Harry Skydell, the developer known for refurbishing the Puck Building and the East Village's Christodora House. Rents at the buildings have nearly tripled. Increasingly, the old industrial occupants have been left with the choice of paying in the mid-twenties per square foot or decamping to Queens or New Jersey.

"We had our Christmas party at the photography-and-film studio Day for Night, on the top floor of the building, and I just never got the idea of moving here out of my head," Martha Stewart confesses. "When I first saw the interior of the building, it reminded me of the movie Brazil. You open a door and just look down enormous shafts stretching into the distance. I love the double-height ceilings, with the skylights and that wonderful light. My space is a half a block, and that's pretty far to go if you have to run down to the studio for a second. You'll be out of breath by the time you get there. I might even get a scooter."

Stewart breezily admits the building is a Magellan-size pilgrimage from her house on Long Island Sound in Westport. "The heliport nearby," she says pluckily, "is lookin' real good right now."

With the subways so far away, it seems the area is hard to get to from wherever you live (which almost certainly isn't nearby). Residential development has lagged commercial development along the Far West Side, and neighborhood amenities that most of us take for granted -- like dry cleaners, Food Emporiums, and maybe a Blockbuster or two -- are in short supply.

Once the Hudson River Park appears, it would be surprising if residential construction (or at least, conversion) did not follow. Premium park views, after all, typically require premium apartments -- and prices.

"Development can move much more quickly in an empty area," says Tony Goldman, one of the main forces behind SoHo's reimagination and a leading authority on urban renewal. "You don't have as many issues of displacement to worry about like you do in a crowded residential area like the Lower East Side. Alphabet City took two decades to gentrify."

But there are those who fear that West Chelsea could morph into a high-end, open-air mall like SoHo.

"A lot of people in Chelsea think SoHo got too commercial, and they want to make sure they keep the art galleries in Chelsea and not have the buildings up-zoned to residential," says Thomas Elghanayan, president of the giant Rockrose Development Corporation.

A Chelsea zoning revision that has been decades in the making just passed through the City Council last month. The plan essentially limits any future high-rises to the avenues east of Tenth. (As many as five residential towers may soon rise on Sixth Avenue parking-lot sites now used for weekend flea markets.) The city was very stingy when it came to granting residential zoning to the stretch west of Tenth, most of which has been earmarked for light-manufacturing or commercial use.

The great exception so far is 23rd Street between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, which was rezoned for residential use "to create a gateway to the Hudson River Park," according to the Planning Commission's Richard Barth. In addition to loft conversions on the street, Barth says, three or four twelve-story residential buildings are likely to be built there in coming years.

Still, only a few developers have managed to make inroads in West Chelsea. Three years ago, Savanna Partners converted a warehouse building at 525 West 22nd Street between Eleventh and Twelfth Avenues into condominiums. The so-called Spears Condominium stands on Gallery Row, along with the Dia Center for the Arts. "That's as far west as you can go," says Andy Gerringer, a senior vice-president at Douglas Elliman, the exclusive sales agents for the building.

Three years ago, that building sold its 30 "semi-finished" loft spaces for about $275 to $300 a square foot, Gerringer says. Another Douglas Elliman client, the development team of Christian Pompa and Barry Leistner, recently obtained a zoning variance to convert another building on the same block, the old Eagle warehouse at 532 West 22nd Street. Those lofts will start at $500 a foot.

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