Clustered around the templelike entrance of the Jeffrey maxiboutique on West 14th Street, a small crowd of pouty young Brearley types and their mothers in Chanel armor are chattering on cell phones, waiting with minor annoyance for a magazine photo shoot to end inside.
Owner Jeffrey Kalinsky, a former Barneys shoe buyer who burnished his name with boutiques in Atlanta, has a CNN interview tonight. "I am being pulled in way too many directions, but I'm sure things will settle down soon," he sighs, with a distinct lack of conviction.
It is hard to believe, in the midst of this frenzy over Gucci goat-hair blazers and Manolo Blahnik croc pumps, that when Kalinsky first stumbled across his space last January, it was still a windowless brick mini-storage facility. The grand entrance was a concrete loading dock hidden by a steel gate.
"My real-estate agent, Caroline Banker of New Spectrum Realty, had done extensive research," Kalinsky recalls. "She thought the perfect space for me was lower Madison. This just happened to be our first appointment. When I saw the space, we canceled all our appointments that day, and we had a handshake agreement that night with the landlord."
The building Jeffrey Kalinsky stumbled across, 449 West 14th Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, was the center of the multi-building Nabisco complex, which dates back to the nineteenth century. Then in January 1996, two developers, moving-van magnate Moishe Mana and Erez Schternlicht, bought the building and rechristened it, somewhat optimistically, the New Media & Arts Center. It has since filled out with 31 distinctly downtown tenants, including Bob Guccione Jr.'s Gear magazine, designer John Bartlett's showroom, and the photography mecca Milk Studios (which Mana and Schternlicht actually own).
"We're full," says Mazdack Rassi, a principal at the building. "We're in the process of renting our last 10,000 square feet to Domini Social Investments, a socially conscious mutual-fund company, for their headquarters. Even though it's a financial company, they fit the personality of the building. They don't look like stockbrokers. TSE Cashmere has also signed a lease. Its headquarters is going to be here by January."
The Chelsea Market building, just to the north, was bought in the early nineties by the Long Island City-based developer ATC Management, which installed the market, a collection of seventeen high-end food retailers like Amy's Bread. (The Food Network recently scored 25,000 square feet for its studio and test kitchen.) Sculptor Mark Mennin, who built the angular stone fountain inside Chelsea Market, still maintains a studio in the building. "Two years ago, we knew it was all going to happen in this area, but it hadn't yet," says Mennin. "Now if I didn't have a fifteen-year lease, I'd be scared."
Of course, a store like Jeffrey is subsisting right now on the buzz that accompanies many a hot opening: Everyone just has to make the trek to see what all the fuss is about. It remains to be seen whether Jeffrey will stay the course, whether there are enough East 64th Street rubberneckers who will repeatedly brave post-lunch midtown traffic to get there.
Retail experts can't see a shopping district taking root anytime soon. "The rents have gone up tremendously for prime retail space in the area. It used to be $35 to $40 a square foot. Now it's $75 to $100," says Faith Hope Consolo of Garrick-Aug Associates, one of the city's premier retail brokers. "Banana Republic just took a site on Eighth Avenue. I could see a big-time furnishings store going in down there. But it's not going to be SoHo. I can't see MAC or Shiseido. You just need more foot traffic for places like that."
"There has to be a strong residential base to have successful retail," says Richard Seligman, president of Retail Development Partners. "And this area has a different topography from SoHo. Part of the appeal of SoHo is the streets themselves. They're just an inherently pleasant place to walk. That's certainly a different case from West Chelsea."
Seligman believes that it is largely the "destination" retail outlets that will survive the Lower West Side's adolescence. Big-box stores like Home Depot -- which has also been poking around -- are unique enough to draw people, regardless of transportation issues.
"With a Costco, an Ikea, or a factory outlet, people will get in a cab and go there," says Seligman, who's been helping Crate & Barrel find turf for an outlet. Williams-Sonoma and J. Crew are said to be trolling the neighborhood as well.
Comme des Garçons, says Seligman, prices its avant fashions so high that the boutique doesn't have to sell as huge a volume as a lower-cost clothing shop in order to pay its overhead. It can survive with fewer customers, in other words, so long as those customers bring their Céline wallets. And design and clothing boutiques that aren't yet big enough for SoHo may want to cut their teeth over near the Hudson. "I could see a lot of NoLIta type of boutiques opening up on the West Side," says Seligman.
And this time around, the galleries don't have to worry about getting elbowed out.
Matthew Marks, one of Chelsea's earliest settlers, now owns two galleries on 22nd and 24th Streets.
"We learned our lesson in SoHo," he says. "The galleries aren't going to be kicked out here, because we own the spaces; we don't lease. Now, that doesn't mean everyone is going to stay. But at least if we do leave, it will be because we're the ones cashing out."
"Larry wouldn't have come back if he hadn't found spectacular space," says Larry Gagosian's broker, Susan B. Anthony. Okay, so maybe this low-slung, windowless, mud-colored parking garage near the West Side Highway has potential. There are 23-foot ceilings, 21,000 square feet of floor space, and poured-concrete floors installed before they were even trendy.
But spectacular? The building was a parking garage for garment-center trucks that was last owned by Thomas Gambino, son of the late crime boss Carlo Gambino. Still, a prime ground-floor space in the middle of a frothy art scene is hard to beat, especially with Chelsea's rents a fraction of those uptown and down.
This will not be the Chelsea debut for this silver-haired, bi-coastal art mogul. In 1986, Gagosian operated the only real art gallery in Chelsea, on 23rd Street west of Tenth Avenue. Flush with cash after the Reagan years, Gagosian decided to upgrade, opening a new headquarters on Madison Avenue and 76th Street with a 2,400-square-foot SoHo annex on Wooster Street. But now it's back to Chelsea, along with everyone else. "Chelsea gallery spaces are now fetching prices almost equal to SoHo's," says Anthony -- at least for upper-floor space (although ground-floor space, around $40 in Chelsea, still lags prime $200-a-square-foot territory in SoHo). "Chelsea is definitely the center of the art world now," Anthony flatly asserts. "SoHo is not."
"Architecture is destiny," Jay Chiat likes to say. Three years ago, Chiat-Day's co-founder cashed in his stake of the debt-laden agency; last winter, he journeyed west to join Alan Ellman, 36, as CEO at ScreamingMedia, a firm that filters and distills content from the vast, muddled universe of news sources on the World Wide Web for clients. It wasn't long before ScreamingMedia outgrew its old space in the Rudin family's high-rise, high-tech haven downtown, 55 Broad Street. The company is now expanding from 6,000 to 25,000 square feet in its current home.
"In a start-up, you're looking not to burn up that much capital," says the steely-eyed 67-year-old, who somehow still manages to seem hipper than a roomful of people 30 years his junior. "You're looking for better rents; you're looking for raw space and for a kind of environment that generates energy. You need cheap space -- but you want space that you can actually use to express yourself."
"These companies want spaces that don't look like corporate offices," says Insignia's Mary Ann Tighe. "The things that conventional office tenants would abhor are all the things that attract these folks. I mean, you walk in and there are leaks in the windows, and they say, 'Don't you love that industrial feel?' If there are old signs left hanging on the walls from former industrial tenants, they say, 'Oh, we've got to save those.' It's that quality they're looking for, because it says, 'We are the New Economy.' "
Against a backdrop of stunning views of western midtown through the Starrett-Lehigh's nine-foot paned-glass windows, construction has commenced on a very Tomorrowland "conference room," featuring a Kubrickian series of sensually curved white plaster leaves folding against one another to form almost a cone at the top; the "room" looks a bit like a rose caught in early bloom.
ScreamingMedia's corporate culture is as nouvelle-twee as its offices. Whenever one of the sales force bags a sale, he or she beats on a bongo drum to celebrate.
"We try not to use the word employees," Elena Salij, ScreamingMedia's vice-president of marketing, explains. "We call them 'Screamers.' Because we're not a hierarchical organization. Everyone in the Internet was doing something else five years ago. So it's hard to say somebody is in charge and someone is following."
She adds, "For Internet companies, there is no history. So there's no such thing as a prestigious address. We're free to move to a neighborhood like this."
Not that it's been an easy transition. ScreamingMedia had to issue a "Welcome to Chelsea" guidebook to its "Screamers" to help them find the local Krispy Kreme and negotiate the bus service in this urban Everglade.
While ScreamingMedia outgrew its downtown headquarters, a lot of other Net firms are outgrowing the very idea of trying to be a "virtual" company. Cyberspace, it turns out, wasn't a big enough place to do business.
"A lot of people thought these companies would be 'virtual,' that they wouldn't need office space, that everyone could just work out of their home on a computer network," says Alex Cohen, the senior research manager at Cushman & Wakefield who deals with many Net businesses looking for space in this area. "Now they're finding that face-to-face interaction is very important." Meeting once a week just doesn't cut it. The female-oriented site iVillage is on a quest for 100,000 square feet somewhere in West Chelsea. US Web has been looking for 100,000 square feet, Women.com for 50,000; and Hotjobs.com has entered the space race as well, Cohen adds.
The Port Authority Building has become one high-tech hotbed, particularly for telecommunications firms attracted by concrete floors that can bear loads of 200 pounds per square foot -- four times what the average floor at an average office building can bear. The building delivers up to 80 watts of electrical power per square foot, while the average Manhattan office building delivers about eight. Port Authority filled up with mostly high-tech firms within the first twelve months after it was purchased in January 1998 by Taconic Investment Partners. In addition to Barnesandnoble.com, Teligent, AboveNet, Allegiance, Bell Canada, Frontier Global, MFN, and Sprint all have back offices or switching stations here.
One Port Authority telco tenant, Level 3, has expanded across the street, purchasing 85 Tenth Avenue and opening a "Telecom Hotel." The building has actually sold twice in the same year, its value leaping from $29.4 million in the spring to $53 million on July 20.
Back at ScreamingMedia, Chiat and Ellman stroll over to the mural-size window. If this frenzied push up the West Side is to continue all the way up to 42nd Street, one last link in the chain needs to be polished -- the twelve-square-block stretch of the West Side delineated by 30th and 34th Streets, Ninth Avenue, and the river. The most prominent feature of this dismal quadrant -- considered by many urban planners to be the most underutilized urban site in the world -- is the vast West Side rail yards. Last year, a Canadian competition asked five top architects to come up with a master plan for the area. City officials say they'll be speaking with the competition's winner, Peter Eisenman, about his proposal, which included plans for a new Yankee Stadium, a new Madison Square Garden, and a giant rooftop park extending out over the Hudson. The plan also calls for an extension of the No. 7 subway line, which might prove to be the most important Eisenman idea to catch fire.
Ellman and Chiat look down at the rail yards. Neither seems thrilled about having tens of thousands of sports fans anywhere near their citadel of e-riches.
"At least we'd have a good view of the games," Ellman shrugs, thirteen stories above the theoretical playing field.
Just beyond the tracks is a nest of industrial riverside buildings. At Tenth Avenue and 36th Street, Ian Schrager has a dry-ice-cool, ivory-walled headquarters of his own. Architect Robert A.M. Stern has his offices on 34th Street near Tenth Avenue. The offices of Gwathmey Siegel are two blocks to the south. Way up at 450 West 33rd, at Tenth Avenue (home of the Daily News), the Net company DoubleClick recently took over 150,000 square feet that once belonged to Skyrink, now at Chelsea Piers. In a quintessential Lower West Side flourish, they installed a basketball court for employees.
But at least you came up with the name first.