Lower West Side Story

You might say that Donny Deutsch is to the advertising business what Yankees ace David Cone is to baseball, a veteran of New York’s go-go eighties who has managed to keep his fastball well into the go-go-go-go nineties. And like Cone, Deutsch – chairman of the flourishing downtown shop Deutsch, Inc. – isn’t afraid of getting a little creative, of tossing sidearm, if you will, when he squints his eyes, leans in, and fires the pitch.

But today, Deutsch is not going after any top accounts – say, a Chrysler or a Ralph Lauren. Instead, he’s doing a little pro bono work, thinking up a fitting name for his ad agency’s new home. Last April, he pulled up stakes on Park Avenue South and headed for the hinterland-on-the-Hudson, a spooky fringe of monolithic manufacturing buildings in West Chelsea with a population you could fit, seemingly, onto a few floors at Bloomingdale’s during tax-free week. But that was before open office space in New York became as precious as a rent-controlled two-bedroom apartment. Today, the once-negligible neighborhood stretching from 14th Street into the Thirties and west from Eighth Avenue to the Hudson is undergoing such a swift, and jolting, transformation that a new identity does seem to be in order.

“I heard somebody suggest ‘the Midwest,’ ” Deutsch mentions in passing. “That’s so not what it is,” he adds, dismissing it outright. Ball one, a knuckler that bounces fecklessly in the dirt. He winds up and delivers another:

“It’s kind of cheesy, but what about ‘West New York?’ “

One problem. There already is a West New York, and it’s on the other side of the river – in New Jersey. High and inside. Ball two.

Undeterred, Deutsch rocks into the motion and hurls yet another.

“How about … ‘the Lower West Side’?” he says, weighing the options. “You already have the Lower East Side, the Upper West Side …”

Deutsch looks into the distance, then turns emphatically. “That’s it. That’s it.” A fastball – right down the pipe. “I like that. The Lower West Side,” he crows. “I want five bucks for this.”

The Lower West Side, the West Coast, Manhattan’s Left Bank – whichever label eventually sticks to the Velcro – is suddenly the most dynamic corridor of the city, a rejuvenated commercial district ablaze with art galleries, hot restaurants, photography studios, and fashion boutiques.

“The Lower West Side. Hmmm – what would that turn out to be? “Lo … LoWeSo. LoWeSi?” says Martha Stewart, who seems slightly skeptical that this rheumy acronym will take. That doesn’t mean the Den Mother of American Taste hasn’t been charmed – yes, charmed – by the neighborhood.

In mid-August, the chairman and chief executive officer of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia signed a lease for 75,000 square feet in West Chelsea’s coveted Starrett-Lehigh Building. The 2.3-million-square-foot factory warehouse at Eleventh Avenue and 26th Street is the Chrysler Building of this rugged, broad-shoulders district that’s been hulking next to the Hudson since the nineteenth century. Nine miles of strip windows band the nineteen floors of the vintage 1931 Bauhaus-influenced behemoth. Architects consider it a minor masterwork. But up until recently, few A-list tenants did – which is not to speak ill of the Westway Cone Winding Corporation or the Atlantic Hardware and Supply Company, both of which have resided quietly here for years.

Come March, Stewart’s Internet operation and various design-oriented aspects of her business such as photography studios will be steaming into the third millennium at the Starrett-Lehigh. Stewart’s impending arrival has truly basted the district with credibility. Blessed with a talent for making lemons not into mere lemonade but into a perfectly photogenic pie capped with an Everest of springy meringue, Stewart is now poised to spruce up an entire neighborhood, casually branding West Chelsea “a good thing” with her very towheaded presence.

Not that Martha doesn’t already have company. In the elevators, she’ll be brushing cashmered elbows with artist Sandro Chio, who is already splattering acres of canvas in his own vast studios in the building. Ad legend Jay Chiat, best known for squiring Apple Computer into the public consciousness, is newly aboard at ScreamingMedia, an Internet firm headquartered there. With Internet start-ups, cable networks, and ad firms peering into the building’s hangarlike concrete interiors almost daily, the building is becoming the platinum address in the neighborhood.

Downstairs, the Chelsea arts scene is pulsing with activity. There are some 100 galleries here now, pushing north past 21st Street, which Paula Cooper pollinated in 1996. (Like Matthew Marks, Cooper has also opened a second gallery in Chelsea.) The giant yellow-brick West Chelsea Arts Building, a vertical art colony on 26th between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, is currently home to Gorney Bravin + Lee, where the likes of Alexis Rockman, William Wegman, and Sarah Charlesworth show. Eschewing his swanky 57th Street address, Robert Miller – who represents Diane Arbus and Lee Krasner – has taken half the ground floor. And along with the galleries, of course, come the SoHo-slick watering holes and shops: the restaurants Lot 61 and Bottino, the bar Serena in the Chelsea Hotel, and the Comme des Garçons store with its funky intestinal entrance.

The Lower West Side boom also has a solid southern anchor in the increasingly hot meatpacking district, where Jeffrey, a quixotic mini-Barneys, opened in August and has a throng of people waiting to get in every Saturday morning. In coming months, restaurateur Mark Strausman of Campagna will be unveiling Chinghalle, a quasi-industrial brasserie on Gansevoort Street. Keith McNally, whose Odeon jump-started TriBeCa as we now know it, is finessing his Balthazar follow-up, Pastis, on Ninth Avenue at Little West 12th Street.

The infrastructure of cool will fully be in place if the hip hotels follow, as expected. André Balazs (the Mercer, Chateau Marmont) is said to be looking in West Chelsea. Christina Ong (who owns London’s ultrachic Metropolitan and Halkin hotels) is rumored to be planning an outpost in the meatpacking district on Washington Street. Bill Kimpton, San Francisco’s answer to Ian Schrager, is also said to be interested.

Any of these hotels would make for a decent East Coast pied-à-terre for L.A.’s Skybar crowd if Miramax and its glossy niece, Talk magazine, do end up on West 20th Street, an idea that’s been knocked around by both parties a lot recently.

Across the street from the West Chelsea Arts Building is the peak-roofed automotive garage, now divided into two equal spaces, that is suddenly the neighborhood’s great visual study in contrast. The eastern half is still occupied by the King Bear mechanic shop, with its stacks of tires banked on the sidewalk in front. As of July, however, the western half has been commandeered by photographer Annie Leibovitz, who has already turned her side into an airy shooting space as minimalist as any of the galleries nearby.

“It’s just a very simple building, just a big open space, really,” says Leibovitz, who moved from a fourteenth-floor studio on Vandam Street so she could walk to work from her London Terrace home of eight years. “Buildings like this one were built in the teens as auto mechanics’ garages to repair Model Ts. But this one just has great bones, great character.”

Leibovitz was already a zealot when it came to the area’s proletarian chic (“Architecturally,” she says, “the Starrett-Lehigh Building always has been one of my favorite buildings in New York City, period”). So she took great pains to be historically accurate when she installed her 7,000-square-foot studio and offices. For inspiration, she pored over books of artsy industryscapes by German conceptual photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher and even tracked down the same Glendale, Queens, ironworks – A&S Windows – that made the windows for a lot of the warehouses in the area.

“It feels exciting to be in Chelsea right now; it’s throbbing,” she says. “With the art galleries here, the better restaurants have followed. You’ve got the crowd at Bottino, which is young, smart, lively. Lot 61 is terrific. It just feels alive over here.”

“Of course,” she adds a bit mournfully, “I’ve been dying for a better coffee place.”

Indeed, so many photo studios are thriving in West Chelsea that another London Terrace resident insists that when dusk falls, with all the camera flashes exploding behind warehouse windows, it’s “like looking out over some gigantic disco.”

It seems a familiar script: First come the artists, then the art galleries, the restaurants, the Porticos, and the yuppies in their $2 million lofts – the SoHo paradigm all over again. But there are many currently at work shaping the neighborhood’s future who think the Lower West Side has a different, and utterly distinct, fate in store.

For a century, the coastal stretch of land along the Hudson River, from the northern border of Greenwich Village at Horatio Street all the way up to 42nd Street, was a paunchy white elephant, at least in the eyes of most city real-estate agents. It was here that small printing companies and manufacturers beavered away in obscurity behind grit-stained windows. Operating out of the city’s hindquarters at a several-block remove from the nearest subway lines was well worth the inconvenience; rents were cheap – $6 per square foot, if all you required was a huge, unfinished industrial space.

But huge, unfinished, and industrial are today’s real-estate-world buzzwords. They make perfect sense for ad agencies, Internet start-ups, and new-media companies – peopled by just the sort of creative souls who bear-hug the art-gallery-cum-aircraft-hangar aesthetic such buildings afford and have enough manifest destiny on the brain to realize their new hires will need somewhere to sit once the business takes flight.

And they’ll have a front lawn when the hotly anticipated Hudson River Park appears on the horizon. Approved by the State Legislature last year, this vast stretch of green rolling four and a half miles up the Hudson – from Battery Park City to 59th Street – is supposed to be finished by 2005. It will sprawl over 550 acres and thirteen public piers. The New York Times has already decreed that Hudson River Park “could do for New York in the 21st Century what Central Park did in the 19th.”

Most immediately, the park – with a projected price tag of $390 million – will replace miles of rotting piers and parking lots with an esplanade, a bike trail, baseball diamonds, and basketball courts. But the park is also likely to serve as an elaborate invitation for the city as a whole – and likely its developers – to pay a visit to this former industrial moonscape.

Up until now, the elevated High Line freight rail west of Tenth Avenue and snaking up to 34th Street had been the area’s defining feature. Railroads built in the mid-nineteenth century on Ninth and Eleventh Avenues were the conduits from the slaughterhouses, breweries, and apparel factories to the nation’s consumers. But in 1982, the freight lines finally fell silent, leaving behind a rusting penumbral skeleton.

The city has wanted to tear the High Line down for decades, but its new owner, the rail company CSX, has been stalling. CSX, which still pays $200,000 to $300,000 a year on real-estate taxes for the tracks, reportedly would love to fob them off on a nonprofit group or a group of entrepreneurs willing to develop the structure as an elevated promenade, with shops or with landscaping. This is either a brilliantly counterintuitive land-use proposal or a brilliantly absurdist ploy to get the city to throw up its hands and pick up the cost of dismantling the tracks.

Mooring the center of the district is the Chelsea Piers recreation complex, whose management insists it is now on healthier financial footing after some lean years (some 3.8 million people reportedly visited the complex last year, up from 2.1 million in its first year, 1996). One developer maintains that a few city officials have told him the city would like to make Chelsea Piers the focus of a concerted effort to bring the Summer Olympics here.

Meanwhile, the Prada set has been doing its best to establish a Mercer Street beachhead, only the SoHo paradigm has taken a sharp detour down Silicon Alley. The city’s Internet firms are expected to employ more than 180,000 people within the coming year. Telecommunications companies like Level 3 and AboveNet – already thriving because of increased deregulation of the industry – have wandered westward, lured by a key fiber-optic-cable artery running up Ninth Avenue. Geraldine Laybourne’s Oxygen Media, Barnesandnoble.com, and DoubleClick are only a few of the dozens of firms that have dug in along the Hudson. And iVillage, Razorfish, and TheStreet-.com are shopping around, too, real-estate sources say.

“This area is never going to be intimate,” says Annie Leibovitz, who sees a very distinct New York district forming. “It’s not quaint. Tenth and Eleventh Avenues are like highways, and that sort of protects things from getting ‘cute’ – like SoHo.”

“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.

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.

Sorry, Donny.

But at least you came up with the name first.

Lower West Side Story