It's like Grand Central station in here.
Exhibit A: Construction workers in paint-stained jeans pull the triggers on screaming electric saws as others strain to control concrete-punishing jackhammers. The din is overwhelming.
Exhibit B: Amid the noise, steel scaffolding, orange mesh construction fence and makeshift drywall barriers, wide-eyed commuters hustle by from every direction, oblivious to the melee around them.
It is Grand Central station in here.
The world's most famous train terminal, crippled by years of traffic and neglect, is undergoing a $200 million renovation courtesy of New York state, a program intended to make the 85-year-old hub both aesthetically pleasing and economically viable.
Whether both objectives are met will depend largely on the efforts of Williams Jackson Ewing Inc. (WJE), a Baltimore real estate outfit with a national reputation for transforming high-profile, often weathered landmarks into destinations where people go to shop, eat, be entertained -- even catch trains.
At Grand Central Terminal, WJE and its partner, Chicago-based LaSalle Partners, are planning to introduce 119 stores and restaurants as part of a comprehensive renovation to the terminal, which architectural writer Kenneth Powell once described as "one of a handful of structures which are universal symbols of New York."
Although the retail portion of the revitalized Grand Central alone will cost $78 million, the development team's overall revitalization is intended to restore the terminal used by more than 500,000 people a day to its stature of decades past.
That a Baltimore company is being tapped to direct the #i rejuvenation of a New York institution hasn't been lost on Ewing, and neither has Grand Central's importance.
"It's a building everyone in New York takes ownership in. It's a jewel to the city, and we're treating it as such," said Michael J. Ewing, a WJE partner. "This building is priceless. It's part of our heritage -- it tells us who we are."
Ewing acknowledges that it would have been easy to fill Grand Central's planned 160,000 square feet of retail space with the sort of merchants that have become ubiquitous in the nation's malls, such as The Gap and The Limited.
Taking that avenue could have been immensely profitable, too, since big-name retailers typically pay more rent. They also tend to sell more goods, allowing landlords in most cases to collect additional rent based on the volume of their tenants' sales.
But WJE and the state's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the station's owner, knew that Big Apple commuters and tourists probably wouldn't go for a suburban mall concept jammed into a purely urban setting. Instead, the real estate brokerage firm has taken a decidedly New York tack, booking trendy local restaurants and an eclectic mix of national retailers and service-oriented businesses.
It's gonna be Grand Central station in here.
Exhibit C: By October, when the 1913 train station built by shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt at 42nd Street and Park Avenue is "rededicated," to use the MTA's terminology, it will house apparel stores with names like Addison on Madison, Banana Republic and Kenneth Cole, as well as eateries with names like Zocala, Dawat, Matthew Kenney and Cipriani's.
Already, Grand Central's retail space is roughly 90 percent spoken for.
"We've developed an emotional attachment to the building," said Arnie Cohen, chief operating officer of Lexington, Ky.-based J. Peterman Co., the catalog company, which will open its first store selling home fashions, apparel and even antiques in Grand Central.
"We're chomping at the bit," Cohen added. "We think our biggest dilemma is going to be how to handle all the customers."
Brand-name stores such as J. Peterman aren't the only outlets eager to open.
"I really want to be a part of the reopening of an icon," said Biana Todorovic, who with her husband, Mirko, runs a tie kiosk in Penn Station and is negotiating to open a children's clothing store in Grand Central. "It's a prestigious location."
The renowned Oyster Bar & Restaurant, itself a New York institution, also will remain, though its owner, not surprisingly, isn't overjoyed with every aspect of the renovation.
"I'm not particularly enthusiastic about the restaurants that I've heard they've invited in," said Jerome Brody, the Oyster Bar's owner since 1974. "I've never heard of them, for one thing. And if some of them fail, it's going to put a black mark on the whole structure."
Even Brody, however, agrees that the payoff from renovating the six-level train terminal could be enormous. WJE expects Grand Central's new merchants to generate sales of $250 million a year, and pay roughly $25 million a year in rent. WJE will earn a fee, with the potential of other incentive bonuses.
"It's a little like how [Baltimore's] Little Italy felt when Harborplace came along," Ewing said. "They were afraid of the competition, but in the end, I think even they would agree the additional restaurants helped them."
By comparison, a suburban mall of the same size would have tenant sales of roughly $40 million, and generate about $6.5 million a year in rental income.
"We're really quite pleased with the tenant lease-up we've had, and thus far we've exceeded our revenue projections," said Forrest Taylor, the New York MTA's deputy executive director.
The new Grand Central is slated to create as many as 4,000 permanent jobs and an annual economic impact of $395 million.
That WJE was tapped in April 1995 to rejuvenate Grand Central -- over bigger retail development names like Rouse Co., Taubman Co. Inc. and Hahn Co. -- shouldn't come as much of a surprise.
After all, WJE was largely responsible a decade ago for turning Washington, D.C.'s Union Station from a dark, moribund train shed into a landmark that today is part shopping mall, part food mecca, part movie theater and part train station.
Prior to WJE's renovation of Union Station, the retail component of which it developed at a cost of $45 million and owns with LaSalle, 6 million people a year traversed the nation's capital's main train hub. Today, the project boasts 35 million visitors a year and retail and restaurant sales in excess of $100 million. People often go to Union Station for an evening, even if a train isn't involved.
"If they do half the job they did in D.C., then Grand Central will be a tremendous success," said Brian Hall, owner of Addison on Madison, a custom menswear shop.
But don't look for Grand Central to be simply a duplicate of Union Station.
"We've thrown away a lot of what we learned at Union Station in order to do Grand Central," said W. Lehr Jackson, another WJE partner. "No project we've ever done is a reproduction of one we've done before," he said. "Our formula is there is no formula."
At Grand Central, WJE's formula -- or lack thereof -- centers on peeling back the layers of time and restoring Grand Central to past prominence.
WJE has an edge when it came to Grand Central, too, since years ago it had completed a renovation master plan for the MTA. WJE also was the only developer that saw the potential in using Grand Central's four balconies as retail space.
The balconies, which will be home to the station's four new sit-down restaurants, proved to be a lucrative addition. At 25,000 square feet, they added nearly 20 percent to the total amount of space available, and increased the project's potential revenue by at least that much.
"We wanted to do a restaurant that would compete with the best steakhouses in New York, and the MTA wanted a world-class facility, so it was a great match," said Peter Glazier, who has teamed up with basketball great Michael Jordan for one of Grand Central's pending restaurants. "I knew, and Michael knew, that from day one this project was going to be a home run. Whether our restaurant is successful or not, Grand Central will be."
But if Grand Central and Union Station stand as WJE's highest-profile projects to date, they are far from the firm's only notable achievements.
WJE has consulted on or planned retail in projects from Kuwait to Los Angeles, and created retail arcades in the twin-towered Liberty Place in Philadelphia; Towson Commons in Baltimore County; and 30th Street Station, also in Philadelphia. WJE has also provided advice in installing retail and planning at Colonial Williamsburg, Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania.
"We're focused," Ewing said of the firm, which employees about 30 people in offices at its Baltimore base and in Philadelphia and New York. "Because, unlike some of the larger developers, we can focus our entire company on a project at the same time, without losing any of the critical communication."
Like many firms of the 1990s involved in both urban planning and retailing, WJE owes much of its start and philosophy to the late James W. Rouse, the legendary founder of the Columbia-based Rouse Co.
The year was 1978, and Jackson and Roy Williams -- another WJE founder now semi-retired and writing a book in his native Oklahoma -- were fresh from work on Rouse's Faneuil Hall in Boston, one of the first urban festival marketplaces in the nation, a risky venture at a time when retail, the economy and Boston all were in the dumps.
But with that experience, and with work at Harborplace and malls in Texas, the pair decided to leave Rouse and charter their own destiny. Ewing, also a Rouse executive, joined them in 1985. "Jim Rouse really is responsible for pushing us in the direction we've taken," Jackson said. "He was, I still believe, a true visionary, and this work has become our mission in life."
WJE's merchants concur.
"They have a real love of restoration, it's a passion for them," said Cohen, who has know Jackson and Ewing for a dozen years. "And they merchandise their projects in a way that makes them work financially."
With Grand Central, WJE caps a 20-year career of breathing life into sometimes comatose projects. Once completed, WJE intends to turn its attention to other projects in the United States, and focus more intently on retailing in Japan, a country with only six regional malls. By comparison, the United States has roughly 700 shopping malls.
Japan has train stations, too, 85 of them. And, unlike Grand Central, which has 500,000 customers a day, many Japanese train hubs accommodate more than 10 times that number.
"We ought to be there," Jackson said. "It's the second biggest economy in the world, and very little retail."
Ewing and Jackson confess that they would like to take on a project in Baltimore, and look at Charles and Howard streets as ** areas ripe for regeneration. At this point, however, both WJE partners admit that no serious project has presented itself.
As for the present, WJE knows that it is at Grand Central that the firm can make a permanent mark and cement its reputation.
Grand Central is significant for WJE not only for its size and scope, but because the firm's involvement extends well beyond simply adding new places for people to demonstrate their consumer confidence.
WJE is directing other dramatic changes within Grand Central, too. Perhaps most notably, the terminal's ceiling -- a mural of constellations 125 feet above the station's main concourse -- has been restored to its original prominence and green hue. Only a small square of the black soot that collected during years of neglect remains.
WJE and LaSalle also are replacing a loading dock with a new entrance, and ramps that had been part of the terminal's original design are being constructed. The team is also installing new escalators and ripping out walls to give the station a less constricted feel.
Grand Central won't be alone in its upgrades. Thanks to a partnership of businesses and the city, a master plan to improve buildings in a 10-block radius of Grand Central is being designed and executed.
"The whole 42nd Street area is being revitalized," said Hall of Addison on Madison. "And we think the area will fast become a volatile retail area, and that will go a long way toward attracting tourists, which is obviously one of the goals."
Up the street from the terminal at the 77-story Chrysler Building, new owners TishmanSpeyer Properties Inc. have been eyeing the terminal's progress and plan soon to begin their own multimillion-dollar rehabilitation of the 1.2 million-square-foot building, said Joe Artusa, a TishmanSpeyer leasing representative.
"We believe the lasting value is with the immediate market," Ewing said. "The tourists will always come, but if you lose the locals, the project shuts down."
But at least for now, Grand Central's rehab will stop at its doors, and a film of black soot and grit caked on the terminal's concrete walls from automobile exhaust fumes will remain, a testament to its not so distant past.
"It's just not in our budget," said the MTA's Taylor, of cleaning Grand Central's exterior. "But we're hopeful that some patron will come along."
Pub Date: 5/03/98