New York - Workers inside the Empire State Building may soon be able to imagine testing their weightlifting prowess or other muscle-building regimens against the mythical feats of King Kong, who once scaled this building’s facade.
This summer, a 15,000-square-foot fitness center for tenants and their employees will open in the concourse of the Empire State Building, part of an effort to reinvent the 83-year-old tower as a modern day urban campus.
The gym, with white, undulating tile walls and dark wood finishes, can accommodate the building’s roughly 10,000 workers. Executives who don’t want to work out with the rank-and-file will have access to a private gym suite.
Other changes to the art deco landmark are also meant to appeal to a high-end market. Empire State Realty Trust, which owns and operates the building, is also adding a conference center on the 67th floor and a 100-seat white-tablecloth restaurant on the lobby level, with private dining below. The restaurant, State Bar and Grill, wants to cater to a business clientele, rather than the millions of tourists who visit the observatory every year (about 4.3 million in 2013).
“Whatever your work hours are, you can come in, get your coffee at Starbucks, go to your modern, efficient work space and break for a workout,” said Thomas P. Durels, chief of property operations and leasing for Empire State Realty Trust, which became a publicly traded company last year.
The recent improvements tap into a trend in office design to create a more inviting work environment. Technology companies in particular have gained a reputation for providing enticing amenities like free meals, yoga and Foosball. The philosophy is to give workers another incentive to stay longer. Detractors contend that installing a gym would not necessarily improve workers’ happiness, particularly in a neighborhood where gyms are plentiful.
Restaurants serving the health-conscious and chic bars pouring after-work drinks remain sparse in this part of midtown Manhattan. Although the Empire State Building has a Starbucks, a Chipotle, a Heartland Brewery, a deli and an AT&T store, workers expressed disappointment that one of the largest office buildings in the world doesn’t offer sufficient retailing for the people who work in it. The new restaurant is intended to help address that concern.
The building has long struggled with its identity. The iconic tower might be the most recognizable on the New York City skyline, but for decades its offices didn’t share in the glory. When the tower opened in 1931, during the Great Depression, it failed to attract enough tenants. (The 2.6 million-square-foot building earned an unfortunate nickname, the Empty State Building.)
For decades, a hodgepodge of nondescript tenants leased tiny spaces. Vast floors were subdivided into small, dreary offices with drop ceilings, shag carpeting and fluorescent lighting.
So in 2006, Malkin Holdings, the company handling day-to-day operations at the time, began a $550 million modernization endeavor to restore the marble lobby and reproduce the damaged mural on the ceiling, gut vacant floors, upgrade the building’s technology and overhaul the mechanical systems. The new amenities are the latest stage of the project, which also includes updating the 68 passenger elevators.
“The Empire State Building is a brand that’s been abused, but it’s a brand,” said Anthony E. Malkin, chief executive of Empire State Realty Trust. “What is the brand of the Empire State Building? Back in 2006, my answer was: We’re going to make it hot, we’re going to make it hip.”
Dozens of small tenants have been replaced with a few big names with stylish, modern offices, like the social networking site LinkedIn. In April, the international fragrance manufacturer Coty expanded to five floors. The stock photography company Shutterstock moved into two floors in January, paying in the mid-$50s per square foot, according to Paul Ippolito, the broker for Newmark Grubb Knight Frank who represented Shutterstock.
“In the past few years, it’s really turned a corner,” said John Tauranac, author of “The Empire State Building: The Making of a Landmark.”
Rents have soared. In 2006, the average rent was $26.50 a square foot. Today, asking rent ranges from the mid-$50s to the low-$60s per square foot, according to Durels. By comparison, the average asking rent for office space in Midtown South was $56.31 in the first quarter of the year, according to a report by Newmark Grubb Knight Frank.
Shutterstock’s new space is an airy, open office with exposed beams, hanging Edison bulbs and two outdoor terraces. A wide internal staircase leads employees from the 21st floor down to the 20th, which has a cafeteria, yoga studio, library and game room. (A second game room on the 21st floor has an Alice in Wonderland theme.)
“It’s a beautiful building,” said Tracy J. Kim, a vice president for human resources at Shutterstock. “It’s a great location.”
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Doormen clad in burgundy uniforms that match the marble greet every person who enters the building. Signs direct tourists to the Fifth Avenue entrance, leaving the 33rd and 34th street lobbies exclusively for office workers.
“The last thing an office worker wants to see is a dad in a tank top with three screaming children,” said Malkin, whose grandfather, Lawrence A. Wien, bought the Empire State Building in 1961 with Harry Helmsley.
Despite the investment, a dowdy reputation can be hard to shed, and some prospective tenants are reluctant to visit the building for a tour. Even some current employees perceive it as an unappealing tourist magnet.
“It’s not in the Fashion District and it’s not cool downtown,” said Sarah Levine, who works in the building as a senior technical designer at Li & Fung, the consumer goods giant. Levine, who was not speaking on behalf of her company, did not know about the coming gym or restaurant, and doubts she would use either. As a working mother, she mostly appreciates the manageable commute from New Jersey.
Some tenants are welcoming the changes. Jacques Catafago, a lawyer, began leasing space in 1990. He pays $32 a square foot for a 4,900-square-foot space on the 48th floor. But his rent will soon rise to about $52 a square foot.
Given the building improvements, Catafago didn’t balk at the new bill. Instead, he is looking forward to the gym. “I’ll lose 20 pounds,” he predicted.