The lead engraving of Joseph Pulitzer’s retirement message from 1907 has been removed, along with much of the rest of the interior of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s former headquarters.
The engraving will be replaced in the remodeled building with a version etched in glass. But the newspaper has already moved to a smaller home in a nearby building owned by the StarWood Group, a developer and investment firm that has big plans for the old newsroom.
The block-long building in downtown St. Louis, which has 285,000 rentable square feet, is one of at least 15 newspaper sites nationwide that have been sold since 2012 as technological and advertising changes rip through the print journalism business.
Like the Post-Dispatch headquarters — a fabled hub of civic power that boasted cavernous subterranean rooms for bolts of paper and barrels of ink delivered via railroad link from the old Union Station nearby — many former newspaper sites are being redeveloped to appeal to 21st-century technology companies, urban homeowners and even beer connoisseurs.
First, though, there’s the matter of knocking away the past.
“These buildings were not built as buildings — these are factories,” said Jim McKelvey, president of the StarWood Group, which acquired the Post-Dispatch site in 2018. “These are newspaper assembly factories.”
McKelvey said his company was planning to spend around $60 million to knock out walls and reconfigure rooms, like the one that once held a 100-foot-long printing press weighing up to 600 tons when fully loaded. The overhaul is designed to create a modern office space for Square, the mobile-payments company that McKelvey founded in 2010 with Jack Dorsey, chief executive of Square and a co-founder of Twitter.
Hundreds of Square employees, including ones already in St. Louis, will occupy most of the space once it is built out, said McKelvey, a native of the city. Work is expected to wrap up in a year.
In Boston, no tenants are lined up yet for the site that The Globe vacated in 2017 after nearly six decades. The project’s developer, Nordblom of Burlington, Massachusetts, hopes to reopen the building this summer as an office park for technology and life sciences companies — as well as the possible home of a craft brewery.
Nordblom acquired the site, which covers more than 16 acres, with a private equity investor for $81 million. Demolition work took a year before redevelopment could start, said Ogden Hunnewell, an executive vice president at Nordblom.
“It’s not for the faint of heart to take on one of these buildings,” Hunnewell said. “The challenges are probably more significant than the next industrial surplus building.”
The complications included random ceiling drops, curved concrete walls and fluctuating floor levels.
“How do you deal with this 18-inch floor-rise when we’re trying to do a level floor?” he asked.
Then there’s the scrutiny that such redevelopment of often well-known buildings with protected historic status can draw.
The Onni Group, based in Vancouver, British Columbia, is redeveloping the former headquarters of The Seattle Times, an amalgam of Art Deco, Beaux-Arts and neo-Classical design that was built in 1931. The site is expected to become a 1 million-square-foot project that will have 1,092 apartments and a grocery store by the end of 2021. Onni bought the site in 2013 for $29 million, two years after the newspaper moved.
“While attractive as infill development sites, sites like The Seattle Times that come with landmark or heritage buildings, as well as historic uses, always get more scrutiny and have additional city processes to manage, and have more challenging of a process and come with inherent risk,” Duncan Wlodarczak, Onni’s chief of staff, said in an email.
Onni is also tackling the former Los Angeles Times hub, an Art Deco building near City Hall that opened in 1935; plans include a grocery store, offices and 1,127 apartments.
Despite the challenges, newspaper headquarters present an attractive opportunity for developers. Part of the allure harks to the pre-internet days, when it helped newspapers to be near the centers of power that they covered, like City Hall, police headquarters and financial districts. That often meant being downtown.
“Every developer says location, location, location. Well, that’s absolutely the case here,” said Johno Harris, whose firm, Lincoln Harris, is behind the redevelopment of the 10-acre former home of The Charlotte Observer in that North Carolina city’s downtown.
Lincoln Harris and Goldman Sachs acquired the site in 2016 for $37.5 million. A four-part project is underway, including a tower with about 841,000 square feet that was completed in July and is occupied mostly by Bank of America. The partners were able to capitalize on state and federal brownfield programs, whose tax breaks and liability waivers give developers incentives to clean and insulate contaminated sites. The big pollutant at the Observer site? Ink and other runoff from printing.
These locations usually included vast amounts of space for loading docks, storage rooms, executive offices and newsrooms for staffs that tended to number in the hundreds. That’s all over now.
The number of U.S. newsroom jobs dropped by 25% from 2008 to 2018, with much of the decline driven by losses at newspapers, according to the Pew Research Center. Consequently, the need for space has shrunk, often substantially. Rather than hold on to the headquarters from a bygone era — and pay the property taxes as well as other expenses — publishers have unloaded their hulking buildings and regrouped on an often much smaller scale.
“If the business can no longer support the top-dollar rents and taxes associated with high-end real estate, it makes sense to take the profit associated with selling a building, or walk away from the rents in a downtown, and find something cheaper,” said Andrew Rybczynski, a senior consultant with the real estate data firm CoStar.
Josh Jeffers, president and chief executive of J. Jeffers & Co., acquired a handful of buildings from The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in late 2019. He said the newspaper had occupied about 400,000 square feet among the buildings. But the paper has scaled down to probably one-tenth of that space, he said, and plans to move about a half-mile east this summer.
Jeffers said his firm planned to redevelop the buildings into apartments as well as student housing for Milwaukee Area Technical College.
This year, the first residents are expected to move into the 162 luxury condos carved from the former headquarters of The Chicago Tribune. Two developers, Golub & Co. and the CIM Group, bought the building and an adjacent site in a $240 million deal in 2016.
In Florida, the demolished former headquarters of The Miami Herald on Biscayne Bay now hosts concerts and shows. The land’s new owner, Resorts World Miami, a subsidiary of the Genting Group in Malaysia, is pursuing plans for the waterfront site, which covers more than 14 acres, that include a casino-resort and marina.
Not all newspaper overhauls are as sweeping. The site that housed both The Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News was acquired by an investment vehicle for billionaire Dan Gilbert in 2016 and now houses offices for his company, Quicken Loans.
For the developers that do turn these old newsrooms into luxury condos and modern offices, there’s another consideration beyond the prime locations and the capacious spaces. Their histories offer developers a chance to capitalize on the past.
“The history of a site like The Seattle Times, when coupled with careful planning and a thoughtful process, working alongside the city and the community, allows the outcome to be something a site lacking a strong history simply could never offer,” Wlodarczak of Onni said.