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An Eye for Development

New York’s SuperPier challenges the status quo for urban development; Clare Sowden takes a look at how an architect-turned-developer has set this project apart.

Architects have long played a role in shaping cities beyond formal architectural practice. Those who train as architects are able to use design thinking skills and apply them to other business arenas. Leading innovative business models established by architects are founded in an understanding of the material, spatial, human and economic forces at play on a site.

Recently the New York based real estate development firm Young Woo and Associates has been at the forefront of the intersection of architecture and real estate. A Korean migrant, Young Woo trained in architecture at Pratt Institute, New York and then went on to establish a real estate firm in 1979. Woo’s ideas have bought an entrepreneurial and design-centric flare to the business of real estate in New York City (NYC). His influence can be seen in projects including the Sky Garages (an apartment project that enabled cars to be elevated from the street to the apartment lounge room), the DeKalb Markets in Brooklyn and SuperPier in Chelsea.

Woo and his firm have been disruptive in their approach to real estate development. They have brought to market many unique projects that are human-centric and entrepreneurial in their response to the business of real estate and understanding of the demands of the market. Of particular note is the redevelopment of Pier 59, SuperPier, located in the meatpacking district of Manhattan. Here, Youngwoo and Associates (YWA) is proposing one of the most unique approaches to redevelopment that New York has seen in recent times. The site is an industrial relic that was once used as a shipping and passenger terminal; YWA has a lease on the site for 49 years and has plans to transform the pier using the existing structure. This ambitious project involves connecting to the Highline by taking the streets into the building and thus extending the Hudson River Park.

The proposal for Pier 59 is the development of 12 acres of space, based on a program of retail, office, park and entertainment uses. Landmark tenants include the Tribeca Film Festival, Google, a beach club by hotelier Andre Balazs of The Standard and a restaurant by Anthony Bourdain. The project is as aspirational in its program as it is in scale. The retail tenant mix of SuperPier aims to attract and incubate a set of retailers that is unprecedented in NYC. The retail spaces will be housed within shipping containers, and offer a high degree of flexibility for spaces to be fitted out and dropped onto the site. Some commentators have decried that the tenant program is the most unique mix of uses that has been speculatively developed in NYC since the Rockefeller Centre was developed in 1939.

YWA’s entrepreneurial approach to the leasing at SuperPier is an unprecedented combination of established entertainment and lifestyle operators with established cultural events. This has provided an attractive platform from which to challenge the status quo on retail leasing for urban renewal. It appears to be an astute move on behalf of the developer, as YWA can leverage the project as unique and world leading in its approach to leasing.

As a trained architect Young Woo, undoubtedly knows the importance of the qualitative side of development, far beyond the antiquated “build it and they will come” model of his predecessors. He is aware that successful renewal of underutilised urban relics goes beyond form making and architectural expression, and that indeed, whilst the architecture is the vessel, it is the synthesis of the spatial, cultural, economic, financial and experiential that will determine the success of such a venture.

Clare Sowden
Director and Development Director, PricewaterhouseCoopers

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