Reanimating a ghost

March 7, 2011 | Configuration, Economics, Historic, Hotels, Incentives, Rehab, Speculation, Tenure, Use

 By: David A. Smith


For a slideshow, click here


Buildings don’t die just because they are no longer useful – or rather, they die at the speed of a bristlecone pine, with infinite equanimity.  And when they have become visual icons, common emotional property if not common physical property, then they can become a protected species, struldbrugs as I have previously dubbed them, existing in a suspended animation until either demolished to make way for something new, or reanimated into another use.  Some, in fact, are such cool structures that their previous inutility is excused in favor of their spatial artistry, evocative of a mood or a place or a zeitgeist, as shown in this Wall Street Journal article about a symbol of the Jet Set:


Are there any swinging stews on this flight?


An airline terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport that started as a jet-age architectural icon but has become a security-age relic could be reopened as a boutique hotel.


The twenty-first century, as envisioned in 1969


As human space consumption changes, buildings can lose their functionality.


Designed for when you could smoke in airports, and board a plane carrying a gun


The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is looking for developers to turn the vacant Trans World Airlines Flight Center into the centerpiece of a small, high-end hotel that would allow the agency to reopen the terminal and recoup some of the money it spent restoring it.


Note the aspirational phrasing – the Port Authority hasn’t succeeded, and the reason becomes apparent: in their zeal to preserve this fantasy of the Jet Age, the authorities have systematically eliminated virtually all potential value to be gained from owning the space, turning it into a negative asset that they will have to top up with subsidy before anyone will be willing to buy it.


The curving, winged terminal opened in 1962 at what was then Idlewild Airport.


Eero Saarinen’s last monument: he died in 1961


It became a symbol of the glamour of air travel. Its designer, Eero Saarinen, is considered a master of midcentury modernist architecture.


A womb chair of his own: Saarinen and his creation


Furniture for the future


Among his other works are St. Louis’s Gateway Arch and Manhattan’s CBS headquarters.


And Dulles Airport – another soaring, iconic, under-functional space


But as baggage systems got more complex and security concerns grew along with the airport, the terminal became unwieldy. After a bankrupt TWA was bought by American Airlines in 2001, the terminal closed. JetBlue Airways eventually built a new facility around the Saarinen-designed building.


See the Saarinen here?


Since then, it has sat empty. Attempts to find a tenant fell short.


As Yogi Berra put it, “Nobody goes there any more; it’s too crowded.”  The Saarninen terminal’s utility became overloaded by the volume of air travel, the expansion of Kennedy Airport, and of course the protracted divestment of airline security.  An arching open space became a transit-only plaza, an enclosed technological park, so it became economically unusable. 


Today it stands monument to the forgetting of a fundamental real estate principle:


Design for reconfigurability


Can we reconfigure this relationship?


It is the only hedge against the changing use requirements of the unknowable future.


Once mothballed, the terminal began suffering the Curse of Too Many Imperatives:


So in 2008, the Port Authority decided to spend $20 million to remove asbestos and restore the interior to better appeal to developers.


There went twenty mill down the drain, sacrificed to preserve the space’s visual artistry.  Cheaper would have been to demolish the terminal and cart away the refuse … but structural lookism prevailed, not the first time that good looks have engendered favorable treatment.


I got this job purely on acting talent


Now, the agency hopes to find a developer who will build a small hotel in the space between the old TWA terminal and the new JetBlue building.


‘Small’ hotel?  Why a small one? 


Anything built on the site must pass muster with the Federal Aviation Administration, so the hotel’s height will be limited.


Architectural and environment considerations are strangling the terminal’s development.  With a landlocked footprint, height restrictions were curtail room count, meaning less revenue potential against which to amortize the fixed costs of land acquisition and overall site preparation.  Either the resulting hotel will have to achieve heroic room rates, or the as-is value will be further depressed.


The interior of the TWA space would serve as an entry way and lobby for the hotel with restaurants and shops.


Lovely to look at, provided no humans are present


In other words, the existing space will be non-revenue producing – that’s acceptable for art but not for commerce.


“You can have perhaps the hippest, coolest-looking front office to a boutique hotel that serves a very special and unique air traveling market,” said Port Authority Executive Director Chris Ward.


Who wants to be hip in an airport?  Be hip in the Meatpacking District.


Here’s where to be hip


“It’s not a big airport hotel. It’s going to be a niche-market boutique-style hotel with about 150 rooms.”


Be hip on the High Line.  The hotels at Kennedy are decidedly un-hip.


Be hip at the Ramada at JFK?


The Port Authority issued a request for qualifications last week.


Observe RF Qualifications, not RF Proposal.  Qualifications are what you seek when you cannot bid the asset, and in this case, they are a flare-lit signal that the Port Authority knows it owns a negative asset – or an asset that its and other government bodies’ actions have made into negative value through renovation and development restrictions.


The TWA terminal is both a New York City landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, meaning alterations to the original structure must be minimal.


In other words, the space cannot be reconfigured – perfectly appropriate if it is being judged as an artwork, nonsensical if judged as an economic asset. 


“Clearly drawing inspiration from, but then also not clouding the Saarinen terminal is going to be a key part of our evaluation of the proposals,” Mr. Ward said.


The combined effects are to do just about everything possible to reduce or eliminate the property’s value – at a rough guess, $40,000,000 worth.  That is their prerogative, on behalf of us taxpayers, although I do wonder if the public would agree to pay (say) $40,000,000 in cash for the privilege of preserving Saarinen’s magnificent aero-folly.


Far out


Would the city have bought a piece of art for $40,000,000?  One immovably located at Kennedy Airport?  Economically, it just did.


The terminal is a darling of preservationists, who have urged the Port Authority to find a way to reuse the property.


How darling


How nice of the preservationists to spend our money primping their darling.


“I think [the hotel proposal] definitely has potential—and it would still be part of the airport, which is very important,” said Alex Herrera, director of technical services at the New York Landmarks Conservancy. “I think it’ll be tricky to fit modern hotel use in there—they’ll have to go more toward the European concept of a hotel in an old castle.”


Personally, I find the terminal a wonderful mise en scene … so if I ever walk through it again, I’ll be happy for those few moments, the happier because it wasn’t my tax dollars paying for that little bit of brightness.


Mr. Ward sees the new hotel as catering to business travelers and others in the city for a short period of time who might otherwise stay at fashionable luxury hotels in Manhattan.


Mr. Ward is fantasizing.  Manhattan’s a sixty-buck cab ride and nearly an hour away, and there’s nothing to do at JFK except fly.


But flying can be so much fun, can’t it?


The cavernous original building, meanwhile, would also be open to travelers for dining and shopping. They’d be attracted, he hopes, by the building’s considerable cultural cachet.


Hey, cats, let’s zoom out to JFK and soak in some cultural cachet


“There are few buildings designed for airports that have resonated with the public as much as this one,” said Frank Sanchis, a senior advisor at the Municipal Art Society of New York. “To have that in New York as part of our major airport for New York City is a tremendous gift.”


Not a gift – a $40,000,000 purchase by the people and tourists of New York.


Is it worth forty mill to light this up?





Comment from Matthew D. Healy
Date: March 8, 2011, 10:53 pm

Hmm, that Wall Street Journal piece quotes an official as saying the hotel would have about 150 rooms. If each room went for, say $500 per night (which seems a tad high for what would basically be an airport hotel at JFK, which is near nothing), and occupancy averaged 50% (which seems implausibly high), the gross would be about 4 million dollars annually. After paying for the hotel’s operating costs — and HVAC for the cavernous empty spaces in the iconic terminal — I just don’t see how the numbers can add up to anything remotely approaching forty million.

The phrase “white elephant” would seem to fit.