Not Just a Fixer-Upper

Not Just a Fixer-Upper

Reportedly from the day it opened in 1986, the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center has leaked. Hardly the best building designed by Pei Cobb Freed, the project, argued Bruce Fowle on a recent tour of the dilapidated structure, was more the victim of the politicians who nearly value-engineered the original building out of existence.


Now, the design team of FXFowle and Chicago-based Epstein have been charged with fixing the building, and Fowle is determined not to let the same mistakes be made amid ongoing political ambivalence toward the $463 million project.

“We are banking on them waking up to this once we get started,” Fowle told AN. “People just don’t believe you can turn this into something.”

At a special session held this afternoon, the Public Authorities Control Board voted in favor of a revised development plan for the project, following a similar vote by the board of the Empire State Development Corporation, which oversees convention center development, on May 21.

Barbara Lampen, president of the Convention Center Development Corporation, said in an interview that she expects construction crews to begin assembling a 100,000-square-foot swing space, the first step in refurbishing the convention center, as soon as Monday. “We’ve been doing a lot of prep work, so we’re ready to move,” she said. “We should have steel up next week.” The prefabricated Butler building will rise on a site adjacent to the Javits, between 39th and 40th streets.

The renovations were originally conceived in 2004 as a massive overhaul designed by Richard Rogers and FXFowle. While that proposal would have nearly doubled the size of the convention center, adding 1.35 million square feet, it also would have cost nearly $4 billion. Lapen said that level of expense was never justified, and the current plans, which will cost $387 per square foot—versus $2,850—are far more sensible, especially in these economic hard times. Furthermore, she points to the diminishing returns of the old plan. According to her agency’s analysis, the new project creates a 41 percent return on investment versus five percent for its predecessor.

Still, ever since the scale-back was proposed, it has been plagued in the political sphere and press as too little too late. This has raised the stakes for FXFowle Epstein to prove the value of the renovations, and the designers maintain that by making the most of the work, they will not only repair the building but revolutionize it. “A lot of what we’re doing is deferred maintenance,” Fowle said. “But we’re transforming a lot in a very cost-effective way.”

Take that leaky roof. Instead of simply replacing the cement pavers, FXFowle Epstein is installing a 6.5-acre green roof. Transparent glass will replace much of the black-mirrored exterior. New mechanical systems will net the building a 26 percent energy savings. A new LED wayfinding system will clarify circulation. Even painting the exposed steel columns white instead of black should help improve a dour user experience. “It’s about taking the fundamentals of Pei Cobb Freed’s vision and placing those into the state of the art today,” Fowle said.

Even the swing-space—a requirement because the convention center must remain in use while under construction—had to be made both affordable and appealing. Once the renovations are completed in 2013, the hope is that improvements will be so marked that additional money will become available for further work, such as remaking the interior space, adding new landscapes by Ken Smith, and replacing the prefab building with something permanent, possibly expanded meeting spaces.

It is the sort of incremental, sensible change Lapen is championing. At the Javits, only 10 percent of the building is dedicated to meeting space, well short of the current industry standard of 30 percent. By spending millions of dollars on such an expansion, instead of billions on expanding convention space through adding floors, the city and state can get considerably more bang for the buck. At the same time, an incremental approach does not preclude larger expansions in the future. "We’re going to do this with the money we have," Lampen said, pointing out that no money had been contributed by the city or state, with proceeds instead coming from a special hotel tax.

Lampen is also quick to remind any detractors that the Javits is one of the few convention centers in the country that actually makes money, whereas the vast majority require public support. As the old saying goes: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.