Employees of the James A. Farley Post Office received an edict in 2006 that the mail center, spanning a full city block just west of Penn Station, would no longer go by that name—its moniker was now Moynihan Station. The transition marked the beginning of the ongoing redevelopment of the building into an extension of the neighboring train hub. The project has been in the works for over a decade, but its new name hasn’t until recently caught on outside of the circles who ought to know it.
Behind the scenes, Skylight Group has been quietly working since 2013 to make that happen. According to founder and CEO Jennifer Blumin, its mission is to raise the profile of historic buildings as they await transformation into any number of things—from a world-class train hall to one of the largest mixed-use developments Lower Manhattan’s seen in decades—by “branding it with the things that make New York tick” like arts and fashion events.
That’s exactly what Skylight is now doing for St. John’s Terminal, its next point of focus in New York City (and the location of its new makeshift office). The nearly four-block building, adjacent to Pier 40 in Hudson River Park, has been transformed into event space Skylight Clarkson Sq and Skylight Clarkson North. As the city continues to remake itself with the help of firms like Skylight, the outdated name St. John’s Terminal, tied to religious landmarks and locomotives, is sure to get lost to history.
To walk into St. John’s Terminal, bordered by Washington and West streets and Clarkson Street to the north, is to walk into a piece of New York City’s industrial past.
St. John’s Terminal opened in 1934 and served as the terminus to the newly-elevated rail line along Tenth Avenue, the “lifeline of New York” that carried meat and milk and eggs from Hudson Valley and beyond. Remnants of rail lines are still embedded in its concrete floors, a hint at its major role in building up Manhattan’s west side.
But these days New Yorkers and non-New Yorkers alike are privy to the High Line, and it’s quite the opposite of the thriving rail that terminated at St. John’s Terminal and animated the west side in the mid-20th century. The rise of interstate trucking all but obliterated its need, and by 1980 the last train ran over the elevated track carrying just three carloads of frozen turkeys.
So what then, for this nearly four-block long structure built to fit 227 train cars that were meant to run on a decommissioned line? For a long time, nothing. The property was sold to real estate investor Eugene Grant in the 1960s, and in the 1980s was positioned by the real estate tycoon as a low-cost office location, wooing firms like Bloomberg LP.
But the building’s 1.3 million-square-foot scale didn’t go unnoticed by New York’s land-hungry real estate players. Developers of all stripes chased it for years, but it was Westbrook Partners and Atlas Capital Group, along with now-removed party Fortress Investment Group, who landed the deal in 2006. The city’s horizontal skyscraper was on the ground, but off the table.
The redevelopment of St. John’s Terminal has been slow to start, and contingent on an air rights sale that was only approved by the city in December. In the time since the developers nabbed the property, the New York City luxury market has seen a skyline-altering building boom, and then a course-correction as that boom fizzles out, leaving the building’s redevelopment at a sort of impasse.
Westbrook Partners and Atlas Capital Group’s redevelopment plans include creating five buildings with a mix of about 1,500 market-rate and affordable apartments, an office or a hotel, and a large amount of small-scale retail space. The project is expected to have an affordable housing component, where 30 percent of the apartments will be permanently affordable. But with the market’s position, and a revival for the 421-a tax incentive close but out of reach, the developers have expressed concerns about moving forward with a luxury residential development at this time.
That’s where Skylight comes in. The company has been on board at St. John’s Terminal, building out the reputation of event spaces Skylight Clarkson Sq and Skylight Clarkson North, since 2013. Since then, the firm’s been actively boosting the building’s profile through buzzy events: IMG Fashion Week has claimed Skylight Clarkson Sq as a venue for presentations by brands like Rag & Bone, Hugo Boss, and Phillip Lim. The venue is also home to the Collective Design Fair, returning this May.
By doing this, Skylight not only monetizes a developer’s dormant asset, it also makes the location appealing to people by allowing them in, inviting them to have a unique experience, and maybe even to take a picture or two—preferably geotagged on Instagram. It’s the beginnings of a historic structure’s 21st-century identity in New York, where the only constant is change.
Right now, it’s unclear how St. John’s Terminal will be retrofitted for its redevelopment, logistically—neither project architect COOKFOX nor the developers would comment on the plans—but some intel on the existing building gives a hint. According to skylight’s planning material, the roof of St. John’s Terminal was initially designed as a future floor, with the building’s columns throughout poised to carry nine additional stories. How the proposed new towers will reach more than 13 stories to 430 feet, as the tallest is proposed to, may just be a matter of modern engineering.
Renderings for the project by COOKFOX offer additional hints at how the existing building will be treated. A remaining portion of the elevated train tracks that float over Houston Street, where the building’s ground floor is cut out for access to the West Side Highway, are depicted as a High Line-style park within the development. Although plans for the elevated park have been scrapped amid community concern, the renderings make clear that the development’s master plan includes razing the portion of the building that levitates over Houston.
That alone speaks for two of the five buildings in the redevelopment’s master plan, baring any other divisions of the existing terminal building—of which it looks like there will be a few.
Blumin says she’s often asked if her firm is an agent for gentrification, but she doesn’t believe that’s the case. “In fact, I would say the opposite,” she says. “It’s not like these buildings are open to the public anyway. This is, in its purest form, a way to appreciate the building.” And while that may read like a shallow appeal, it rings true for Blumin, the daughter of an urban historian.
As Moynihan Station begins its transformation from historic structure to modern train hall, Skylight has moved its home base from the old post office to the second floor of St. John’s Terminal, now Skylight Clarkson North. From the other end of the building’s open and expansive floorplate—the largest in Manhattan—Skylight’s dozen or so desks and chairs and couches are barely visible. But there the group works, looking out over Washington Street, from the same vantage point as conductors and freight pullers who toiled on the floor nearly a century ago.