Marylanders helping put the grand back into Grand Central Renovation: Baltimore's Williams Jackson Ewing Inc. is a co-director of the operation to revive Grand Central station.

May 03, 1998|By Kevin L. McQuaid | Kevin L. McQuaid,SUN STAFF

It's like Grand Central station in here.

Exhibit A: Construction workers in paint-stained jeans pull the triggers on screaming electric saws as others strain to control concrete-punishing jackhammers. The din is overwhelming.

Exhibit B: Amid the noise, steel scaffolding, orange mesh construction fence and makeshift drywall barriers, wide-eyed commuters hustle by from every direction, oblivious to the melee around them.

It is Grand Central station in here.

The world's most famous train terminal, crippled by years of traffic and neglect, is undergoing a $200 million renovation courtesy of New York state, a program intended to make the 85-year-old hub both aesthetically pleasing and economically viable.

Whether both objectives are met will depend largely on the efforts of Williams Jackson Ewing Inc. (WJE), a Baltimore real estate outfit with a national reputation for transforming high-profile, often weathered landmarks into destinations where people go to shop, eat, be entertained -- even catch trains.

At Grand Central Terminal, WJE and its partner, Chicago-based LaSalle Partners, are planning to introduce 119 stores and restaurants as part of a comprehensive renovation to the terminal, which architectural writer Kenneth Powell once described as "one of a handful of structures which are universal symbols of New York."

Although the retail portion of the revitalized Grand Central alone will cost $78 million, the development team's overall revitalization is intended to restore the terminal used by more than 500,000 people a day to its stature of decades past.

That a Baltimore company is being tapped to direct the #i rejuvenation of a New York institution hasn't been lost on Ewing, and neither has Grand Central's importance.

"It's a building everyone in New York takes ownership in. It's a jewel to the city, and we're treating it as such," said Michael J. Ewing, a WJE partner. "This building is priceless. It's part of our heritage -- it tells us who we are."

Ewing acknowledges that it would have been easy to fill Grand Central's planned 160,000 square feet of retail space with the sort of merchants that have become ubiquitous in the nation's malls, such as The Gap and The Limited.

Taking that avenue could have been immensely profitable, too, since big-name retailers typically pay more rent. They also tend to sell more goods, allowing landlords in most cases to collect additional rent based on the volume of their tenants' sales.

But WJE and the state's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the station's owner, knew that Big Apple commuters and tourists probably wouldn't go for a suburban mall concept jammed into a purely urban setting. Instead, the real estate brokerage firm has taken a decidedly New York tack, booking trendy local restaurants and an eclectic mix of national retailers and service-oriented businesses.

It's gonna be Grand Central station in here.

Exhibit C: By October, when the 1913 train station built by shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt at 42nd Street and Park Avenue is "rededicated," to use the MTA's terminology, it will house apparel stores with names like Addison on Madison, Banana Republic and Kenneth Cole, as well as eateries with names like Zocala, Dawat, Matthew Kenney and Cipriani's.

Already, Grand Central's retail space is roughly 90 percent spoken for.

"We've developed an emotional attachment to the building," said Arnie Cohen, chief operating officer of Lexington, Ky.-based J. Peterman Co., the catalog company, which will open its first store selling home fashions, apparel and even antiques in Grand Central.

"We're chomping at the bit," Cohen added. "We think our biggest dilemma is going to be how to handle all the customers."

Brand-name stores such as J. Peterman aren't the only outlets eager to open.

"I really want to be a part of the reopening of an icon," said Biana Todorovic, who with her husband, Mirko, runs a tie kiosk in Penn Station and is negotiating to open a children's clothing store in Grand Central. "It's a prestigious location."

The renowned Oyster Bar & Restaurant, itself a New York institution, also will remain, though its owner, not surprisingly, isn't overjoyed with every aspect of the renovation.

"I'm not particularly enthusiastic about the restaurants that I've heard they've invited in," said Jerome Brody, the Oyster Bar's owner since 1974. "I've never heard of them, for one thing. And if some of them fail, it's going to put a black mark on the whole structure."

Even Brody, however, agrees that the payoff from renovating the six-level train terminal could be enormous. WJE expects Grand Central's new merchants to generate sales of $250 million a year, and pay roughly $25 million a year in rent. WJE will earn a fee, with the potential of other incentive bonuses.

"It's a little like how [Baltimore's] Little Italy felt when Harborplace came along," Ewing said. "They were afraid of the competition, but in the end, I think even they would agree the additional restaurants helped them."

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