From Paraguay to Pier 57, developer has eye for art
Developer Young Woo has had his eye on Pier 57 ever since his company, Youngwoo and Associates, snapped up a property on 10th Ave. in Chelsea a block away from the pier several years ago. When the Hudson River Park Trust released its first request for proposals for the pier in 2004, “we shied away” from bidding on it, Woo said, partly because his firm had no prior experience with public projects.
However, Woo said he reconsidered his position after the Witkoff/Cipriani Group withdrew its plans to build there last year. His development team bid on the pier this fall, alongside real estate heavyweights The Related Companies and joint venture between C&K Properties and the Durst Organization. “This pier is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said.
Woo’s life story is far from that of a typical developer’s. The 54-year-old was born in Korea, grew up in Paraguay and worked as a gaucho in Argentina. (“I know how to milk a cow,” he notes proudly.) He came to the United States to earn a degree in architecture at the Pratt Institute, founding Youngwoo and Associates in 1979, a year before graduating. “What a change,” Woo said of his life since coming to America. “I never expected to be in New York doing this.” In 2006, he was elected to Pratt’s Board of Trustees, joining the distinguished ranks of some of the city’s top names in real estate and development.
As a first-generation developer, he feels he brings something “completely different” to the table in his projects. One of the most unique developments in Woo’s portfolio is an agribusiness his company started in Paraguay three years ago. Youngwoo owns seven farms there, hiring Paraguayan managers for each, and Youngwoo principal Margarette Lee said the company works with the community to make the venture successful. The developer buys seed in bulk at a discounted price and purchases extra to share that discount with locals. Woo added that they teach local farmers the latest agricultural techniques and make sure their business is good for Paraguay’s economy and the environment.
His company also has developments in Asia, Argentina and throughout the United States. Local projects include the Chelsea Arts Tower on W. 25th St., which houses art galleries and office space for sale rather than lease, and the city’s first sky garage for the luxury condos at 200 11th Ave.
Youngwoo first had its offices located in Midtown before relocating to Chelsea more than a decade ago, then again to Hudson St. in the West Village three years ago. Woo feels the neighborhoods, “where old and new exist together,” are a “perfect fit” for his firm. Inside his offices, old windows are recycled to create a wall in the conference room, and an ancient Central Park lamppost greets visitors. Abstract paintings hang in the entranceway, created by artist Ik-joong Kang, Lee’s husband. Lee and Woo have worked together for the past 23 years, and the paintings add to the family atmosphere the company cultivates. When asked whether the paintings were a permanent exhibition, Woo joked, “They’re a free exhibition.”
Youngwoo principal and CIO Greg Carney, the developer’s Pier 57 project manager, said he feels a close connection to the pier, since he passes it on a regular basis while running. Carney lives nearby in the West Village and has worked for firms as diverse as JP Morgan, Starwood Capital Group and Cross-Core Investment Group. He first collaborated with Woo and Lee around 10 years ago while doing acquisitions for Starwood, eventually coming on board with Youngwoo around 18 months ago.
What stands out to Carney about the company is “the combination of humbleness and humility and being bold,” he said. But, “we like to have fun,” Woo added.
One of the ideas Youngwoo is incorporating into Pier 57 is the reuse of shipping containers to build out the interior space of the pier. On the second floor, the containers will create spaces for tenants to set up their wares. Woo has been intrigued with the idea of reusing shipping containers for several years, ever since he met architects from LOT-EK, the firm that pioneered the concept and is working with him on Pier 57.
Carney expects between 80 and 100 tenants to set up shop in the second floor public market managed by company Urban Space Management.
Woo said the space is needed for the many small businesses that are being displaced in West Chelsea and the Meatpacking District. “We see this as a place where a student could come and open a small studio” or a launching point for those working at fashion houses, Carney said.
Woo hopes to attract artistic tenants like those at Urban Space Management’s Camden Lock in London—tenants who will “show you how jewelry is being made, how handbags are being made.”
The existing ramp in the pier, which was used for freight cargo and later for buses, would serve in Youngwoo’s plan as the template for an interior street open 24-7 that leads to the rooftop. The Tribeca Film Festival would put together a cultural program and hold free screenings and events in the public park on the rooftop.
Auction house/art dealership Phillips de Pury & Company would move its global headquarters to the pier from just across the highway on W. 15th St., establishing a contemporary cultural center there featuring open galleries, fine art auctions and concerts.
The pier’s westernmost caisson will hold an “Underwater Discovery” experience; the middle, Phillips’s back-of-house needs; and the third, a long-term parking garage. Carney said around 40 cars could be stacked in the garage.
Korean firm Kumho Investment Bank is backing the $191 million project, which comes in costing substantially less than C&K/Durst’s projected $330 million and Related’s $353 million.
“We’re the team to do it and are prepared to get to it,” said Carney, highlighting the firm’s “incredible team.”
Ed Kirkland, chair of the Pier 57 Working Group, said his group sat in on presentations made by all three applicants on Monday. While he couldn’t comment on the merits of individual proposals yet, he said that all three had “both good aspects and bad.”
“This is all very preliminary,” he said, adding that he hoped many community members would come out to a meeting scheduled to be held in early February to publicly unveil the three proposals.
By Heather Murray
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