Electricity Restored, Downtown Office Buildings Work to Rebuild Confidence

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The biggest office building in New York City – actually, the biggest office building anywhere east of the Mississippi River – is a structure you’ve probably never heard of: It’s 55 Water Street. It's a 1970s-era skyscraper just steps from the East River.

The lobby is glossy and clean, but about half of the eighty elevators are out of service, or under repair.

The building’s Vice President and manager is Harry Bridgwood, a former police detective who has curly grey hair, and keeps a pump bottle of hand sanitizer on his desk on the 24th floor.

Bridgwood’s office used to be in the basement. Until it was inundated on the night of October 29th.

“The force of the water as it went into the loading docks and the garages and flowed like a mini Niagara Falls,” Bridgwood said. “And it compromised elevator shafts. These are things that people don’t think about on a regular basis.”

Bridgwood supervised around 100 electricians and 100 elevator mechanics doing double-shifts, while water was pumped from the basement. It was a mad dash to reopen the building. Along the way, an accidental fire sent more than two dozen people to the hospital.

“It never seemed that there was a clean-cut advancement without some setback,” Bridgwood said.

Tenants were invited back in on December 4th, and the building’s owner, the Retirement Systems of Alabama, began charging rent again.

New York real estate companies are typically shy about showing any kind of weakness, but Bridgwood’s unusual bond with his employer has given him the freedom to talk with the press.

The relationship began nearly 20 years ago with an unlikely assignment. In the mid 1990s, Bridgwood – then working as a police detective – went undercover, gathering information about mob activity in the commercial carting business. His cover: manager of 55 Water Street.

For two and a half years Bridgwood gathered facts until prosecutors had the evidence they needed to send the city’s reputedly biggest trash hauler to jail.

The CEO of the Alabama pension system was so impressed, he offered Bridgwoood a job.

“He had tons of common sense,'' Dr. David Bronner told The New York Times, in 1997.

Bridgwood says his close relationship with Bronner helped him deal with Sandy.

“Right from the beginning my chairman… said ‘we gotta put a plan in place to keep this building viable.’”

The plan includes permanently raising 55 Water Street’s underground electrical equipment to the third floor. The owners will also pay for a system of underground flood walls, built into the sidewalk, which can be raised in advance of a storm.

It’s an expensive way to say you’re here to stay.

But Sandy forced around 50 downtown office buildings to close, particularly in the area along Water Street, and building owners must restore the confidence of potential tenants.

“I don’t think anyone contemplated Sandy 5 years ago or ten years ago. I think in the future landlords and tenants will negotiate a lot more carefully to make sure that their rights are protected in the event the next Sandy rolls in,” said Daniel Ansell, an attorney with Greenberg Traurig.

Some current tenants have been slow to return, including 55 Water Street’s biggest tenant, Standard & Poor’s (its name is displayed in big letters above the entrance.) S&P hasn’t given a reason for staying away, but people in the real estate business say persistent problems with internet connectivity are a problem.

“There are issues that are largely out of the landlords’ control… with how significant the damage was to the telecom infrastructure that Verizon had here,” said John Wheeler a managing director at Jones Lang LaSalle.

Standing near the entrance reserved for S&P workers, Bridgwood noted the barren feel of the place, in sharp contrast to its pre-Sandy condition.

“You could come here at any given time and see a governor, a politician from another country, coming to get their bonds rated, big corporate people,” he said.

An S&P spokesman says the company will return to 55 Water Street around the middle of February.