The Flatiron Building is revered as one of the most iconic office buildings in the world.
However, amidst New York’s arduous recovery from the economic devastation caused by the pandemic, the Flatiron Building and its surrounding neighborhood have taken on a new significance, symbolizing the city’s imperative to transcend its excessive dependence on offices and the disinterest of workers who no longer desire such spaces in central Manhattan.
New York’s central business districts, Midtown and Downtown, once characterized by towering office buildings, have experienced a much slower recovery compared to the more diversified neighborhoods with mixed commercial and residential spaces.
One of those neighborhoods is Flatiron/NoMad, 70 blocks centered on the Flatiron Building and Madison Square Park.
“I’ve been saying, for all the people who talk about a flight to quality, there is also a flight to cool neighborhoods,” said Jeff Gural, who recently consolidated his ownership of the Flatiron building. “You see that in Soho, Tribeca, the Village, Flatiron. Those neighborhoods are where the tech guys want to be.”
A report, submitted to Governor Hochul and Mayor Adams, urged a rethinking of central business districts to get away from “the sleek but anonymous streets that empty out every night and weekend and lack the life, interest and beauty that brought many to New York in the first place.”
James Mettham says that very future was already being developed in the Flatiron and Nomad neighborhoods, where he serves as President of the business improvement district, Flatiron/NoMad Partnership.
“A lot of what the New New York plan was touting for a more resilient and strong midtown--a lot of those ingredients were prebaked here,” said Mettham.
What are those ingredients? As the New York report summed it up, neighborhoods were people work, play and live. Which is exactly what has been happening in recent years in the adjacent Flatiron and NoMad neighborhoods.
The area has witnessed a surge in residential developments, an abundance of entertainment options ranging from upscale restaurants to not just one but two “luxury” miniature golf courses. It has also become a destination for unique shopping experiences, such as Eataly and The Lego Store, and has seen a remarkable increase in hotel offerings, with seven new hotels opening in the neighborhood over the past year.
The city has just turned Broadway just above Madison Square into a limited traffic mall for pedestrians and outdoor dinning.
To consolidate the improvements, what had been the Flatiron 23rd street partnership expanded its boundaries to become Flatiron/NoMad last year.
“When that panel was convened over last summer,” Mettham says of the New New York group. “I think in many regards some folks had an area like this to point to as something that could be a model for midtown as well as other downtown and business districts in the city replicating and hopefully championing as a 2025 and 2030 model.”
The diversification of the neighborhoods economy, “certainly wasn’t enough to stem the really terrible catastrophic elements of the pandemic,” Mettham said. It has, however, “allowed us to have a foundation to build on as we recover.”
As a result, that recovery has outpaced other business districts in Manhattan. The importance of the diversifying economic base is clear. Pedestrian traffic from local residents is now 105% of 2019. Tourists and other visitors, however, are still only 77% and workers in the many offices are at 66%.
Still, even those trailing numbers are better than other neighborhoods, the data shows. Full time employees back at their desks has been running at 66 percent, versus barely half overall in the city. Subway arrivals in Flatiron/NoMad were 82% in March versus 70% for the city overall.
“We are still bouncing back, we are no means all the way there,” said Mettham.
“We are ahead of where New York city, Particularly midtown and downtown, are in terms of return to office percentage.”
The growing number of residents and revival of tourism have helped pick up the gap left by the missing office workers. That in turn has encouraged restaurants and other street level businesses to open or reopen, confident that overall there will be adequate traffic to support them, Mettham said.
“It’s a different mix of the equation than pre pandemic,” he said. “We may not be 100% back, but he economy itself -- the local economy --is functioning.”
The future of the Flatiron building itself illustrates the change in the neighborhood. When it opened in 1902, it was the first steel framed Skyscraper in the world (in those days 20 stories counted as scraping the sky). It remains Iconic.
Despite its iconic status the building has been sitting empty while its owners argued over what to do with it. Now that Gural has consolidated the ownership, he said he and his partners will make an historic decision by August.
”If the office e market were better, I would simply keep it as an office building,” he explained. “At the moment, I’ve got to at least look at the option of converting to residential, either as condos rentals. When we first started three years ago, pre-COVID, our plan was simply to keep it as an office building. And that would be my preference. But the market has shifted obviously.”
“When we first started, three years ago, pre-Covid, our plan was simply to keep it as an office building. And that would be my preference. But the market has shifted obviously.” Jeff Gural, new owner of the Flatiron Building.