New York City’s iconic Seagram Building has added a $25 million recreation, fitness and conference space dubbed The Playground + Conference Center. The space fulfills the vision of its owner, RFR, to “breathe oxygen into the workplace” by offering tenants “a whole life:” A community where people can work, socialize and exercise.
The 35,000-square-foot facility was conceived by RFR four years ago, but gained urgency post-pandemic as the building’s corporate tenants looked for incentives that would encourage employees to return to the office after more than two years of working from home.
The expanse and cost of The Playground is thought to make it unique in New York commercial real estate. RFR cleared the way for the bilevel multisport complex by restructuring the building’s underground parking garage to hold a 3,500-square-foot fitness center, a multisport open court, 22-foot-tall climbing wall, stadium seating for 150, 50-seat boardroom, and 40-seat training room.
“Long before the pandemic, we recognized that parking garages in our buildings represent valuable space that could be better used to benefit our tenants,” said Sheldon Werdiger, RFR head of marketing and design development. “At the Seagram Building, we saw an opportunity to create something extraordinary that will ensure it continues to remain the most celebrated office building in the world.”
The fitness center features treadmills, ellipticals, Pelotons, Stairmaster, flat bench, incline bench, workout benches, power rack, dumbbells and Precor Queenax Functional System, used for high-intensity interval training. The facility’s spin studio is equipped with a dozen bikes. Yoga, Pilates, martial arts and meditation classes are held in an adjacent Flex room. The space also features recreational games, a hydration lounge and locker rooms equipped with showers and changing rooms.
The Playground’s open court, designed for basketball, pickleball, volleyball and soccer, can be transformed into a 150-person theater for town hall meetings and large-screen presentations. With the push of a button, the court south’s wall opens, and eight tiers of polished wood seating cascade onto the court.
At the north end of the open court, the climbing wall beckons adventurers with Expert, Difficult, Intermediate and Entry-Level routes and auto-belay safety harnesses that take up slack as climbers ascend and descend.
RFR and Arch Amenities Group, The Playground’s manager, worked with two tech firms – VTS Rise in Manhattan and BuildingEngines in Boston – to build a smartphone app that replaces the building’s ID cards and makes it possible for employees to reserve time on the court and climbing wall and in the spinning, cardio and weight studios.
Tenants can also use the app’s Mind-Body link sign up for high-intensity interval training and yoga, Pilates, martial arts and meditation classes. The app also provides self-guided tours of the fine art displayed throughout the building.
“This is where our approach to hospitality turns from a physical experience into a digital experience,” said Zach Pointon, Arch Amenities Group’s head of hospitality, adding that future functions will include real-time information about local transportation, including subways, buses and flights arriving at and departing from New York area’s three major airports.
“The Playground is all the talk in the market right now,” said AJ Camhi, RFR head of leasing. “No other commercial building in New York has a court for basketball and pickleball. Landlords are trying to get tours of it. Brokers are talking to their landlord clients. It’s the ultimate compliment.”
Corporate offices formerly were designed to please senior executives by providing them with spectacular office views and exclusive conveniences, like underground parking. But RFR’s investment in The Playground parallels the new priorities of its corporate tenants, according to Werdiger: To attract and retain the most qualified and talented employees.
“Post-COVID, employers realize that they must make their office space more compelling than working from home in order to respond to the evolving work culture and encourage employees to return,” he explained. “Everyone who works in the Seagram Building now will gain, essentially, a free gym membership and a place to socialize with their coworkers – benefits they would not enjoy staying at home.”
The strategy seems to be working: The Seagram Building lost its major tenant just before the pandemic but now has leased 95% of that space to new tenants, a success that RFR attributes, in large part, to its investment in The Playground.
“We must create reasons for people to come back to work. To do that, we must blur the distinction between amenities and workspace and create very collaborative and highly hospitality-driven environments.”
– Mike Flanagan, Chief Growth Officer, Arch Amenities Group
“Tenants are promoting The Playground to encourage – not require – their employees to come back to the office,” Camhi said.
RFR owns and manages several other landmark buildings, and continually looks for creative ways to attract tenants that might otherwise be tempted to move to the newest real estate coming on the market.
“You don’t want these classic buildings to just turn into museums and dinosaurs,” Werdiger said. “You want them to always continue to be relevant and the best.”
The Playground exemplifies the type of amenity space that appeals to today’s workforce, according to Mike Flanagan, Arch Amenities Group chief growth officer.
“We must create reasons for people to come back to work,” he said. “To do that, we must blur the distinction between amenities and workspace and create very collaborative and highly hospitality-driven environments.
The 38-story Seagram Building, at 375 Park Ave. between 52nd and 53rd street in Midtown Manhattan, was designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe with Philip Johnson. Constructed in 1956-58, it was designed as the headquarters for the Canadian distillers Joseph E. Seagram’s & Sons. New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the building and its plaza as a landmark in 1989, and RFR gained full ownership in 2013.
- Project Architect: Studios Architecture of New York and Paris
- Graphic Design: GHD Partners, NY
- Lighting Design: Focus Lighting Inc., NY
- Gym Consultant: URBN Playground, NY
- Structural Engineer: Severud Associates, NY
- Mechanical Engineer: CFS Engineering, NY
- Audio Visual, Acoustics and Security System: Harvey Marshall Berling Associates, NY
“Employees don’t want to sit in a cubicle anymore,” Flanagan continued. “They want to go hang out in a lounge and different types of seating arrangements and work environments and be able to go to the fitness center and enjoy a coffee on the rooftop if they want.”