Friday, September 17, 2010

Brandywine wraps up big rehab of post office

"Every weekend during the next four months, the Internal Revenue Service will move 400 to 500 of its employees from its facilities in Northeast Philadelphia into the newly renovated and redeveloped former U.S. Post Office at 30th Street in University City.

By the end of the year, roughly 5,000 IRS employees will be toiling away in two shifts at the hulking 862,692-square-foot building that takes up an entire city block and was constructed in 1934.

Last month, Brandywine Realty Trust finished a $252 million rehabilitation of the structure in what was one of the largest historic rehabs this year in the nation and one of the largest privately funded real estate developments done in the city this year.

While the project boasts significance in its sheer size and dollars invested, it is also expected to have a meaningful impact on that corner of Philadelphia. While the Cira Centre office tower and 30th Street Station serve as anchors to that pocket of University City, the infusion of 5,000 employees will help create a buzz of unprecedented activity in that area almost on a 24-hour basis.

“That was one of the things we wanted to do,” said Brandywine CEO Jerry Sweeney. “We wanted to activate 30th Street.”

Gone are the tractor-trailers blocking 30th Street as they backed into loading docks to unload mail that was sorted in what was a main distribution hub for the U.S. Postal Service. The spot where those loading docks once stood in a row has been transformed into an outdoor dining area off of the building’s newly installed cafeteria.

Another side of the building that used to be home to a surface parking lot has been turned into an outdoor play area to serve a 6,000-square-foot day care that will be run out of the building. A credit union and sundry shop will also be housed in the structure, which will also serve as a main East Coast IRS training facility, periodically bringing in an influx of visitors. On the inside, rows of cubicles now stand where forklifts used to transport mail around the building.

In general, the effort to transform the former post office into a fully functioning, modern office building that would meet strict security standards was monumental. To achieve the goal, the structure’s interior was totally gutted.

Ken Mitchell, an architect with Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, served as the executive project manager.

It was clear to Mitchell from the onset that most of the interior had to go and what would remain would be some existing stairs, the floors, columns and roof. The windows were particularly difficult to replace since they were originally huge, double-hung and made with a quarter-inch of glass, which is no good for security and energy reasons.

A solution was found that included two layers of laminated glass and two window inserts along with wiring across the windows to thwart glass from flying into the offices in the event of an explosion.

“Everything in it is new,” said Jeff Weinstein, vice president of construction at Brandywine. While conducting a tour of the building he pointed to new elevators, walls, windows, staircases as well as various sustainable features.

Though gutted, preservation of the building was paramount.

“We tried to save everything that was worth saving,” said Tony Rimikis, senior vice president at Brandywine.

For example, what Mitchell referred to as the “historic lobby,” or what was once the main area for postal transactions, was fully restored. For the most part, the area was in good condition but for some nicks in the marble and walls coated with soot from cigarette smoke, Mitchell said.

The walls, made of two kinds of marble, were cleaned, along with the travertine flooring and wood ceiling. Nickel-plated metal used for trim and on the transaction windows were polished and sconces were replaced with a lighting scheme that harked back to the era in which the building was constructed. Outfitted with a security desk, it is now one of the main employee entrances.

One challenge was trying to bring light into the cavernous five-story building in which each floor is 200,000 square feet.

“There are 21 acres of floor,” Mitchell said.

To solve that issue, a light well was cored out of the center of the building that slices the building and work areas in half. This allows natural light to funnel into the office space and lessens the density of each floor. Workers can access each floor by a staircase with a wooden guardrail that was installed in the center of the atrium.

“We wanted to have this monumental gesture to bring people up into the light well,” Mitchell said. “It’s a big building and we wanted to warm it up as much as we could.”

Among other issues, logistics between various city and state departments — from streets and historical to PennDot, as well as the Department of the Interior, IRS, and General Services Administration — was a feat and that doesn’t even address issues brought about from the building being raised 30 feet off of the ground because of train traffic.

While most of the attention was on the interior of the building, the fa├žade was cleaned and a bridge that connected an annex across the street was removed. That posed another set of issues when the developer and architect sought to match the limestone and granite used nearly 80 years ago to fill in the portion of the building ripped out. It was discovered the limestone was made with a process no longer used and the granite no longer exists. Replications were made to closely match the originals. In addition, new sidewalks, curbs, signage and security bollards were also installed.

“It’s nothing elaborate but very well done,” Weinstein said about the project’s outcome."

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