Neighborhood anchors are the centerpieces and soul of an area. In New York City, they can be anything from a retail stretch, park, historic building, residential project, transportation hub or destination restaurant. Because top neighborhoods in Manhattan change with the real estate winds, new anchors pop up all the time. In the relatively drab stretch of car dealerships on 11th Ave. from 48th to 59th Sts., there has never been an anchor.
No one wanted to live nor go there, except for taxi drivers praying for clear shots downtown and tourists looking for the Intrepid. It was a pass-through neighborhood populated by a few luxury rentals with strong amenities so renters wouldn't have to leave the building.
With the advent of the Mercedes House and the state-of-the-art Mercedes-Benz Manhattan facility that shares the site, this emerging neighborhood finally has a vocal and visual reference point.
While the Mercedes House rental and condominium project developed by Two Trees Management and designed by Enrique Norten grabs most of the attention, the $220 million Mercedes Benz dealership might be the best architectural, retail and design addition to a New York streetscape since the Prada store hit SoHo or Ralph Lauren built his mansion on Madison Ave.
As you drive by at night, it's a blurry vision of a future world full of bright lights, giant video walls and material beauty. It lights up the street like a shooting star. Inside, it's more impressive, with 330,000 square feet on five floors, three of them underground.
Designed by architect Scott Spector, working with Mercedes-Benz Manhattan general manager Blair Creed, the space brings raw materials together with the raw energy of the luxury automobile.
"We wanted the design to have force, but to enhance the cars," says New York based Spector, whose Spector Group is one of the largest architecture practices in the city. "Look at this place: steel, concrete, glass and metal. I get juiced walking in here. These ceilings are 26 feet high. We go more than 36 feet underground.
That video wall can project color after color. My favorite part is the staircase. All steel and glass, it epitomizes what we wanted to do.”
Spector worked in coordination with the Mercedes-Benz Autohaus initiative, a global plan coordinating design to enhance branding. He also worked to include repair bays, service areas, car arrival and departure constraints, two sales floors and offices.
"This is our flagship location," says general manager Creed about the facility, which is the only dealership in the country owned and operated by Mercedes-Benz USA, not a franchise dealer. "The space is large, but this place operates like a small city. More than 30,000 customers come through per year."
Located on the full block fronting 11th Ave. between 53rd and 54th Sts., Mercedes-Benz Manhattan is one of the only major car dealership on the stretch that has enough space to show their full lineup of 22 cars in succession. They line the entry way. When you enter the building, a concierge greets you. Sales associates await. Flat-screen televisions are always on in living-room arrangements with newspapers spread out on coffee tables.
Complimentary croissants, gourmet sandwiches, chocolates, espresso and cold drinks catered by Dean & Deluca are part of the experience. The giant video installation composed of two six-screen by two-screen video walls give the facility a stadium-type feel, with driving scenes alternating with a color display. People come and go, always quickly.
"Everyone here has a job to do and they know how to do it," says Creed. "We're about efficiency, luxury, service and brand experience. We want customers to feel special here. We think buying a Mercedes is special. That feeling needs to be pervasive with our customers and employees."
Downstairs, the place is bustling. Cars enter or leave from 53rd and 54th Sts. The staff check in repairs and send the cars down a central double helix which from above and below looks like a futuristic video-game environment. Connecting all five levels, the structure looks like it could launch a rocket from its core.
In the service lounge are more sandwiches and refreshments. A bathroom right out of “The Matrix" has slanted stainless steel sinks and steel toilets. In the 71 repair bays, men in blue fix engines in areas marked with their name and year they joined the company. The bays are equipped with computers and
state-of-the-art tools. They're cleaner than a hospital operating room. Golf carts, tricycles with equipment baskets, and forklifts putt-putt around as they deliver inventory.
"Flow was crucial so they could maximize efficiency," says a passionate Spector, who loves the underground as much as he does the levels above. "We kept it raw here, too. See the ceilings? The pipes add to the scale and the sense of the workspace. This is industrial design, but it's all about the work."
Two giant robotic machines from Kardex Remstar, for both storing and delivering inventory, signal a high-tech commitment to service.
"Thousands of parts are catalogued and stored, and available at the press of a button," says Creed. "Everyone thinks this is cool because it is."
While the 26-feet-high low-iron glass Pilkington perimeter curtain wall allows clear views inside the retail floor, downstairs was a construction challenge.
"We had to coordinate our foundation with the rental and condo building above," says Spector. "We had our water, power and gas needs, and so did they.
That caused some real puzzle-solving." Owned and developed by Two Trees Management, the same company that created DUMBO's residential rise, Mercedes House is a 900-unit rental and condo building (220 units are rented with the rest under construction) with a private outdoor park between the two structures as part of an amenity package that includes a health club, swimming pool, bocce court and children's lounge.
Two Trees chairman David Walentas thought branding the building with the car company seemed right. "They were looking for a new space that could make a grand statement, and we had one," says Walentas. “I thought branding as Mercedes was a natural as the building would be known as Mercedes no matter what we called it. We knew this neighborhood needed something special to get people over here, and we think we have a sensational design by Enrique Norten. Anyone can join the health club, which we hope becomes a social meeting place for the entire area."
Mercedes-Benz already brings people to the neighborhood. More than 40,000 cars are repaired there per year with over 164 repairs made per day. More than 285 people work at the facility. It sells more than 3,000 cars each year.
Design and technology have become key marketing factors in Mercedes' global strategy. In the early 2000s, the company saw a sales decline and brand dilution. After focusing on car design, technology and luxury, Mercedes-Benz has surpassed Lexus and BMW as the top luxury car seller in the U.S. for November. According to Autodata, they sold 28,255 cars nationwide, 10,000 more than November 2010. For the year so far, it has sold 238,971, 40,000 more than last year.
“There is no doubt that the Autohaus program and 11th Ave. complex shows the world who we are as a company and brand," says Steve Cannon, marketing vice president for Mercedes-Benz USA.
"We're a success story, and this building means we'll be a leader in manufacturing and selling luxury cars for years to come."