In the years he has been associated with the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects, Rick Bell has witnessed some great real estate deals.
Ten years ago, the chapter was negotiating to buy space at 536 LaGuardia Place in Greenwich Village for what is now the Center for Architecture. The plan was to buy 5,000 square feet on the ground floor of the building. But after the price was settled, recalled Mr. Bell (who is now the executive director of the chapter), the owners of the eight-story building said: “Take the basement, take the subbasement. They’re worthless to us; they’re dark, they’re damp, they’re wet.”
As a result, the chapter, which paid $1.25 million for the space, ended up with not 5,000, but 15,000 gross square feet. “And some of it was pretty gross,” said Mr. Bell, using a well-worn line.
But that condition was short-lived. A $3 million renovation, designed by the Manhattan architect Andrew Berman, reconfigured the space into a series of interlocking exhibition and meeting rooms, with cutouts that bring light to even the subbasement. (Mr. Berman was chosen in a competition limited to chapter members.)
The building opened in 2003 and has become a conference center and gallery, hosting hundreds of architecture-related events a year.
Now, in a move that Mr. Bell called “counterintuitive during a downturn,” the center is expanding to the adjacent storefront and basement at No. 532. The new space opened Saturday, with an exhibition of energy-saving designs from Switzerland — an inaugural event for a month of design-related programs called Archtober. ”The new space will allow us to reach more people, and also bring in more rent,” Mr. Bell said.
He said the center, which has a $3 million annual budget, is supported by donations, A.I.A. New York chapter dues and rental and sponsorship income. The center is owned by the chapter and the Center for Architecture Foundation, a 501(c)3 corporation.
The center has leased the new space for 10 years from Guy Apicella, who is also the owner of the Prince Lumber Company, which was once located in the building. Mr. Bell said that, a decade ago, when the space at 536 became available, “It was a good idea to buy; we wanted to control our real estate destiny.” But in this market, he said, “it wasn’t clear if renting or buying was better.” In any event, the space was not offered for sale.
After the Village Postal Center vacated the space in 2009, it was listed for $12,500 a month through CB Richard Ellis. Eventually, Mr. Apicella said, he rented it to the Center for Architecture for $9,500 a month, without a broker.
Mr. Bell hopes to cut an opening through the three-foot-thick brick wall between the old and new locations. The depth of the wall, he said, will allow the passageway to double as a wheelchair ramp connecting the two ground floors, which are a few inches apart in elevation. The renovation of the new space is being planned by Rogers Marvel Architects.
But the success of the Center for Architecture has had ripples far beyond LaGuardia Place. Mr. Bell is a proselytizer for such centers, which are intended to give architecture a public face.
A similar center is expected to open in Boston in November, under the auspices of the Boston Society of Architects. After years in a cramped space, the society has rented 17,000 square feet in a new building at 290 Congress Street, part of the Atlantic Wharf project developed by Boston Properties.
The society’s president, Audrey O’Hagan, said she was not allowed to disclose how much the society would pay in rent, citing a confidentiality agreement with Boston Properties, but she said that the society had been able to triple its square footage without increasing its operating costs. She said the society benefited from the Massachusetts Public Waterfront Act, which requires owners of waterfront properties to use them in ways that serve the public interest.
Like the New York center, the Boston center is renovating its space after holding an architectural competition among its members. The winner was Höweler + Yoon, a young firm based in Boston, which is using a stairway open to the outside and carefully placed LED signs to make the space inviting.
Though the New York Center for Architecture was not the first such institution, its success has “ushered in a new wave of Centers for Architecture across the U.S.,” said Margie O’Driscoll, the executive director of the San Francisco chapter of the institute. Ms. O’Driscoll attributed the establishment in 2006 of her city’s Center for Architecture and Design directly to the example set in New York.
There are about a dozen centers for architecture in the United States, including five new ones in Texas — Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio. The North Carolina and Washington chapters are preparing to open new centers, and centers in several other cities are in the planning stages.
Mr. Bell says he tells the organizers to go for street-level spaces in neighborhoods filled with bars and restaurants. One reason for the success of the New York center, he said, is that people attend early evening events, knowing there are places all around for dinner or drinks.
Bigger changes may be coming to the quiet section of LaGuardia Place where the center is located. Across the street from the center is a one-story building, owned by New York University, that houses a Citibank and several other businesses. The university has floated plans to replace the retail building with a 128-foot-tall tower, an expansion that some Greenwich Village residents oppose.
But Mr. Bell said he was not too worried about the loss of sunlight on his side of LaGuardia Place. “We won’t need Sol-R-Veil in the morning,” he said, referring to a product on the windows that cuts glare. Always a diplomat, Mr. Bell added that the university’s associate vice president for planning and design, Lori Mazor, was on the board of the A.I.A. chapter.
By FRED A. BERNSTEIN