WarnerMedia’s epic move to 30 Hudson Yards

John Robbins

Managing Director, USA and North America Head of Real Estate

North America

As 30 Hudson Yards nears completion, Senior Vice President for WarnerMedia real estate Tom Santiago looks back at the decisions and milestones that set up and kept the project on track for success, passing on the lessons he has learned to the next generation of real estate leaders.

Perched on Manhattan's west side, Hudson Yards is New York’s newest neighbourhood and the largest private real estate development in US history. Its vibrant blend of work and leisure space will eventually be home to 16 skyscrapers.

An early star of this epic production is 30 Hudson Yards; the tilting 102-storey tower that is the city’s second tallest office building. The tower is the new headquarters of WarnerMedia, which is sweeping together its diverse brands, including HBO, CNN, TNT, TBS, and Warner Bros., from seven locations across the city.

In this 360°View - Next Generation interview, Tom tells us how this move came about.

More art than science

Fittingly for a media company, the story of 30 Hudson Yards has the drama and scale of a classic blockbuster: it was built on a platform over a rail yard with 30 live rail tracks, it boasts New York’s highest outdoor observation deck and 10,000 people were working on site at peak.

But, the story of how WarnerMedia is managing the migration of its thousands of staff to the new 1.5 million sq ft headquarters is equally compelling. 

"It’s more art than science," says Tom. "You need all the technical proficiency, best-in-class processes and project management systems, which we certainly had, but that’s not enough. You have to run these programs like a business. It’s what differentiates successful megaprojects from unsuccessful ones.”

Santiago joined the company in 2011 to develop the company’s real estate function and to oversee the development of WarnerMedia’s strategy for New York, along with the company’s other major hubs in London, Santiago, the West Coast and Atlanta.

No secret plan

At the time, WarnerMedia had leases on 75 percent of its New York buildings, many were set to expire in 2018, and all were below market value. The older buildings in the portfolio lacked flexibility and would be difficult to modernise. But finding suitable new space would also be challenging, as land prices were soaring and rents were increasing.

According to Santiago, there was no "secret plan" from the top of the company to bring the brands together under one roof. The decision evolved from many months of evaluation and consultation with management and employees.

We were committed to a process of just following the facts and the numbers, and bringing as many of our people along as possible….and being as inclusive as we could.

"With no overall mandate other than to run an intelligent and open process, the work ultimately led us to where it led us,” he says.

Many options were considered over an 18 month period, but 30 Hudson Yards became an increasingly attractive frontrunner. It presented a "blank canvas", on which the company could stamp its identity and build from scratch. WarnerMedia was also able to achieve economies of scale in the tower – reducing its total commercial space in the city by 35 percent.

Diversity is key

As well as bringing in outside experts, Santiago says that a governance programme comprising an Advisory Board along with several working groups, emerged as a best practice, and proved to be critical to the success of the overall programme. More than 200 staff eventually had a role, representing a diverse range of functions, offering input on everything from space design to staff mobilisation.

“We wanted to ensure that there wasn’t just a small handful of people sitting in a room at the corporate offices, making a whole bunch of decisions alone. We consciously made the difficult decision to cast a wider net, which made for a longer process, but in the end was more effective and reflective of the culture,” Santiago says.

He is proud that many employees whom, with no prior experience of real estate and design and construction work, now feel genuinely involved with the results.

 

Many colleagues feel this is as much their project as anyone and that they genuinely contributed. They’re invested in this, not only from a business perspective, but also emotionally.

If timing is everything in drama, it is just as critical in the scheduling of the construction timeline. At 30 Hudson Yards, the shell and core construction was all the more complicated because of the live rail yard on the platform below. Contractors were limited to working in tight windows for only certain parts of the week.

“They had to mobilise, work weekends, then demobilise afterwards before the next regular week. This happened dozens and dozens of times,” remembers Santiago.

The interior fit out of 30 Hudson Yards is one of the largest that New York has ever seen. To ensure smooth running, WarnerMedia worked with Turner & Townsend, which was monitoring the exterior and interior programmes, to define a series of critical milestones.

Certain floors, such as CNN’s newsroom, needed much longer lead times to install the complex digital broadcast technology. As a result, the company negotiated earlier access to these floors, with fit out starting more than a year before the steel had been fixed at the top of the tower.

“We wanted to get the harder work started earlier and then some of the more general office work could start.”

Santiago says the interior reflects the location which, between Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen, is more edgy and gritty than Park Avenue or Wall Street. The company steered away from the opulent marble and gilded interiors favoured by law or finance firms, favouring finishes that are high quality, but "understated".

As soon as you walk into our space, we wanted our digital branding, not the architecture, to communicate that you were in the home of a 21st century media company.

A building run by software

Guests will also notice the smart technology running the building, from the “turbo-charged” Wi-Fi, to the smart lighting sensors, or lifts that, triggered by your security pass, know which floor to deliver you to.

Santiago adds that 3D building information modelling (BIM), essential for coordinating the trades during fit out phase, will now play an important part of operations and maintenance, based on the ‘digital twin’ created with BIM.

"It’s a building run by software,” Santiago comments, adding that the design has allowed plenty of bandwidth to install new, as yet unknown technologies.

As it migrates each business across the city, WarnerMedia is also shifting its working culture: the number of closed-space offices in New York are going down from 2,000 to 800 and 83 percent of its space will be open, versus 55 percent today.

As a result, roughly a quarter of staff will find themselves in shared working areas for the first time, but in exchange they will now have superior amenities and a wide diversity of spaces.

“We’ve done a lot of work listening to employees and have introduced the notion that personal workspace is much more distributed at Hudson Yards, instead of just being about your assigned seat. We’ve also been emphasising light and airiness of the new building, and the choice of space and what they might gain.”

He adds that the final office moves should be completed in summer 2019, as WarnerMedia employees embrace their new culture and new home.