Since 1969, one of the most noticeable and recognizable buildings in Washington Heights has been Belfer Hall, Yeshiva University’s 18-story building. That is, until the construction of Radio 181, a development towering at 23 stories high and boasting an eye-catching, colorful facade that can be seen from miles away. YU does not feel outdone by the new building—in fact, YU has been working with the developers of the property directly throughout its construction. That’s because the building will include a boutique hotel and state-of-the-art event space, a major breakthrough for those on YU’s uptown campus. Radio 181 is expected to open on June 16 and will also feature over 150,000 square feet of office space and an upscale restaurant, on top of the hotel and event space.
Bryan Woo, director of acquisitions at Radio 181’s development firm Youngwoo & Associates, shared the idea behind the building with The Jewish Link. “In order to determine the use of a space, you have to really understand the neighborhood where you’re developing,” Woo explained. “I spent a tremendous amount of time in Washington Heights, and building relationships with community stakeholders like YU, which inspired the project.”
More specifically, the developers of Radio 181 noticed that a lot of Washington Heights culture is centered on “having a good time around food,” which led them to inviting a world-class restaurateur from the Dominican Republic to open up a restaurant on the first floor of the building. While the restaurant is not kosher, developers sought to serve the local Jewish community in another way: by creating a hotel and event space accessible to YU and its affiliates.
“There are only two hotels above 145th Street,” Woo said. “One is the Edge Hotel on 168th, which is mostly utilitarian and serves the Columbia University medical community. The other is right across the street on 181st, and it’s not an appropriate space for YU.”
Woo continued that since the inception of Radio 181, he has worked closely with leadership at YU to understand the community’s needs and how the development can best fill them. “We met with past presidents, many deans, and even the current president of YU. Avi Lauer [vice president of legal affairs] was a champion of the project from the beginning. It’s just been a constant flow of communication from day one.”
Radio 181’s commitment to serving the needs of YU is evident in the way the hotel has been constructed and the way in which it plans to operate. The first four stories of the hotel are entirely accessible by an open staircase, which Woo elaborated was “in lieu of a Sabbath elevator,” and single-occupancy rooms are split in half by a corridor, in the event that YU wants to host a co-ed student shabbaton while still keeping male and female students separate. The hotel rooms themselves are constructed with similar considerations too, from manual key locks on every door, to mini-fridges without light bulbs—so that every hotel guest can observe Shabbat comfortably. As Woo shared, “We worked with YU’s rabbis and administration to make sure every detail was taken care of.”
Down in the lobby of the hotel, they plan to have a grab-and-go station full of kosher food, which was also borne out of Woo’s conversations with YU students. “Yes, they have their pick of pizza, burgers, and Chinese food by campus … but they all wanted another option. It’s all part of that dialogue we’re having, and how we can tailor our operation to fit YU’s needs.”
Similarly, Radio 181 crafted an event space that can accommodate conferences, galas and other YU affairs. The space,
located on the 12th story of the building, can hold hundreds of guests for all sorts of occasions. Woo emphasized that the event space is open for rental to the general public, and that Radio 181 is looking forward to hosting community members for bar mitzvahs, weddings, quinceaneras, medical conferences, and more.
Initially, as Woo explained, the industrial event kitchen was intended to have a fully kosher section and was to be entirely separate from the non-kosher space. While consulting with YU’s team, the developers quickly discovered that ensuring the kitchen’s kosher status would require full-time supervision, something that became too complicated and expensive for Radio 181. Ultimately, they decided to opt out of the kosher option for events and came up with a viable solution: the ability for any renter to bring in their own caterer.
In this way, Radio 181 has continued its commitment to serving the needs of the entire Washington Heights community, something which Woo emphasized throughout his interview with The Jewish Link. “This building will not work unless it has a direct buy-in from the neighborhood,” he said. “I’m a big believer in the Heights, and I want to keep investing in it.”
The investment has gone beyond the conception of the space: The development team, architects at MVRDV and Stonehill Taylor, the contractors at the Rinaldi Group, and the leasing team at Newmark, have all worked tirelessly over the past nine years to get Radio 181 ready for its grand opening. “We purchased the land in 2013, but we weren’t able to begin building until 2016,” said Woo. He explained that the delay was two-fold: first, that the property owner at the time did not want the developers to take possession of the land immediately; and second, that the occupant of that space was a gas station, which had left oil residue deep in the bedrock and required extensive work on the foundation. Once the team had worked out the initial kinks, however, Radio 181 went full-speed ahead on its goal of creating an “inclusive development” for the local community.
“I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know that we want to keep [Radio 181] around for as long as we can,” Woo said. “I want this to be a celebration of the neighborhood, and I encourage everyone around us to come take part in it.”
By Channa Fischer