SS United States

Historic Ocean Liner SS United States May Get Second Life

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March 10, 2020
SS United States
Photo: Brian W. Schaller

By Patrick Clark and Olivia Carville (Bloomberg) — Scott Rechler was negotiating a deal to build Airbnb rentals in a Manhattan office tower when the real estate developer had an epiphany. Tree houses and other unconventional lodgings were popular on the home-sharing site. Why not a ship?

Rechler, chief executive officer of RXR Realty, had a vessel in mind. For decades, cruise operators and real estate people have been trying to revive a mothballed ocean liner called the SS United States. Encouraged by his conversations with Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky, Rechler decided to take the plunge.

Last year, Rechler struck a deal with the ship’s nonprofit owner and started commissioning designs. Now RXR is shopping its plan to New York, San Francisco and a half-dozen other U.S. cities, seeking a site for a roughly $500 million project that would include hotel rooms, restaurants and a museum celebrating the vessel’s history. If local governments respond well to a formal request for interest, work could begin at a shipyard later this year.

“The idea is to build a great public space that can become a destination for people to spend the day and be a part of history,” Rechler said in an interview.

RXR has a track record of refreshing aging structures, including a former Manhattan shipping terminal that the firm converted into office space for Google, and the Nassau Coliseum, where it’s developing apartments and retail shops on the parking lots surrounding the outdated arena.

The SS United States, which at 990 feet is just shy of the Chrysler Building, will need a lot of work. The ship has spent more than two decades rusting on a pier in Philadelphia, and a series of failed redevelopment plans have left it stripped of virtually all furniture and fittings. Doors hang off their hinges and metal scraps dangle from the ceiling. The ship’s interiors look like an abandoned industrial space, not a luxury ocean liner.

And yet it was the envy of the world when it took its maiden voyage in 1952, symbolizing postwar America’s technical and financial might. The ship set a speed record on its first New York-to-London crossing, thanks to secret funding from the U.S. Department of Defense — which wanted a ship that could carry 15,000 troops across the Atlantic Ocean without refueling in the event of war.

That conflict never came, but the age of the airplane did. The ship was pulled from service in 1969, and has spent the past half-century bobbing between owners who tried and failed to repurpose it. When commercial owners gave up, philanthropists stepped in, raising money from history buffs who wanted to save the “most famous ship that didn’t sink.”

“The ship embodies a moment in history in which anything was possible,” said Susan Gibbs, president of the SS United States Conservancy and granddaughter of the naval architect who designed the vessel. “It wasn’t just about a ship, it was about the nation’s ability to excel.”

For Rechler, the ocean liner’s stripped-down state makes it a blank slate for redevelopment. Early plans call for converting its bowels into a brewery and food hall and creating a glassed-in event space on the ship’s stern.

Last Spring, RXR announced a novel deal with Airbnb that called for the developer to build 200 lodging units in an office building at Rockefeller Center and list them exclusively on the home-sharing site. The companies also have teamed up on a project near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, with Airbnb offering design expertise and serving as the primary channel for filling rooms.

Airbnb, laying plans to go public this year, has been seeking ways to extend beyond its traditional home-sharing offerings. Many of the cash-strapped millennials who were the company’s earliest users are traveling on bigger budgets, or working at firms with expense policies that don’t support home-sharing. Signing deals with real estate developers also gives Airbnb a way to add listings that comply with local regulations on land, air or sea.

Airbnb declined to comment on Rechler’s project.

RXR is focused on finding a site to moor the ship, and hasn’t started looking for partners for the hotel portion of the project, Rechler said.

In one version of the plan, RXR will spend two years remaking the SS United States at a shipyard, then tow the vessel to its mooring place for six months of site work.

“In the current environment, people are looking for authenticity,” Rechler said. “They’re not necessarily looking for the next big glass box of a hotel. You can get that anywhere in the world. But where can you get the ship?”

© 2019 Bloomberg L.P


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