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CSI Starrett-Lehigh: How it happened

The Centre for Social Innovation is embarking on its boldest expansion yet—a new 24,000 sq. ft. home in the iconic Starrett-Lehigh Building in the emerging creative district of Manhattan’s Chelsea neighbourhood. 

In partnership with with RXR Realty, the Centre for Social Innovation is bringing its shared workspaces and programming for social innovators front and centre to the world stage.

CSI Starrett-Lehigh will be joining world-renowned tenants such as Hugo Boss, Tommy Hilfiger and Martha Stewart in this landmark building built in the early 1930s and bordering the Hudson River.

CSI would never have contemplated such an undertaking were it not for the perfect set of circumstances unexpectedly presenting themselves early this year. Here is how it happened…

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Dave Gise, a former personal trainer and seasoned Internet entrepreneur in New York City, had been looking at coworking models for years for his website Open Office Space.

Dave’s good friend Scott Rechler, CEO of RXR Realty LLC, recently purchased the Starrett-Lehigh building, and expressed interest in opening some type of shared workspace to help build community among its 5,000 creative tenants.

Having followed CSI’s growth since 2009, Dave knew “CSI was either the organization to do it with, or the one to get advice from.”

Dave flew to Toronto after requesting to meet with Eli Malinsky, Director of Strategy and Partnerships at CSI. Dave toured CSI’s Spadina and Annex locations before getting around to asking Eli if CSI might consider opening a fourth location in Manhattan.

Eli responded with a resounding “no!”

“CSI receives requests from people interested in its model every month,” Eli explains. “People visit from around the world, and invariably ask if CSI might consider doing something similar in their home city. The requests usually don’t make much business sense, and so I refer them to our publications on creating shared workspaces for social innovators and politely wish them good luck.”

Like any good entrepreneur, Dave was not ready to accept no for an answer.

“I said, well, no to your no,” Dave recalls (read with a New Yawk accent for greater effect). “That’s how the entrepreneur in me thinks. ‘No’ is just a challenge. So I got back to New York and emailed Eli some links about the building and the landlord. I told Eli I thought this was a much bigger opportunity than he realized.”

Things changed when Dave sent Eli the email containing a news release about Scott’s purchase of the Starrett-Lehigh building.

“The news release identified that this was one of the largest buildings in Manhattan, and that it was bought for $990 million,” Eli says. “Those two facts kind of changed the game in our minds—this was a legitimate opportunity, and not just someone with a vague interest.”

Eli and Tonya were sitting in their office at CSI Annex, contemplating the opportunity, when he turned to her and asked: “New York City. Would we ever consider New York City?”

“He looks at me and I look at him, and I’m like, ‘New York City. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere,’” Tonya says. “It was really interesting because Eli, who is usually not prone to taking this kind of thing on, was like, ‘well, it is New York City.’ I told Eli it is the one place in the world where all the conditions could be right. We feel we have something important to contribute to the field of social innovation, and New York City represents an amazing platform with global reach.” 

It was ultimately with the promise of a good lunch that Dave lured them down to New York City.

“We go down and see the building and I immediately fall in love,” Tonya gushes. “It’s just incredible! It’s got history. It’s got character. It’s got so much light. You can feel the creativity just oozing out of this place.”

The duo were taken up to a gorgeous loft space with the sun streaming in through the windows overlooking the Hudson River, and sat down to lunch with Scott, a few people from his team, Dave, and members of the CO-OP branding agency. Scott presented his vision for the building—massive renovations, community event spaces and lounges, rooftop restaurant and bar, fitness centre, game areas, spa, dog run, bicycle parking…you get the picture—how he wanted to tap into the culture, creativity and innovation of the neighbourhood, and his intention to transform Starrett-Lehigh into a city asset.

Tonya and Eli, immensely impressed by Scott’s city-building vision, launched into pitch mode—“We were on fire…as is our way,” Tonya boasts—and laid down all CSI has to offer.

“It was amazing to be there and to see Scott, Tonya and Eli talking so passionately about what each could do and the magic that could happen,” Dave says. “After that first meeting we realized that this was exactly the right mix to make this work. We had found an amazing alignment…the foundations for a profound partnership.”

Tonya and Eli left the meeting with an adrenaline high. Once in the elevator, Eli, usually the more reserved of the two, turned to Tonya and did the unthinkable…he gave her high-five. 

Back in Toronto, Eli started crunching numbers to see what it would take, and negotiations began in earnest. The meeting in New York took place January 18, and there was a tentative deal by the end of the first quarter. 

“For me, there was a constant awareness that some members and supporters might believe we are turning our attention away from Toronto,” says Eli. “Ultimately, though, we are entrepreneurs who have built something very successful here and we are not going to let that lapse. We believe that this new opportunity will lean into and build on what we’ve already achieved. And really, you don't get many of these opportunities in life. In many ways, it’s our responsibility to go to New York and make this happen because of the potential to have greater global impact.” 

CSI has always been a restless organization focused on achieving its mission to catalyze, support and inspire world-changing initiatives. When CSI decided to purchase the 36,000 sq. ft. CSI Annex building for $5 million with only a $50k operating surplus, it raised $2 million in the span of a whirlwind eight months with the help of its innovation in social finance, the Community Bond. So, after careful consideration, when the opportunity to occupy a landmark building in Manhattan presented itself, it simply proved irresistible to CSI’s entrepreneurial spirit and desire to help advance social innovation around the world. This is the next chapter in CSI’s story, and perhaps its most exciting yet.

“We have no illusions about how challenging this will be,” Tonya says. “New York City is a new place for us and we aren’t well known. But we’re going to do what we’ve always done: connect with others, complement existing activities, and find ways to add our own unique voice to the growing social innovation movement.”

To succeed in New York City, CSI needs much more than an attractive building. CSI would not even contemplate entering such a joint venture were it not for Scott, his team and Dave, entrepreneurs with drive, passion and integrity, determined to make a difference.

“You have this unbelievable building with all these creative folks in it, and then you have a civically responsible landlord who is well-connected and forward-thinking, you have CSI’s experience and reputation… I just think you have this magical formula that is really going to allow CSI’s impact to be magnified,” Dave says enthusiastically.

“We are going in strong but humble. We know that growth is challenging, but then no one ever said that social change would be easy. We are up for the challenge with strong partners by our sides,” concludes Tonya.

To stay up to date on CSI Starrett-Lehigh and its evolution, and to play a part in making it the greatest social innovation space in the world, sign up here and we will keep you in the loop. 

CSI Starrett-Lehigh will open winter 2012. 

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