A 3-D Model Built With Public Records and Phone Calls

For an interactive article on business inside the Empire State Building, a New York Times team turned to interviews with tenants, vacancy listings, promotional materials and real estate data.


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In late May, when the New York Times journalists Keith Collins and Matthew Haag sent their first email to the company that owns the Empire State Building, New York was expected to fully reopen within six to eight weeks — and they had an ambitious idea for how to cover it.

They wanted to create a 3-D model of the building that would showcase the reopening of its offices, retail shops and observation deck. They would use floor plans to build an immersive experience that would take readers inside the world’s most famous skyscraper.

There was just one problem: The company, Empire Realty Trust, declined to provide them with information.

“They wouldn’t give us anything,” said Mr. Collins, a visual journalist and graphics editor at The New York Times. “Not even the directory.”

Determined to learn what a widely known piece of real estate could say about New York’s future, The Times formed a team of more than a dozen reporters and editors to comb through vacancy listings, track down and interview tenants and spend more than three months building an interactive visual feature that would illustrate the building’s current occupants. The article was published online last week.

Though the model uses cutting-edge graphics software, Mr. Collins said that producing it would have been impossible without shoe-leather reporting. For about six weeks, Mr. Collins; Mr. Haag, a reporter on the Metro desk; Peter Eavis, a business reporter who covers companies and markets; and Barbara Harvey, a news assistant, called and emailed companies that listed addresses in the Empire State Building. They verified which ones were in the building and asked them about their return-to-office plans during the pandemic. Ms. Harvey made the bulk of the calls, while Mr. Haag and Mr. Eavis tried to parse leases and sublet deals for some of the biggest tenants, like LinkedIn and Global Brands Group.

“We thought it was going to be a very rigid survey that just gave us data to use to tell the story,” Mr. Collins said. “But a lot of the best quotes in the story came from making those calls.”

While the reporters were tracking down tenants, Karthik Patanjali, a special projects editor for graphics at The Times, was leading a team building the 3-D model. The exterior of the skyscraper was the straightforward part: The team relied on publicly available 3-D models of the City of New York and Google Street View data. The interior was a trickier affair, built piecemeal from in-person visits, interviews with tenants, vacancy listings, promotional materials and public filings to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.


A team started reporting in May, visiting the building, interviewing tenants and combing publicly available data.Credit…The New York Times

It is the most recent example of the 3-D storytelling technology that The Times has been advancing for four years. Mr. Patanjali’s team has helped visualize the effectiveness of masks, the flow of air in classrooms and, in a project published earlier this month, the condominium tower that collapsed in Surfside, Fla., in June.

For this project, the graphics team simulated the reduced volume of visitors to the Empire State Building’s 86th-floor observatory. They mapped spaces tenants had left and a floor where a business will have to adapt to fewer workers in the office. Readers can see the ground-floor retail space that was vacated.

For Mr. Patanjali, who grew up in India, the project was the chance to dive deeper into a building that had loomed large in his youth.

“The Empire State Building used to be this fictional, magical thing somewhere in the U.S.,” Mr. Patanjali said. “To be able to work on that in such proximity just feels surreal.”

Simone Landon, a deputy graphics editor who worked on the project and who has lived in New York for a decade, found herself surprised by what the team unearthed about the famous skyscraper.

“I’d never thought about what’s actually in the Empire State Building,” Ms. Landon said. “There are tiny tenants, like a dentist or a lawyer’s office, next to big companies. You have all this richness and texture you wouldn’t have if it were all one company.”

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