NJIT Alum Helps Design World Trade Center Site

NJIT Alum Redeveloping WTC site

When he was a young boy, Serge Demerjian (1993) loved to build. He’d spend endless afternoons playing with Legos, building them up, then tearing them down. Ever since he could remember, he just loved to build.

A few decades later, Serge now has a job that he likens to playing with Legos, – but on a massive, multi-billion dollar scale. He works as a Design Manager for Silverstein Properties, the company redeveloping the World Trade Center site.  He manages the design of the eastern half of the redevelopment project. That half includes three new skyscrapers, a new PATH Station hub, four underground levels of retail space, as well as public space, new roads and security networks.  

Serge manages several design teams, all of whose ideas must be woven  together seamlessly so as to revamp the skyline of Lower Manhattan.  It’s a difficult job with major responsibilities, but he has one advantage: along with being a good manager, he has an architecture background.  He graduated in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree from the New Jersey School of Architecture at NJIT.  It was here that he mastered the skills that would put him on an avenue to success. His accomplishments was recently noted by Crain’s New York Business.com, which put named him to its list of 40 business leaders under 40 who are considered rising business stars in Manhattan.

Serge is the kind of graduate that NJIT prides itself on producing. He and his brother (who also attended NJIT), were the first generation in their family to attend university. Their father, an Armenian-born tailor, didn’t go to college.  But he expected his sons to get good educations and rise up the social ladder.  In this interview, Serge talks about his path to professional success. He discusses his job, especially what it’s like to manage a project that’s part of America’s history – and its future.

How did you like studying architecture at NJIT?
Overall, it was a great experience.  I have many fond memories of the school and few nightmares, too.  It’s a demanding program that has you studying crazy hours and keeps you up through the night.  But the studio atmosphere was fantastic. You are in studio with your friends, working together on projects day after day.  That’s one of the reasons I studied architecture; it’s interactive hands-on learning, not just all lectures and reading.  In architecture school, you create images and models and that creation is the exciting part of it.  As students, we’d design something, get critiqued by our professors, and then have a meaningful dialogue about what we created.  I had great respect for the architecture professors.

Did the architecture school prepare you well for the work world?
The school gave me good foundation to work as an architect.  It taught me how to think, make decisions and lead myself through the process of architecture.  The rest of what I’ve done in my career – managing people and negotiating problems – I picked up from experience.  Throughout college and immediately afterward, I worked at a small a design/build firm.  I started off running blue prints, filing and bringing materials to construction sites.  I worked there part-time after my classes, on Fridays and throughout the summers.  It was great experience, because after I graduated I knew what it was like to do design and build work.

When you were a senior in high school, why did you pick the School of Architecture? And what attracted you to architecture, as a major?
My father is a tailor who started working when he was 12.  My grandfather also worked as a tailor.  So my father wanted me to become a professional -- an engineer or a doctor.  My family knew about NJIT because we lived nearby in Nutley; NJIT is a well-known and respected school in the area.  They wanted my brother and me to go to NJIT.  I actually transferred into NJIT from Essex County College, where I earned my associate’s degree.  My brother graduated from NJIT in 1987 with a degree in computer science and I transferred in 1989 and eventually graduated in 1993.  We each chose paths slightly different than my parents imagined, but they were still happy with our choices.

Can you talk a bit about your background and your parents?
My father was born in Armenia but his family immigrated to Beirut when he was young.  My mother was born in Syria but her parents also moved their family to Beirut. That’s where I was born, and my family moved to American when I was five years old.  My father is a master tailor and, though he’s retired, he teaches classes at FIT in Manhattan.  My mom, also now retired, worked as an Executive Administrative Assistant.

When did you first get interested in architecture?
I knew that I wanted to be an architect probably around the time I was in junior high school.  The concept of creating, artistically and visually, just appealed to me.  My love of hands-on building projects started when I was a boy playing with Legos, and has carried me through my professional choices and now to a much grander scale.

The WTC building project is so immense. What parts of the project do you focus on? 
My role is to assist the design professionals, our architects and engineers, throughout the design and documentation process of three skyscrapers projects and their integration with our adjacent projects, the WTC Transportation HUB, and the Retail and Service Roadway projects that are managed by our development partners, the Port Authority of NY & NJ. The coordination of all these projects, between two development entities designing in the same area, requires a lot of attention.

You are in charge of managing the design of what is known as the eastern half of the development project?
Yes. The eastern half includes Towers 2, 3 and 4 (the overall project has five office towers and 500,000 square feet of retail) as well as the WTC Transportation PATH Station, also called the HUB.  I envision the portion of the project that I manage – the below-grade and podium levels – as the Grand Central Station of Lower Manhattan.  It’s a large labyrinth of space, with five levels of retail shops, much of it below ground, and public space and a transportation nexus.  My job is to make sure all the design pieces of this elaborate plan fit together. The various teams of buildings and designers come to the table with plans and I work with them to make sure that everything is coordinated.  I have a strong background in the technical aspects of assembling a building, which provides an excellent background when negotiating and resolving conflicts between the development entities and the designers.

How far along is the project, or your part of it, and when will it be completed?
The overall design and documentation of all the projects, including the three towers, are complete.  We have already started building Tower 4, at this time foundations are complete and the superstructure has started rising. To offer a sense of the size of the projects I am working, Tower 4 will be in similar size to the Chrysler Building and Towers 2 & 3 compare to the size of the Empire State Building.  It’s hard to predict an exact completion date since there are so many projects, partners and governmental entities involved. 

What jobs did you have before coming to Silverstein Properties?
After I graduated from NJIT in 1993, I worked for five years at CSR Group, the small design/build firm in my hometown (Nutley).  Then I went to Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer in NYC, where I was the lead project architect for the renovation of Radio City Music Hall.  After that I worked at Skidmore, Owens & Merrill, a prominent architecture firm.  As an associate for the firm’s technical department, I worked on a variety of large scale mixed used projects, such as the Time Warner Center, the John Jay College Expansion Project, Lester B. Pearson Airport and the World Trade Center Master Plan.  I worked at SOM from 1999 - 2006, and then moved to my current job.  

How did you get such good jobs at such competitive firms?
I think it was a little bit of luck mixed with some drive and determination to work on bigger and better things.   I have to say, in retrospect, I was glad to start my career at a small design firm, where I got a broad range of experience.   

What advice you have for current students of architecture and design?
My advice comes from my experience working when I was young at CSR Group.  Because it was a small firm, I got to work on a variety of tasks related to building and design.  So after you graduate or while you’re in college, I suggest you work for a small firm, where you’ll have the chance to work on a broad range of things, from marketing, business development, construction administration, etc.  Smaller firms are less departmentalized than big firms, so the employees work on various tasks.  Then, if you choose to move on to a large firm with large-scale projects, you’ll have the benefit of the global experience to assist you with your specialized task.

The immense design project you’re managing will one day fill a huge hole not only in the ground of Lower Manhattan but in the American spirit -- a hole left by the devastating attacks on the old World Trade Center towers. In that sense, is your job rewarding? 
My office has a view of the WTC site. Every now and then I look out my office window and remember the Twin Towers.  I often wonder what if there was no 9/11: What would the world be like? Where would I be and what would I be working on instead? On the morning of 9/11, I was asked to fill in for someone at a meeting uptown.  If not for that meeting, I would have been commuting into the WTC at the time the first plane struck.  I have fond memories of the Twin Towers and the entire complex I used to walk through every day.  I’m excited and optimistic about being an integral part of creating the new skyline.  To me, it’s a great honor to be part of this project.

A project of the scale and complexity that you’re working on will take years to complete – perhaps as long as 2014.  Can you imagine what the new WTC site will be like once completed?
The design and building process is great, but when the pouring of concrete is over and the buildings are up, that will be the exciting part.  When people eventually fill the buildings, and the retail stores hum with life and the trains usher millions of people into the city, when you see all that vitality -- that to me will be a wonderful reward. 

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)