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

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

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

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

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There was just one problem: The Empire Realty Trust Company declined to give them the information.

“They won’t give us anything,” said Mr. Collins, a visual journalist and graphics editor. “Not even a directory.”

Determined to find out what a widely known piece of real estate could say about New York’s future, The Times commissioned a team of more than a dozen journalists and editors to sift through a list of vacancies. Searches, locates and interviews tenants and spends more than three months. Interactive visual feature that will depict the current residents of the building. The article was published online last week.

Although the model uses state-of-the-art graphics software, Mr. Collins said its production would have been impossible without shoe-leather reporting. For about six weeks, Mr. Collins; Mr. Haag, reporter at the Metro desk; Peter Avis, a business reporter covering companies and markets; And Barbara Harvey, a news assistant, called and emailed companies with addresses listed in the Empire State Building. He verified which people were in the building and asked him about plans to return from his office during the pandemic. Ms. Harvey made a large number of calls, while Mr. Haag and Mr. Avis tried to parse out leases and sublet deals for some of the biggest tenants, such as LinkedIn and Global Brands Group.

“We thought this would be a very rigorous survey that gave us the data to use to tell the story,” Mr. Collins said. “But a lot of the best quotes in the story have come from those calls.”

While journalists were tracking the tenants, Kartik Patanjali, a special projects editor for graphics at The Times, was leading a team creating the 3-D models. The skyscraper’s exterior was a straightforward part: The team relied on publicly available 3-D models of New York City 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 US Securities and Exchange Commission.

It’s the most recent example of the 3-D storytelling technology The Times has been pushing for four years. Mr. Patanjali’s team has helped visualize the effectiveness of masks, air flow 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 low volume of visitors to the Empire State Building’s 86th-floor observatory. They mapped places where tenants had left and a floor where a business would 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 an opportunity to delve deeper into a building that had grown up in his youth.

“The Empire State Building used to be this fantastical, magical thing somewhere in America,” said Mr. Patanjali. “To be able to work on that in such close 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 revealed about the famous skyscraper.

“I never really thought what In Empire State Building,” Ms. Landon said. “Next to the big companies, there are smaller tenants like dentist’s or attorney’s offices. You have all this richness and texture. You wouldn’t have if it were all one company.”

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