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Inside the Ark, a Posh JFK 'Terminal' for Animals that Could Make Serious Hay for its Investors

17 Jul 2015 12:16 PM | Deleted user

Cliff Bollmann is one of the world's leading airport architects. He designed the spiffy JetBlue terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport and worked on others in San Francisco, Boston and Chennai, India. He knows exactly how far bathrooms can be situated from gates so passengers don't miss the last call for their flight.

But this international-airport expert is bit befuddled by the plumbing involved in his current assignment: designing a terminal at JFK called the Ark, dedicated to serving pets, livestock and zoo animals. For Mr. Bollmann, the question is: How to handle all the bull poop?

In addition to giving temporary shelter to furry and feathered friends in transit, the Ark is designed to house dozens of horses, as well as up to 180 head of cattle that are capable of producing 5,000 pounds of poop every day.

Failure to efficiently dispose of this formidable load could lend an unacceptable stink to a project ­designed to attract the sort of high-end clients who transport their Pomeranian pooch or Persian ­pussycat to far-flung locales. So Mr. Bollmann and his colleagues at architecture firm Gensler have come up with an ingenious plan: Angle the cattle-pen floor just enough so that manure slides away into a receptacle below. They call it the "poo chute."

"Way too much thought has gone into this," said Mr. Bollmann with a sigh. "There have been a lot of five-hour meetings."

Getting details like the poo chute right is vital for Mr. Bollmann and the private developers who are investing $48 million to build the Ark, which began construction in May and is set to open next year. The stakes are also high for JFK, New York's global gateway, whose primary facility for handling animals dates back to the Eisenhower administration.

The Ark will replace a facility called the VetPort, a 10,000-square-foot kennel that has been around since the 1950s. A 2013 report by the New York City Economic Development Corp. and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey described management at the VetPort as "poor" and said the facility "suffered from a location that insulated it from the traveling public for whom a large portion of its revenue … was targeted."

The VetPort is located at Cargo Building 189, while the Ark will be constructed at Cargo Building 78.

The VetPort looks even worse compared with luxurious animal accommodations near other transit hubs. Less than 10 minutes from Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, for example, is the Amstel Horsehotel. Equine guests there can take a shower and munch on hay in a serene setting before trotting onto a plane.

Another problem for animals entering the country via JFK: Many must be trucked two hours north, to a federal quarantine facility in Newburgh. The Ark would provide its own federally supervised quarantine, sparing the animals and their owners the time and expense of a second trip. "It's definitely going to make for safer, more efficient handling," said Bill Nichols, president of the Alex Nichols Agency, a Long Island-based horse-transport firm.

'A new paradigm'

The Ark is the brainchild of developers John Cuticelli and Aaron Perl of Racebrook Capital, who specialize in reviving distressed hotels and condos. The pair saw serious profit potential in the opportunity to replace VetPort. By transforming an abandoned 178,000-square-foot cargo terminal in the recesses of JFK into a top-notch animal shelter and quarantine, they plan to make money by charging owners just as a hotel would.

And a hotel is what Mr. Bollmann and his team of six architects and six engineers are in many ways building, paying meticulous attention to the guests' varying needs. In some ways, animals will be better treated than many human passengers at JFK.

The horse area will resemble a barn, with more than 70 stalls, soft floors that don't irritate hooves and a walking track. Penguins need cold quarters, and perhaps some privacy, because Mr. Bollmann has learned "they need to mate all the time."

Canine guests, meanwhile, will reside at a 20,000-square-foot "resort" called Paradise 4 Paws that will feature bone-shaped splashing pools, massage therapy and spa services like "pawdicures with colored nail pawlish," said Paradise 4 Paws' "chief barketing officer," Johanna Newcomb. Felines will have the Cat Adventure Jungle to stretch their legs on custom-made climbing trees with a view of the aquarium.

How much will such pampering cost? Entry-level accommodation for dogs costs $50 per night at other resorts run by Paradise 4 Paws, for instance. The Port Authority antici­pates collecting about $5 million in annual rent over the 27-year lease.

Such numbers don't seem outsized when considering that animal travel is a fast-growing business in a city where residents spend ever-­higher sums on their pets. (The amount New Yorkers shelled out annually on pets rose by 25% during the 10 years ended in 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, to $2.7 billion.)

Shipments of horses, parakeets, goldfish and other creatures through the area have risen by 28% during the past three years, to 2,801 in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (A single shipment can contain many animals.) The Port Authority expects about 70,000 ­animals to pass through the Ark annually. Nationwide, more than 2 million pets and other animals are transported by air every year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Private operators run horse-­quarantine centers near airports in Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami and San Juan, but the Ark represents, in Mr. Cuticelli's words, a "new paradigm" for animal transport because it aims to accommodate everything from ­antelopes to zebras. "If you move ­animals or animals move you, the Ark at JFK will handle it," Mr. Perl explained.

'Crazy money'

Cliff Bollman designed the Ark knowing that owners would want a luxury stay for their beloved pets.

David Lang hasn't handled any antelopes or zebras, but he has moved most everything else as founder of Pet Chauffeur, a ­Brooklyn-based firm that transports animals to places near and far. In mid-June, a Scarsdale family moving to Colorado had to leave their turtle behind, so Mr. Lang sheltered the pet overnight and put it on a plane to Denver the next day so it could rejoin its owners. He charged a $550 fee, plus $150 for the flight.

"I feel the Ark is validation of what I've been doing for a long time," Mr. Lang said. "You hear stories about the crazy money that rich people spend on their pets, and I can only tell you they're mostly true."

High-level service like that has enabled Mr. Lang, 46, to build a company that generates about $1 million a year in revenue. He estimated that preparing animals for flights accounts for 20% of his business. He said he'd like to expand that business simply because the dollars involved are much bigger than what can be had from animal ground transportation.

For example, it might cost $1,000 to book a dog on a flight to London, but on top of that it costs about $200 for a crate and $600 for vet visits and certifications. Add in airport fees and driver commissions, and the tab can easily rise to $2,500, Mr. Lang said. Shipping experts say it costs up to $10,000 to send a horse overseas.

"I think the animal terminal will be a big success because there's definitely a market for this sort of place in New York," Mr. Lang said.

To entice jet-setters who might otherwise fly their pets out of Teterboro in private planes, the Ark plans to offer pet accommodations that most owners would find plenty comfortable. For instance, the facility will offer a "top-dog suite" that figures to cost at least $100 a night. That's five times more than the VetPort charges, according to the U.S. State Department. But the suite includes a human-size bed for the dog, a flat-screen TV, a webcam and a bedside photo frame available for a family portrait "to make your pet feel even more at home."

"It will be a place for people who love their pets like they love their kids," pledged Mr. Bollmann. "Maybe more."

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