Green sanctuary on top of NYC's largest convention center

Seventeen stories above the hustle and bustle of Midtown Manhattan, and directly above one of the city's busiest buildings, lies a sanctuary of sorts -- a green space about the size of five football fields.

The way it's harboring wildlife and saving energy, one might call it a modern-day miracle on 34th Street, reports CBS News correspondent Jim Axelrod.

The business of the Jacob Javits Center in New York City -- is business. Each year, nearly 40,000 companies set up shop inside the 840,000 square feet of convention space and bring in nearly $2 billion for the city's economy. There are 150 events a year and more than 2 million visitors.

Seeing what goes on downstairs in the complex makes the upstairs all the more of a contrast.

"It's one of the reasons I love to bring people up here," Javits Center CEO Alan Steel said. "Because it's not something they expect to see. It's not something they expect of a convention center."

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CBS News

Between 2009 and 2014, a major renovation included replacing the opaque glass. Birds hadn't been able to tell they were flying into what amounted to a giant mirror.

"We were the biggest killer of birds in New York City, I understand," Steel said. Now, the seven acres of green roof gives them an opportunity to be a habitat for wild life, he said.

A material was embedded in the new translucent windows to let the birds know they're approaching something they needed to avoid.

"When I am walking around up here, like right now even, I have a hard time believing I am on a roof in New York City," said Susan Elbin, head of the New York City Audubon Society. "I feel like I am in a meadow somewhere."

Elbin studies the rooftop's bird population and estimates bird deaths are down 90 percent.

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Birds on Javits Center's green roof
CBS News

Eleven species of birds now call the roof home.

"It is really peaceful. There is noise, but it sort of becomes white noise, background noise," Elbin said, describing the city's noise, which now mixes with the sound of birds.

What was once a blacktop roof is now green. Soil and shrubs on the roof absorb water from storms reducing run-off. Heating and cooling costs are down 25 percent.

"We don't create as much of a heat-island effect. So it's actually cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter," Steel said.

On the roof of New York City's largest convention center, pipes and duct work have given way to birdhouses and beehives. And college students study weather patterns.

"It's become a bit of a science project," Steel said.

"It's something that that the lessons we learn here can be taken and applied to the roof of every other building that you look at in this city," he added.

Rick Brown is the building's chief engineer. He's been working at the Javits Convention Center for 25 years.

"We work up here every day, and you know, you go to work and it was just a job. Now it's a job, but it's a beautiful job," Brown said.

While the neighbors in surrounding skyscrapers have a new stretch of nature to look down upon, it just may be the people of the Javits Center themselves who appreciate the changes the most.

"I come up here for lunch every once in a while, and I just like sittin' here, but that's just between me and you," Brown said.

To fully commit to a bird-friendly status, the Javits Center turns its lights off after midnight during bird migration season. Some parts of New York City do sleep after all.