by Bill Millard
It’s unlikely to be an accident that the first photo in the AIANY’s new A Platform for the Future of the City shows the planned Hudson Yards district – not, say, another roughly comparable and better-known multi-tower development, the World Trade Center complex. The ambitious 26-acre project to revitalize the West 30s with mixed-use buildings, parks, public space, and cultural facilities has been gathering momentum for much of the past decade; construction began last fall. If completed as planned on the projected timetable, with the eastern Yards opening in 2019, it will link the High Line and Hudson River Park with Times Square, unite the West Side as a work/live/play district, and convert eight currently undeveloped railyard blocks into a skyline-defining, game-changing, creative-class magnet. Skeptics will inevitably emphasize the “if” in these projections, as the panelists in the first Hudson Yards Speaker Series were aware. Related Companies’ L. Jay Cross observed as a general principle: “Everything works until you draw it to scale.”
The first of seven events in the series, linked to the “Design(in) The New Heart of New York” exhibition in the Center for Architecture’s Breakthrough Space through June 30, combined gung-ho boosterism and historical perspective, not always coming from the commentators one might expect to strike those tones. As former Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff recalled, New Yorkers have bruited assorted plans for this “last frontier” area since the 1920s. At one point it might have even hosted Yankee Stadium, before the legendary ballpark arose in the Bronx instead. As New York Daily News columnist and moderator Jason Sheftell noted (ribbing Doctoroff a bit in the process), sports played an important part in the Hudson Yards plans, partially in a negative sense: the site was once where the city planned to build a stadium, as part of its efforts to host the 2012 Olympics. “It’s a good thing it didn’t happen,” Sheftell said, “or we wouldn’t be sitting here today.”
Rezoning of the larger West Side area between 30th and 42nd Streets in 2005, however, before the Olympics chose London instead, helped clear the way for Hudson Yards. Another pivotal local component is the extension of the 7 subway line, which will terminate directly at the complex’s North Tower, an 80-story, 2.4 million-square-foot commercial building by Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF), which is angled riverward to complement KPF’s 52-story South Tower, which leans into the city. (If Frank Gehry and Vlado Milunić’s Nationale-Nederlanden building in Prague hadn’t already earned the nickname “Fred and Ginger,” it would be an inevitable fit for this dancing pair).
The city’s financial support of the 7 line, provided in the expectation that Metropolitan Transportation Authority funding would be unavailable (the MTA’s expansion capacity, Doctoroff said, will be tied up in the Second Avenue Subway and the East Side Access project for the next 50 years), represents the extension of economic analysis to create conditions conducive to the private sector’s response. Fundraising for the 7 has been contingent on Hudson Yards’ development, an approach Doctoroff described as unprecedented.
Mitchell Moss, director of the Rudin Center for Transportation at New York University, contextualized the project further amid changes since the Lindsay administration in work patterns, commuting, and demographics. The city’s center of gravity has been moving south and west, and east-west movement has become more important than the north-south axis, as more workers enter Manhattan from the outer boroughs, Long Island, and New Jersey than from areas served by Metro North, whose ridership is declining.
Having studied Manhattan real estate in exhaustive detail, Mary Ann Tighe of CBRE noted that new commercial construction has not kept pace with residential projects – 6 million square feet of new office space in the past 13 years, compared with 55 million square feet per decade in the 1970s and 1980s – and that many existing office buildings, with an average age of 74 years, are not ideally suited to the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s companies.
Trends in office design and operations, said Cross, now favor flexible open-plan office spaces like Doctoroff’s current headquarters at Bloomberg L.P., where decision-makers are accessible with informal shoulder-taps, not barricaded within private offices. Sustainability and disaster-resilience concerns also strengthen the market for new spaces, Cross observed, and the Hudson Yards towers will include features such as onsite cogeneration and sealed elevator pits that can avoid flooding even in 200-year storms; the buildings are being designed for at least a LEED Gold rating. The technology, fashion, and cultural sectors have shown strong interest, and the Coach leather-goods brand is a South Tower anchor tenant.
The city’s most urgent need, panelists acknowledged, remains housing. The impressive community amenities designed into the project, including the new Hudson Park and Boulevard, the Public Square by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, and the dramatic telescoping Culture Shed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) and Rockwell Group, will ensure that demand for the residential towers (the wasp-waisted D Tower by DS+R, Rockwell, and Ismael Leyva Architects and the aerodynamic E Tower by David Childs, FAIA, of SOM) will be enormous. Almost 30% of the units will be subsidized in some form – addressing, if not wholly alleviating, concerns that a cultural appeal to New York’s knowledge workers is indistinguishable from gentrification.
Development and design teams for Hudson Yards have shuffled and recombined since the original presentation of five competing plans at Cooper Union in 2007. The project is not devoid of uncertainties, particularly regarding the neighborhood’s great infrastructural question marks: Madison Square Garden/Penn Station, Moynihan Station, and the Javits Center. As Moss pointed out, the project’s gestation period coincides with a series of disasters, and after September 11, the 2008 financial crash, and Superstorm Sandy, the idea that the city has “recovered” is mythical.
“What we actually did is transform the city,” he said, and any transformation on this scale carries risks. Yet a “mini-city” like Hudson Yards represents Manhattan’s futuristic face, a major legacy of the Bloomberg era, alongside the High Line and the World Trade Center complex.
As Doctoroff observed in response to an audience question about the imminent political turnover, “One of the reasons we actually do all this planning, rezoning, and infrastructure investment is so subsequent administrations can’t screw it up.”
And there’s still the question of what to call those dancing North and South Towers. Your humble reporter suggests “Travolta and Thurman.”
Event: Hudson Yards Speaker Series: A Conversation with Jay Cross, Daniel Doctoroff, Mitchell Moss, and Mary Ann Tighe
Location: Center for Architecture, 05.06.2013
Speakers: L. Jay Cross, President, Related’s Hudson Yards; Daniel L. Doctoroff, former New York City Deputy Mayor, founder of NYC 2012, and CEO and President of Bloomberg L.P.; Mitchell L. Moss, Henry Hart Rice Professor of Urban Policy and Planning at NYU; Mary Ann Tighe, CEO of the NY Tri-State Region, CBRE; Jason Sheftell, Real Estate Editor, New York Daily News (moderator); Jill Lerner, FAIA, president, AIANY (introduction)
Organizers: Related Companies and Oxford Properties Group in collaboration with AIA New York