Even with the post–September 11 cleanup speeding along faster than expected and new federal money pouring in, the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan remains a challenging long-term project. But New York City needs to get new development under way as soon as possible to replace the office space lost on September 11. That’s why Mayor Michael Bloomberg should turn his attention to the underutilized Far West Side of Manhattan. A strategic plan for redeveloping this area already exists and merely awaits a strong push from city hall.
At present, the Far West Side, running from 14th Street to 42nd Street, west of Eighth Avenue, is a big wasted opportunity. Despite an abundance of available land only a short walk from bustling midtown, the area has stagnated because of poor transportation and an outdated 40-year-old zoning code that permits only low buildings there. Take a walk through the neighborhood, and you’ll see the Javits Convention Center, a few large public facilities, including the Metropolitan Transportation Authority rail yards, a collection of auto-repair shops, storage facilities, and sprawling parking lots—and little else. For much of the 1990s, even as the rest of Manhattan boomed, the Far West Side lost jobs.
The city recognized that it should move ahead with redevelopment of this 59-block area even before September 11. The economic expansion of the late 1990s resulted in a rush of building that used up most of the developable land in midtown Manhattan. Lacking sites, several big financial firms decided to jump across the river to New Jersey. Real-estate observers began to wonder whether the city could find room for future economic expansion. Without new office space, the city’s economy would have a hard time breaking out of the nearly 50-year boom-and-bust cycle that has generated lots of job churning but no secular growth. Eyeing the city’s economic future, the Giuliani administration cannily looked to transform the Far West Side into Gotham’s next major business district and shortly before leaving office came up with a master plan for how to do it. The plan is so good that Bloomberg should make it his signature project.
The basic idea is to rezone the Far West Side to make room for about 40 million square feet of development over the next 20 years in several sub-districts—including a high-density commercial corridor along 34th Street, another commercial district facing the Javits Convention Center, and a Jane Jacobs–style mixed-use residential and commercial neighborhood between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. In addition, the plan recommends extending the Number 7 subway line down from 42nd Street into the district, which a 2001 study estimates would cost only $1.3 billion, since many of the needed tunnels and tracks already exist. Other transportation options—perhaps extending the Long Island Rail Road past its current terminus at Pennsylvania Station to a stop nearer the Javits Center—might also be worth thinking about. Gotham could use incremental gains in property-tax revenues from the improving Far West Side to help finance new transit, the plan says.
A good sign that the blueprint, or some version of it, might become a reality is that Bloomberg’s key economic development aide, former investment banker Daniel Doctoroff, understands the Far West Side’s vast potential. Bloomberg should get things rolling at once. Not only may the redevelopment of the Far West Side wind up being one of his greatest long-term contributions to Gotham; it might also—by providing a benchmark against which to measure the progress of rebuilding downtown—spur that project along, too.