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Manhattan’s New Insta-neighborhood

eye on the news

Manhattan’s New Insta-neighborhood

Hudson Yards is fine, as far as it goes. March 19, 2019
New York
Infrastructure and energy

After hearing about the massive Hudson Yards real-estate project for more than a decade, watching its 1,296-foot showcase office tower gradually rise to become Manhattan’s second-tallest building, and reading the early reviews, New Yorkers and tourists took advantage of last weekend’s sunshine and flocked to the Far West Side development by the thousands to marvel, gawk, or cringe at the newly opened retail complex that anchors the huge development. After all the hype and criticism, the verdict is both a relief and a letdown: it’s nice! But it won’t fix what ails New York.

Hudson Yards is, as its major builder, the Related Companies, notes, the “largest private real-estate development in the history of the United States.” The complex, built over MTA railyards, will eventually boast 18 million square feet of commercial and residential space across 28 acres. A modest park and subway station are now open, as are three of four planned office buildings, two rental buildings, and one of two condo buildings.

Hudson Yards is the product of the same generation of urban planners and architects who came up with the Time Warner Center and the post-9/11 World Trade Center, and so, unsurprisingly, that’s what it looks and feels like. The buildings come with all sorts of architectural pedigrees, but their cookie-cutter glass could line the sky of any global city that’s seen high-end development over the past two decades. The luxury mall, the center of the ground-level experience, is still just another luxury mall. If you’ve been to the Time Warner Center (another Related project, now 15 years old), to the Westfield mall (in the Oculus of the new World Trade Center), to Brookfield Place (adjacent to the World Trade Center), or to any similar project in London, Paris, Houston, or Riyadh, you’re familiar with the type. Even on opening-day Saturday, despite lines to enter the building, high-end stores such as Fendi stood largely empty. The mall features a small outpost of Citarella, an upscale Manhattan grocery store, and a Spanish-food specialty market, but unlike the Time Warner Center, it lacks a full-service supermarket, indicating skepticism on the part of big brands about whether Hudson Yards really is a diverse residential neighborhood. There’s no bookstore or drugstore, either.

Hudson Yards’ parkland, too, resembles the World Trade Center configuration, both pre- and post-9/11. A narrow park and plaza are elegantly landscaped and dotted with pretty flowers—pleasant enough for an afternoon lunch, but not a destination park. To jog or bike without cars or trucks nearby, residents will have to rely on Central Park or the Hudson River Park, two genuinely visionary public projects of previous eras.  Just like the old World Trade Center, some of the Yards’ open space is not quite a tower-in-the-park model, but a park-among-the-towers model. Because of the nearby river as well as the tunnel of tall buildings, the plaza is intensely windy—another criticism leveled at the World Trade Center complex. We seem unable to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. The complex’s centerpiece sculpture – a climbable copper-colored staircase called “the Vessel” is emblematic of the development as a whole: it is, thankfully, not as bad as some critics have advertised, but it is more of a puzzle than an artwork.

The real flaw surrounding Hudson Yards lies in how the city manages growth. Hudson Yards benefitted from tax subsidies to encourage office development away from the city’s midtown and downtown cores. Hudson Yards benefits from more than $2 billion in subsidies over 25 years, according to the New School; companies in the area can make lower “payments in lieu of taxes” instead of full property taxes. But the city could have used some of that $2 billion to invest in better transit infrastructure to Hudson Yards. When the Bloomberg administration conceived of the project, the city, through payments to the MTA, was supposed to support two new subway stations to the area. Instead, the city got only the terminus station, for $2.4 billion; it dropped the other station, due to cost overruns. Hudson Yards, which is supposed to support tens of thousands of office workers and thousands of permanent residents, in addition to millions of visitors, has one subway station, at the end of one subway line—and it’s already overcrowded. On opening weekend, the 7 train from the station was standing-room only before it even left the Hudson Yards platform. And this on a Saturday.

What’s the long-term future of Hudson Yards? With the right infrastructure investment and street management, Hudson Yards can be knit, albeit belatedly, into the rest of Manhattan. That requires building the missing subway stop in Manhattan, as well as, eventually, extending the 7 train to New Jersey, thus creating a second hub point for the area. To allow for the extra ridership that any new office development entails, the state and city badly need to add extra subway capacity throughout the city, in the form of modern signals that enable more hourly trains. Without such infrastructure, Hudson Yards is fated to become a curious community, part of Manhattan and thus the rest of the city and the world, but—severed from the subway, commuter-rail infrastructure, streets, and large-scale parkland vital to its success—cut off from it, too.

Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Related

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