Hudson Yards Is Manhattan’s Biggest, Newest, Slickest Gated Community. Is This the Neighborhood New York Deserves?

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Hudson Yards Is Manhattan’s Biggest, Newest, Slickest Gated Community. Is This the Neighborhood New York Deserves?

The first massive tower emerged at the apex of the High Line, looming over it, a shingled, spiky, reflective blue-glass behemoth, shaped by eccentric cuts and angles, as if sheared by a giant Ginsu knife.

Since then, at jaw-dropping magnitudes you can’t begin to grasp until you are actually standing there, Hudson Yards has sprouted a seven-story, 720,000-square-foot shopping mall. There are also four more supertall skyscrapers as well as a $500 million city-sponsored arts center called the Shed, featuring a giant sliding roof, eye-catchingly swathed in a tufted Teflon-based sheeting that can bring to mind inflated dry cleaning bags.

And, well, what can I call it?

It is temporarily called the Vessel. Hoping for public buy-in, its patron, the lead developer of this vast neoliberal Zion, has invited suggestions for a new name.

Purportedly inspired by ancient Indian stepwells (it’s about as much like them as Skull Mountain at Six Flags Great Adventure is like Chichen Itza) the object — I hesitate to call this a sculpture — is a 150-foot-high, $200 million, latticed, waste-basket-shaped stairway to nowhere, sheathed in a gaudy, copper-cladded steel.

It preens along the critical axis between the High Line and the newish No. 7 subway station at Hudson Yards, hoping to drum up Instagram views and foot traffic for the mall, casting egregious shadows over what passes for public open space, ruinously manspreading beside the Shed, the most novel work of architecture on site, and the only building the private developers didn’t build.

New York politics and real estate are notoriously akin to “Rashomon.” Any verdict on an undertaking as costly and complex as Hudson Yards depends on one’s perspective.

For its advocates, the $25 billion development is a shining new city ex nihilo, a wellspring of future tax revenues and evidence of a miraculous, post-9/11 civic volte-face. They note how the project sailed through the public and environmental review processes, winning neighborhood approval partly because at the time it seemed better than an earlier proposal to erect a sports stadium on the site, partly because it was conceived when New York still feared for its economic future and lagged, in terms of Grade A office space, behind global competitors like London.

As a feat of engineering, it rests on a new $1 billion platform, which decks over a stretch of infrastructure that for generations acted as a kind of Nowhereland on the West Side. Nowhereland is now making way for what promises to be 16 new buildings, including some 4,000 new apartments, a school, parkland and upward of 55,000 jobs. Slightly more than 10 percent of those apartments will be subsidized housing (some 430 apartments), with more such housing underway or already built by the developers off site — 1,309 subsidized apartments in total.

Now occupying the eastern end of the rail yards, the project will ultimately cover 28 acres when the western half is finished — an undertaking that has preoccupied two of the world’s largest private real estate developers, Related Companies, led by its chairman, Stephen M. Ross, and Oxford Properties Group.

The rail yards before development, with Penn Station and Madison Square Garden behind.
Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

Already, a who’s who of blue-chip hedge funds, law firms and other corporations — SAP, KKR, BlackRock, Wells Fargo, L’Oréal USA, the list goes on — have chosen to move in or will do, when yet another giant office tower, now underway, is completed. WarnerMedia and CNN are migrating from the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, Related’s earlier high-end, mixed-use, mall-centered venture. Star chefs, including Thomas Keller and David Chang (also Columbus Circle tenants), will run restaurants at Hudson Yards, where Neiman Marcus, Cartier, Dior, Gucci, Fendi and more of the usual suspects hope to defy obvious retail trends.

Not yet joining the caravan are companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook. Related’s antiseptic, inward-turning, glass-tower formula doesn’t seem to speak to the tastes of cutting edge industries or younger, urban-minded millennials.

Ninety percent of Hudson Yards’ office tenants, according to a recent study by the New School, are also transfers from Midtown, lured by lucrative tax breaks provided by New York politicians to the developers. Moving from Midtown, the investment company BlackRock, which manages $5.98 trillion, will be able to write off $25 million in state tax credits if it adds 700 jobs at Hudson Yards.

The terms du jour are corporate welfare or socialism for billionaires. City officials sold Hudson Yards to New Yorkers as a self-financing venture. That’s not what it may sound like. The city and state provided tax incentives and poured billions of public dollars into an extension of the No. 7 subway line and into acres of open space around the yards — investments presumably benefiting everyone, which the project is supposed to pay back by increasing New York’s GDP.

We’ll see how and when that happens. As the New School study documents, so far the project is shifting economic development from other neighborhoods to Hudson Yards without creating new net growth.

That said, this shift has spurred more developers to build their own mega-towers near the yards. A new place is emerging.

The question is, what sort of place?

And this is the immediate problem with Hudson Yards.

It offers 14 acres of public open space in return for privatizing the last precious undeveloped parcel of significant size in Manhattan. But the open space looks like it may end up being mostly a fancy drive-through drop-off for the shopping mall, a landscaped plaza overshadowed by office towers and, for the coming western yards, a scattering of high-rise apartment buildings around a lawn — in effect, a version of a 1950s towers-in-the-park housing complex, except designed by big-name architects.

And while those apartment buildings look to be less enormous than the supertalls that have gone up so far, stepping down toward the river, the whole site lacks any semblance of human scale. With its focus on the buildings’ shiny envelopes, on the monotony of reflective blue glass and the sheen of polished wood, brass, leather, marble and stone, Hudson Yards glorifies a kind of surface spectacle — as if the peak ambitions of city life were consuming luxury goods and enjoying a smooth, seductive, mindless materialism.

It gives physical form to a crisis of city leadership, asleep at the wheel through two administrations, and to a pernicious theory of civic welfare that presumes private development is New York’s primary goal, the truest measure of urban vitality and health, with money the city’s only real currency.

The triumph of this view is a consequence of government’s dwindling capacity to plan, build or repair anything significant itself. City Hall, which demonstrates no grasp of urban design, doesn’t do planning, vaguely requiring half the acreage at Hudson Yards be open space but leaving Mr. Ross to decide what that means.

He hired architects at Kohn Pedersen Fox, the global firm, to come up with a masterplan but clearly they just did what he wanted, starting with the design of a superblock along 10th Avenue.

Architecturally, details deserve shout-outs, like the curved steel window frames at 35 and the V-shaped limestone crotch where the Shed intersects the tower. I like how the angled limestone slabs decorating 55 make the facade seems to shift between stone and glass as one passes the building; how the podiums of 35 and 55 play off each other, and how the chamfered base of 10 cedes the stage to a spur of the High Line, making the skyscraper suddenly appear to step back on tiptoe.

Where the Shed meets the tower at 15 Hudson Yards.
Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

But details are details. Over all, Hudson Yards epitomizes a skin-deep view of architecture as luxury branding. Each building exists to act like a logo for itself. The assortment suggests so many crowded perfume bottles vying for attention in a department store window display.

Which was the point, I gather. Although Mr. Ross owns the Miami Dolphins football franchise, and so presumably knows that all-star games tend to be duds and teamwork wins championships, Hudson Yards derives from a conviction that high-end tenants demand distinct, name-brand buildings.

When we met the other day, the developer reeled off the architects for those western yards. They include Frank Gehry, Herzog and de Meuron, Santiago Calatrava and Robert A.M. Stern.

The obvious precedent here is Rockefeller Center, completed during the 1930s, the last comparable development in Midtown Manhattan. According to Daniel Okrent, who wrote the definitive history, Rockefeller Center entailed “not a scintilla of public land, public money, or public oversight.” It employed a variety of architects. But one of them, Raymond Hood, was very much in charge.

Andrew Aitchison/Getty Images

What resulted is an object lesson in urban design and a landmark of modern art and architecture, a development ingeniously, democratically woven into the fabric of the street grid. At a glance, Rockefeller Center looks unified because of all the masonry construction and Art Deco details. But the real source of its coherence is its plan.

From his earliest sketches, Hood made the center’s choreography of massing — the dramatic sequencing of low-, medium- and high-rise buildings — the bedrock of that plan. All the parts work in harmony to create a singular place inseparable from the rest of the city. Think of the famous landscaped passage from Fifth Avenue down to the skating rink, which frames the view of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the tallest building, around which the entire project revolves.

Rae Russel/Getty Images

Hood grasped the difference between scale and size — how a site with multiple entrances needs to be orchestrated from many angles, how architecture without urban design is just sculpture, how true art enhances the dignity of a place, and how the success of a neighborhood and its retail businesses come down to what’s happening at street level.

Hudson Yards barely acknowledges any of these things.

During the 1950s and early ’60s, residents of Greenwich Village, the neighborhood where I grew up, grumbled about the destruction of tenements and other old buildings south of Washington Square Park to make way for superblocks and apartment towers called Washington Square Village and University Village.

To older Villagers, like my parents and my aunt and uncle, the big blocks and towers looked oppressive and monolithic, defying the scale, character and diversity of the area.

But by the time I was a boy, the superblocks and towers were facts of life, where my friends lived and I enjoyed riding the elevator to the top floors to get bird’s eye views of my home a few blocks away. The neighborhood gradually accommodated. The towers (by James Ingo Freed at I.M. Pei & Associates, with a public sculpture based on a work by Picasso) are now justly landmarked.

Healthy cities are adaptive organisms. If New Yorkers take to the Shed and eat at the mall, Hudson Yards may come to seem less like some gated community in Singapore. Much will depend on Thomas Woltz, from the landscape architecture firm Nelson Byrd Woltz, whose task is to counteract all the glass, steel, shade, concrete, gigantism and randomness.

He is in charge of open space. Mr. Woltz is planting trees and shade-tolerant shrubs and perennials. He has conceived a huge Spirograph of elliptical planters, made of hand-chiseled granite blocks, which circumnavigate Mr. Heatherwick’s Vessel.

Like the Nazca Lines in Peru, the ellipses can’t really be read except from above, but on the ground their curves — like everything at the yards, expensively crafted — are devised to play off all the hard edges and provide seating. Bald cypress and black gum trees should add a horticultural canopy that gestures toward human scale.

Up in the sky, Hudson Yards’ observation deck may also become an attraction — a triangular platform, 1,100 feet high, theatrically cantilevered from the top of 30, with bleachers that provide an even loftier view. It opens next year.

I got a preview the other day. It’s one of the most amazing vistas over the city. I gazed north toward Harlem, gaped at the Empire State Building, and took in Lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty.

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