Hudson Yards: A City Within a City
Land where there was none before. A careful ratio of places to live, work, eat and recline on lawns. A sense of being in New York, but not quite of it.
At first blush, Hudson Yards and Battery Park City, cities-within-a-city on the western edge of Manhattan, would seem kindred spirits.
But Hudson Yards, which is to wrap up by 2026, will have taken 18 years to complete its gleaming clump along 10th Avenue — and it remains to be seen how quickly the rest of the neighborhood will develop. Battery Park City, which lumbered across the finish line in 2011, took 45 years to fully form.
Battery Park City stretches across more space along the Hudson River in the financial district, but a similar number of buildings make up the two master-planned, mixed-use communities, which have both also enjoyed tax breaks and other public benefits.
Why Hudson Yards was able to come together quickly, relatively speaking, has a lot do with how the approach to creating whole-cloth neighborhoods has changed over the years, as the private sector has stepped in to fill voids left by the government, according to city officials, brokers and developers.
But also, vibes have changed. What was architecturally appealing a few decades ago now seems staid. Planners say that if the past was about fitting in, the present is all about standing out. In the end, they add, Battery Park City and Hudson Yards represent very different theories about development.
“Hudson Yards represents the 21st century, and Battery Park City represents the end of the 20th century,” said Mitchell L. Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University. “They are just totally different.”
Both Hudson Yards and Battery Park City hatched from efforts to remake once-industrial areas that were not living up to their potential.
Dirt unearthed during the construction of the first World Trade Center in the mid-1960s, plus sandier fill, allowed Battery Park City to essentially be sewn onto the edge of Manhattan, creating a bumped-out shoreline where rotting piers for fruit and vegetable shipments had stood before.
But to make the 92-acre swath more than just a park required a huge investment: in sea walls, water pipes and electrical lines. And constructing that infrastructure fell to the state, which had to borrow a lot of money to make it happen. In 1972, the Hugh L. Carey Battery Park City Authority, the neighborhood’s quasi-public governing body, had to sell $200 million in state-guaranteed bonds — considering inflation, about $1.2 billion in 2019 dollars — to set the table for development.
But by 1979, there was still almost nothing to show for it. (The barren and beachy terrain drew sunbathers for years.)
With payments on those bonds coming due, and little in revenue to pay its debt, the Authority had to sell even more bonds, $65 million worth, to avoid default. Doubling down on their bet, officials were buying time until rent-producing structures went up. It wasn’t until 1982 that the first building, the Gateway apartment complex, with 1,712 units, opened.
Hoping to avoid another dragged-out process, the city took a different tack with Hudson Yards, a 28-acre parcel being developed by the Related Companies and Oxford Properties Group at the heart of the neighborhood of the same name, where other projects are also underway.
Most of the Hudson Yards site is ribbed with railroad tracks, by way of the John D. Caemmerer West Side Storage Yard, where Long Island Rail Road trains rest before heading back to Nassau County.
To create the development site, the tracks had to be covered. But the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which controls the property, wisely avoided building that platform itself, said Tom Wright, the president and chief executive of the Regional Plan Association, an urban research group.
By punting to Related and Oxford, which paid $1 billion for the rights to the site and built the deck, the M.T.A. made sure taxpayers wouldn’t be on the hook, said Mr. Wright, whose group supports the project.
“Battery Park City required the public to take on a lot more risk,” he said. But with the Hudson Yards model, “whether Related goes belly up, or not, is not our problem.”
Other Advantages for Hudson Yards
As a private entity, Related, the lead developer, was also able to work relatively quickly and avoid being subjected to shifts in public opinion. If the M.T.A. had been responsible for building the platform, for example, a subway crisis might easily have diverted its attention and stalled the project.
A bit of forethought also worked in the project’s favor. In the 1980s, when the Transportation Authority was undertaking a $196 million project to turn a defunct freight depot into the 30-track Hudson Yards rail yard, Richard Ravitch, who was then the chairman, realized the air above the new yard had great potential.
So he added enough space between the tracks to allow columns to stand between them, while also fortifying the ground to support huge weights. The groundwork for Hudson Yards was laid.
In 2008, the state received six proposals to develop the site and initially awarded development rights to Tishman Speyer, which controls Rockefeller Center. But as the Great Recession gathered steam, Tishman, which lost a key anchor tenant, Morgan Stanley, soon backed out, and Related took over.
Having fewer people calling the shots may also have helped. Battery Park City was constructed by a parade of companies, including Milstein Properties, LeFrak Organization and Zeckendorf, plus commercial builders.
But Hudson Yards is the result of a single company, which is a huge advantage, said Daniel L. Doctoroff, the deputy mayor under Michael Bloomberg who pushed hard for the rezoning that created Hudson Yards as part of the city’s unsuccessful bid for the 2012 Olympics.
“What’s very different is that one developer built the commercial and residential and retail space,” said Mr. Doctoroff, who has firsthand knowledge of both places. Early in his career, he worked at 200 Vesey Street in Battery Park City for Lehman Brothers, the investment bank that was one of the neighborhood’s first office tenants. He is now chief executive of Sidewalk Labs, a city-focused technology company headquartered at 10 Hudson Yards, the area’s first commercial tower.
As part of the Olympics proposal, a football stadium that would have become the home of the New York Jets would have been built on the western half of the train yards, but state officials spiked the plan in 2005 in the face of community opposition.
Mr. Doctoroff said he is still proud that the rezoning of the broader Hudson Yards neighborhood has allowed warehouses, parking lots and billboards to give way to stylish modern towers.
The Evolution of Battery Park City
While Battery Park City may embody the lessons of the urbanist Jane Jacobs, who favored short blocks, Hudson Yards can feel derived from her opposite, master builder Robert Moses, whose approach was often big and muscular.
The fits-and-starts history of Battery Park City is also evident in its varied designs.
Plans for Battery Park City went through multiple iterations. It started with a 1966 “towers in the park” plan for apartment buildings to house World Trade Center employees that Ada Louise Huxtable, the architecture critic for The New York Times, called “sterile high-rise towers in vacuous open space.” The plan estimated about 90,000 residents, a far cry from the 16,000 there today.
By 1969, the Authority had scrapped that plan in favor of a more architecturally ambitious one, from Philip Johnson and other architects, that featured a mix of six-sided towers and smaller buildings with walls that sloped like pyramids. A third version in the 1970s added more offices, but was revised again in 1979 because corporations had started migrating to the suburbs to escape a crime-troubled metropolis.
“I think the original designers were people that didn’t like the city very much, because they kept giving a cleaned-up view of what the city could be,” said Stan Eckstut, the architect who, along with Alexander Cooper, was tapped for that fourth version.
Aiming for a traditional extension of Manhattan, Mr. Eckstut aligned streets with existing ones in the financial district, while creating small blocks, in a Jacobs-type gesture.
Today, Battery Park City is probably best known for its brick-and-stone buildings, many from the 1980s, after developers finally came around, although there are exceptions, like the parabolic Visionaire, a condo high-rise built in 2008. The last two apartment buildings to go up, in 2011, were the rentals Liberty Luxe and Liberty Green.
Many blocks have an unvarying appearance, the urban equivalent of a subdivision, and critics have pounced on that conformity.
Rent-regulated housing is a modest percentage of the total. But a portion of payments collected by the Authority — residents don’t pay property taxes, but fees that are similar — goes to New York City to be spent on affordable housing development elsewhere in the city, though it has been tapped for other purposes. Last year, the city took in $197 million, according to the Authority.
People who work in Battery Park City are clustered in Brookfield Place, a warren of interconnected office buildings interspersed with shops formerly known as the World Financial Center, whose enclosed, climate-controlled walkways evoke, in a sense, Johnson’s vision. Also inside is the Winter Garden, an airy, skylighted space with 16 palm trees that holds events like Best Brews, a New York-focused craft-beer tasting.
In 2015, after a four-year, $300 million effort, landlord Brookfield Properties revealed a renovation of the retail spaces, including Le District, a 30,000-square-foot French-style market and Hudson Eats, a food hall dedicated to New York-only restaurants.
Brookfield also installed high-end shops, but the mall’s anchor tenant, a multilevel Saks Fifth Avenue department store, closed this winter after less than two years. Competition for upscale shoppers is stiff because Westfield, a sprawling mall in the nearby Oculus transportation hub, is a quick walk away.
Outdoor green spaces include Teardrop Park, whose rocky walls recall the Catskills, and Rockefeller Park, whose wide-open lawns offer Hudson views.
“The sentiment seems the same between us and Hudson Yards. It’s ‘I want to be in a Manhattan that doesn’t feel like Manhattan,’” said Wesley Stanton, a salesman with Douglas Elliman Real Estate.
“But from a sales perspective, it’s very different,” Mr. Stanton said. While apartments at 15 Hudson Yards, a condo that opened this winter, average $3,300 a square foot, he noted, prices in Battery Park City are lower, as at the Ritz-Carlton condo, where units average $2,300 a square foot.
From a Train Depot to High-End Shopping
The blocks at Hudson Yards, by contrast, don’t feel as plugged into the street grid. The view ahead when walking west on West 31st Street, which ends at the development, is of the site’s soaring seven-story mall and the tall logo of its most prominent tenant, Neiman Marcus.
Streets like West 33rd will eventually bisect the site, and there are other ways in. But the site poses an inconvenient hindrance, in the form of that platform, which in places is the equivalent of three stories in the air, Mr. Doctoroff said. If parts of the site feel like a Moses-style superblock akin to Lincoln Center, that’s likely the explanation, he added.
Since 2012, when Related broke ground, buildings have been slow to arrive. But last month, much of the first phase, between 10th and 11th Avenues and West 30th and West 32nd Streets, opened to the public. The second phase stretches west to the West Side Highway, and the platform over that portion of the rail yards has yet to be built.
Inside the mall, upscale shops like Cartier, Rolex and Molton Brown line conventional-looking corridors. Dining options seem light years ahead of the food courts of old, including Thomas Keller’s TAK Room, David Chang’s Kawi and the Drug Store, a “nonalcoholic bar.” There is also a compact outpost of Citarella, the gourmet grocery chain, while Battery Park City leans on a pair of Gristedes.
Trees and greenery, for now, are limited. But public spaces that recently opened include Vessel, a shiny sculpture that encourages climbing, and the Shed, an all-purpose and telescoping arts center.
There was hardly free rein at the site, said Marianne Kwok, a director of the architecture firm KPF, which has worked from the get-go on the platform, site plan and buildings. Designers had to sift through “two telephone-book-size books of rules and regulations,” said Ms. Kwok, who analyzed Battery Park City, among other neighborhoods, for inspiration.
Unlike in Battery Park City, each Hudson Yards building had to have a singular appearance; some towers angle and others curve. Every corporate tenant “wants to have brand,” Ms. Kwok said. Indeed, Hudson Yards is also a far cry from the homogeneous Rockefeller Center, the 1930s complex considered a master-planning pinnacle. “Individuality is now what’s desired,” she said.
It may be working. A hefty 82 percent of the office spaces in the eastern half of the site, which is mostly commercial buildings, has been spoken for, even though some of the buildings are not yet open, according to Related.
Tackling mostly offices first was an important decision, Mr. Moss said. “The game plan is genius,” he said, adding that an office tower can be filled with a handful of tenants, unlike an apartment building, which needs hundreds of them and can take much longer to fill.
BATTERY PARK CITY*
18 million sq. ft.**
20.8 million sq. ft.
30 Hudson Yards,
at 1,296 feet
200 West Street,
at 749 feet
Coach, BlackRock, WarnerMedia
Goldman Sachs, American
Express, Bank of America
Neiman Marcus, Citarella, H&M
Louis Vuitton, Hermès, J. Crew
TAK Room, Mercado Little Spain,
Le District, Blue Smoke,
The Shed, Vessel
Museum of Jewish Heritage,
Irish Hunger Memorial
2010, ground lease signed
1968, Battery Park City
2019, at15 Hudson Yards
1982, at Gateway Plaza
The New York Yankees eyed
the area for a stadium in the 1920s.
The area, a produce-shipping
hub, was part of the
city’s Little Syria district.
18 million sq. ft.**
30 Hudson Yards, at 1,296 feet
Neiman Marcus, Citarella, H&M
TAK Room, Mercado Little Spain, Queensyard
The Shed, Vessel
2010, ground lease signed
2019, at15 Hudson Yards
The New York Yankees eyed the area for a stadium in the 1920s.
20.8 million sq. ft.
200 West Street, at 749 feet
Goldman Sachs, American Express, Bank of America
Louis Vuitton, Hermès, J. Crew
Le District, Blue Smoke, P.J. Clarke’s
Museum of Jewish Heritage, Irish Hunger Memorial
1968, Battery Park City Authority formed
The area, a produce-shipping hub, was part of the city’s Little Syria district.
Total built space
First major step
First residents arrived
Now Related has a nice critical mass to publicize the residential buildings on the unbuilt western half, he said, dismissing criticisms that the affluent enclave is not for everyday New Yorkers: “They took a rail yard and made it a productive part of the city’s economy.”
Overall, Related will have to build 1,300 units of housing that are affordable, or reserved for those in certain income brackets. Those units can be built on site or elsewhere.
Less public money has flowed to Hudson Yards, the development, than to Battery Park City, but the amount spent in the neighborhood has not been insignificant. The city has had to pay $359 million in interest on bonds for infrastructure projects, although property taxes are supposed to start covering that debt now that buildings are open.
Assessing the success of the condos is tougher. The first building, 15 Hudson Yards, went on the market two and a half years ago, and is only 60 percent sold. And 35 Hudson Yards began selling its units, which start at $5 million, in March.
Battery Park City has a ferry stop, but no subway service. But at Hudson Yards, a four-year-old 7 train stop is on site. Brokers remain confident that the subway service will be key to the project’s success, even as critics have called the $2.4 billion transit project, which sits near several Related buildings, a pricey subsidy.
Criticism of change doesn’t surprise Roger Del Valle, a prop stylist who has lived in Manhattan since 1995 and owns a studio in the Flatiron district, but is hunting for a home in Hudson Yards.
“I know people have mixed feelings about Hudson Yards,” said Mr. Del Valle, who has visited the mall and enjoys its “spark.” “But it’s a part of New York City now. And ignoring it is not going to make it go away.”
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Published at Fri, 05 Apr 2019 09:00:19 +0000