A New City on the Hudson River

Today, on this Ides of March, the public spaces of Hudson Yards, that gleaming collection of new skyscrapers in what used to be known as the Far West Side, will finally open to the public. Much is being said about whether the district is well-enough integrated into the urban fabric, whether it received too many subsidies, whether it includes enough affordable housing, and whether the architecture is worthy of New York.

Before we get caught up in the details, let’s first recognize the extraordinary feat that is Hudson Yards: a whole new district is being built over a rail storage yard that is still in active use. Eighteen million square feet of commercial and residential space are rising on a platform that supports 15 acres of public spaces, four office buildings, and ten high-rise residential towers.

A huge new development of this kind is remarkably easy not to pull off. So many things can not go right. But the Bloomberg administration did pull it off, even in the midst of the financial crisis circa 2008. Bloomberg and his Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff saw and understood the interconnected issues of transit, public space, urban design and real estate development. Neither Bloomberg nor Doctoroff were planners or public administrators by training, so their achievement is all the more remarkable.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I recently completed a short-term stint at Sidewalk Labs, located at 10 Hudson Yards, which Doctoroff now leads. I don’t think Sidewalk’s money, now in my rearview mirror, has colored my views, although I certainly enjoyed the ones I had for a while from the 27th floor.)

Rather than apply for federal funding to extend the #7 subway line, which could have taken a decade or more to approve, the Bloomberg administration sold development rights and committed future tax revenues to pay for the capital improvements. They rezoned the entire district around the rail yards to provide a mix of activities, development and public spaces – including the iconic High Line. They assembled a package of financial incentives and solicited bids from several developers. And they built broad public support for this incredibly ambitious undertaking.

Knowing what we know now about how Hudson Yards has turned out, what would we have done differently, and what would we do the same?

First, extending the subway worked, which meant value capture and tax increment financing worked. Yes, the New York City Council has had to pony up almost half a billion dollars to cover debt service when tax revenues did not materialize as fast as anticipated. That’s too bad, but it’s still a low price to pay for the creation of a new subway line that should last a century, if not more. We need more subway lines in this city, and the success of Hudson Yards model should be noted. Even if few neighborhoods or commercial districts can create value approaching what was achieved at Hudson Yards, different types of value capture may be applicable for projects ranging from the Second Avenue Subway to Penn Station to communities that would be served by RPA’s proposed Triboro line. Value capture strategies like this will not replace the need for other public revenues, but they can be an important part of funding new infrastructure. I hope the success of the Hudson Yards will inspire more of these efforts.

The civic sector deserves credit for improving the initial plans, including nudging the Bloomberg administration away from their initial plans to place a football stadium on the western yards. Rather than just oppose everything, local leaders and civic groups put forward reasonable alternatives and found a way to improve plans for the West Side. The result today is strikingly similar to what RPA proposed in 2004. (LINK:http://library.rpa.org/pdf/RPA-Urban-Development-Alternatives-for-the-Hudson-Rail-Yards.pdf)

Back in 2004, many groups also argued that the public sector should control the site and sell off sections piecemeal, as was done at Battery Park City and the World Trade Center. Instead, the site has been developed by a single company, Related, which has created a community that some have called monochromatic. These concerns still resonate, but development on the Hudson Yards required the financing and building of extremely expensive decks over the rail yards. The cost involved in building above the yards was always going to make it very hard – if not impossible – for the community to grow through a slower, more organic process. No entity, public or private, could afford building the decks without immediately commencing on the development. Still, in thinking about future projects, public officials should consider the Battery Park City model and look to retain ownership as much as possible.

From my priorities in urban design, the master plan erred in not installing a more complete street grid. Several of the community-based plans would have extended 32nd Street from the Hudson River over to Penn Station and beyond. Another north-south street through the site would have been good. The grid is the city, and to add to the grid adds to the city. Perhaps there were technical challenges, although a century ago Park Avenue was created over the Grand Central tracks.

Bottom line, the development succeeded because both the public and the private sector managed to put into it a tremendous amount of money. There is certainly a need to scrutinize that investment, particularly on the public side.

The New York Times recently did this with a front-page story about the project, comparing the incentives offered to Amazon to locate its headquarters in Long Island City to the public spending made at what would become Hudson Yards. The article lumped together very different policies: public investments in transit and parks, property tax abatements for the developers, and other tax breaks for tenants.

The development process in New York – and virtually every city in America – includes intense negotiations between the public and private sectors. Communities and the politicians who represent them identify things they need – affordable housing, new parks, improved schools, better roads or connections to transit – and require as much from the developers that they think they can get without sinking the project.

Developers ask for other things in return – taller towers, greater density, changes in allowed uses, assistance with financing, or reduced taxes. Both sides engage in the negotiation because the final product will serve their purposes better than the as-of-right building codes would otherwise allow. We create policies with acronyms like ULURP, MIH and FAR to describe the process. This is how we produce affordable housing, new schools – and iconic architecture.

There is always a concern that the public is giving away more than it should in these negotiations, and the rules and expectations are constantly changing to reflect changing market conditions and public needs. What is our higher priority: affordable housing or transit investments? Should the public ask for more open space or shorter towers? Each generation needs to make its choice and find a way to get what the city needs most at that time. Hudson Yards represents clear decisions; that we need funding for mass transit, offices to attract global businesses, and ambitious architecture to project ourselves into the 21st century. In particular, planners and business groups in the 2000’s were concerned that New York’s aging supply of commercial office space wouldn’t meet the needs of modern businesses, so they advanced plans for the Far West Side, Lower Manhattan, and even East Midtown to promote new construction and add to the city’s supply. The past decade of robust job growth has validated these concerns, even as we work to promote more jobs in other Boroughs and in legacy cities across the region.

So today, as the bands play and New Yorkers ascend the seesaw stairs of the Vessel and we watch the Shed open and close before our incredulous eyes, we should remember the long road taken to build this incredible new piece of New York City. We haven’t seen city-making on such a grand scale since John D. Rockefeller decided to create a city-within-the-city across Fifth Avenue from St. Patrick’s cathedral in the depths of the Great Depression. Perhaps that’s the most New York aspect of Hudson Yards – the pure ambition and scale. My hope and bet is that the world’s greatest city will soon absorb even this monumental project, with its shops, office buildings and cultural monuments, and it will become just another part of the New York City we call home.

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