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Inside NYC’s $20 Billion Quest To Build A Neighborhood From Scratch

Can you create that buzzy neighborhood feel in 17.4 million square feet and 28 acres? Manhattan is about to find out.

A motley group of journalists is clustered in a conference room on the far west end of 33rd Street in Manhattan, about to embark on a press tour of Hudson Yards, the $20 billion plan to build a neighborhood from scratch. Before we don our hard hats and day-glo orange vests, we’re shown an inspirational video. The spot, made by Related-Oxford,* starts by evoking the essence of New York as a series of quick cuts –skyline shot with sun glinting off building, weary man sipping coffee, jogger on bridge–cued to inoffensive music. It could be an ad for American Express. The voiceover comes in: “They say you can tell you’ve become a real New Yorker the minute you stop looking up.”

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As the video progresses, we discover that looking up is actually a good thing. Looking up is for “anyone wide eyed enough to believe that New York still lives up to its namesake, as someplace new.” Then, as the music quickens, we suddenly catch a glimpse of the exotic, oddly jaggy office towers that will eventually rise from a platform constructed above Penn Station’s westside rail yards. Hudson Yards, the “largest private real estate development in the history of the United States,” with more than a dozen towers, a seven-level shopping mall, and a kunsthalle called the Culture Shed that’s supposed to expand and contract like a Slinky, is cast as a “neighborhood to explore” (like Nolita or Sunset Park) or “a place to get lost in.” Or as Jay Cross, former president of the New York Jets, who heads the project for The Related Companies, asserts, “It’s much more than a real estate project.”

Well, yes and no. It’s very much a real estate project, but with 17.4 million square feet stretched over 28 acres, it’s so ambitious that it makes other notable undertakings shrink in comparison. The World Trade Center, after all, covers only 16 acres and Rockefeller Center, 22. (On the other hand, it’s modest in comparison to Asia’s built-from-scratch areas like South Korea’s Songdo, covering 1,500 acres reclaimed from the sea or Business Bay in Dubai, a district consisting of hundreds of new buildings, not just a dozen.)

The site is currently a sunken 30-track rail yard completed in 1987 as a holding area for the Long Island Railroad’s commuter trains. Below those tracks are three active train tunnels carrying commuters in and out of Penn Station, one of New York’s central transit hubs, two blocks east. Since the 1990s, the yards have been in play as a potential development site. Under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the area was viewed as a likely site for a football stadium, and a potential venue for the 2012 Summer Olympics, should New York be selected. This passion transferred from Giuliani to his successor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The Hudson Yards project had the misfortune of being shackled to the huge stadium until 2005, when, after endless controversy, the state legislature denied approval on the project and the International Olympics Committee balked. Today, the Western Yard is more reasonably reserved for a cluster of residential towers, a public school and one office tower, all of which will be mapped out later.

What’s currently underway is the Eastern Yard, master-planned by Kohn Pedersen Fox, an architecture firm headquartered on West 42nd street, known lately for Asian mega projects such as the 101 story Shanghai World Financial Center and the master plan for Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills. A 52-story, KPF-designed tower, with Coach as the anchor tenant, is scheduled for completion next year with the rest rising over the next five years. The Eastern Yard consists of towers, mostly commercial, that have been liberated, architecturally speaking, by the fact that they’re not in midtown or the financial district, shoehorned between other buildings. Towers by KPF, David Childs of SOM, and Diller Scofidio Renfro with the Rockwell Group are distinguished by irregular angles, spikes, and bulges. In renderings, they look like the skyscrapers that the firms in question would crank out for their clients in Dubai.

The funny thing about the tour was that there wasn’t much reason to look up. We picked our way through a very active construction site, keeping a close eye on the detritus underfoot. We encountered some of the 300 massive steel caissons being sunk to support the platform and towers, and we looked down at the impressive $180 million concrete tube Amtrak is burying beneath the development (in the hope that New Jersey will someday agree to building new rail tunnel under the Hudson). We rode a construction elevator up to the highest completed floor of 10 Hudson Yards (roughly the 10th of 52 stories) and took in the panorama: in the foreground was a tantalizingly complete stretch (scheduled to open in the fall) of the High Line, the abandoned rail line turned phenomenally popular elevated park, and, way to the north, was the transparent, biosphere-like entry of a new station (designed by Dattner Architects) for the extension of the 7 subway line. In between, it’s all rail yards. Not much else to see yet. Whether this will someday be, as Cross promises, a “buzzy” neighborhood with “appeal to the millennial worker” is impossible to determine.

Built-from-scratch neighborhoods are not often convincingly urban. They typically lack the spirited street life (and genuinely public space) that gives New York City its life. What may prevent this development from feeling canned–like Manhattan’s answer to Dubai or Shanghai–is the quality of the design at ground level (or, actually, platform level). The fact that the final section of the High Line snakes under KPF’s 10 Hudson Yards (Coach, Inc.’s new headquarters) and wraps around the site gives the development a modicum of street cred and connects the towers physically and spiritually to all the other novel buildings that have sprung up along the elevated park. The six acres of outdoor space surrounding the eastern towers are being landscaped by Thomas Woltz of Nelson Byrd Woltz, whose website speaks of “dramatic fountains and a monumental piece of public art and bold seasonally expressive horticulture.” The wild card here, the thing that might make this expanse of greenery a genuine draw, is Woltz’s collaboration with one of London’s most original thinkers, Thomas Heatherwick, best known for his Rolling Bridge. Heatherwick will be largely responsible for that monumental art work, one that, if done right, could become the focal point of Hudson Yards and, like Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago, an attraction in itself.

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Which just goes to show that how the towers behave on the skyline is less essential to the development’s emergence as a real place than how compelling it is for a pedestrian wandering in from, say, the new 7 train station. Looking up is great, but looking around is even better.

*An earlier version of this article mistakenly attributed the video to Visual House. We regret the error.

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About the author

Karrie Jacobs is a professional observer of the man-made landscape. She's a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure and Architect magazine and is a faculty member at SVA's graduate program in Design Research

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