Standing in the stone-slab central courtyard of 30 Hudson Yards, I’m dwarfed by the skyscrapers around me casting the plaza in shade. Every tree and pathway seems meticulously designed to fit in with the rest of the development, which began construction in 2012. The twenty-five billion dollar project is undeniably impressive in its scale; I can’t help but gawk in awe at the seventy-story buildings and the sleek modernity of their architecture, providing a glimpse into a future for cities that seems to come straight out of a science fiction novel. Even the subway station was spotless – something felt distinctly un-New York about stepping off the 7 train and onto the platform, not a rat or discarded sandwich in sight. The High Line hugs the southern end of the site and snakes around to 12th Avenue, seamlessly connecting the development with the ever-popular pedestrian highway that seems to act almost as a shuttle between Hudson Yards and the more established centers of trendiness downtown. In the center of the courtyard lies The Vessel, a russet-colored metal structure that serves as an interactive artwork for visitors. Tourists crowd its stairways that lead nowhere, trying to get better vantage points from which to view the development and take pictures. It looks like some otherworldly, massive jewelry piece one would expect to find in the 720,000-square-foot shopping mall that lies nestled between two of the larger buildings of the site. The seven-story structure houses luxury brands such as Neiman Marcus, Cartier, and Dior, among others. Looking around, you can see that the mega-block on which the complex is located covers up part of the rail yards leading towards Penn Station and New York’s vast network of subway tunnels. Turning towards the Hudson, I can still see a section of the train yard that remains exposed. Soon it, too, will be hidden away underneath a platform that will support yet another array of residential and commercial skyscrapers – the second phase of Hudson Yards, to start construction in 2025.
I’ve lived in Chelsea all my life. I remember the High Line opening and thinking how cool it was that an abandoned railroad had been transformed into a park – I could walk on the same train tracks that huge cargo freights travelled through the heart of the city on, eighty years in the past. My mom is involved in the art world, so although we live on Seventh Avenue, I would frequently head over to the West Side to accompany her on a visit to any number of the dozens of art galleries in the area. Often we’d pair it with a stroll on the High Line, heading a few blocks south to Chelsea Market to grab a bite to eat. The transformation I witnessed over the span of a couple years was astounding – real estate developments shot up left and right of the elevated railway, seemingly for no other reason than that it was there.
The High Line’s success and widespread popularity allowed it to expand further north, heading all the way up to 34th Street. The Hudson Yards development seemed like an extension of the changes the park was bringing in its wake wherever it carved through the city. It too was constructed in a surprisingly short period of time; change I could track easily on my commute to school up the West Side Highway every day. Each day would provide me with another snapshot of the progress being made on the development – a new floor being set in place one day, glass panes the next week, a crane being taken down as final touches were being put on the building a few months later. Hudson Yards transformed much in the three or four block radius surrounding it. What used to be mostly warehouses and storage facilities has turned into luxury condos mimicking the glamorous lifestyle that their larger real-estate development neighbor to the west advertises. The changes that Hudson Yards brought upon the neighborhood leaves me wondering how it came to be in the first place – not its physical expansion, but the actual thought process that went into the project and what its developers envisioned for the area it now occupies.
The West Side Yard was constructed in 1986 to store and perform maintenance checks on commuter rails owned by the MTA. The twenty-six-acre space remained the last significant parcel of undeveloped land in Manhattan until a proposal was made for the construction of a stadium on top of the rail yards in New York City’s bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games. The bid failed, but developers became interested in the area and the city rezoned the site for mixed-use development. With this came a host of proposed visions for the rail yards by a number of real estate developers. Many incorporated designs that emphasized a central strip of parkland surrounded by buildings that provided residential and commercial space. Almost all stressed public access to the area, their sketched plans showing families lounging on lawns and children playing with frisbees in a central plaza surrounded by skyscrapers. The MTA, in charge of selecting the plan they thought the most economically viable for the space, settled on a design spearheaded by Related Companies, a firm that manages an array of real estate assets worth over sixty billion dollars. In their portrayal of the development, Related put forward an elaborate vision for luxury living that they make little attempt to hide is meant for the ultrarich. Hudson Yards advertises itself as a “city within a city,” containing all that one could possibly wish for in urban living: offices, stores, parks, restaurants, “residences” – their rebranding of the word apartment for an audience looking for something a little more “exotic” – and yes, even a school. While doing my research, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between much of the way Hudson Yards was being portrayed and the vision Robert Moses had for many of his developments. As it turns out, I wasn’t the only one to have made this connection.
Stephen Ross is the 78-year-old multi-billionaire chairman of Related Companies and the man responsible for overseeing the construction of Hudson Yards. An article in New York Magazine declared him to be “the most powerful man in New York, a Robert Moses for our age of concierge mega-urbanism,” a designation that conveys his importance in the success of the largest private real estate development in the United States and the power it has given him in the city’s real estate industry. Winning the bidding process for the development just as the stock market crashed in 2008, Ross deftly navigated the financial crisis and secured big name brands including Coach and L’Oréal as future tenants in the commercial space of his plan for Hudson Yards. He then looked towards the central courtyard, rejecting dozens of prototypes for park and sculpture designs until finally settling on the proposal of The Vessel, by English designer Thomas Heatherwick. Ross loved it so much he was willing to spend $150 million on it, and boldly claimed that “it will be to New York what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris.” That certainly appears to be along the lines of how Hudson Yards chooses to advertise itself. The development insists on the cultural stimulation it brings to the city, championing a building in the complex called the “Shed” as a 170,000 square-foot “arts center for the 21st century.” The sleek website boasts about offering office space for lease alongside the likes of Facebook, capable of hosting over 40,000 workers by the time it opens. It calls the Vessel “Manhattan’s latest can’t-miss destination,” and upon its completion (along with the first phase of the Hudson Yards development) organized an opening ceremony that involved a celebration with speeches by Chuck Schumer and performances by Alvin Ailey and professional choirs.
All this came with astonishingly large subsidies and unwavering support from the city itself: Hudson Yards was awarded $1.4 billion in tax breaks and an additional four billion dollars that came from other city-sponsored investments in the development. This dwarfs the three billion dollars in subsidies that Amazon was offered to establish their new headquarters in Queens, and was made possible partially because of the lack of public attention (and outcry) it received in comparison to Amazon’s HQ2. The city clearly seemed to think Hudson Yards was worth the price – it argues the benefits provided by the development in two separate documents totalling 92 pages of details on the project and its future usage. In addition to these, the site is championed in the government-sponsored “Official Guide to New York City” where it is listed among the top must-see attractions: “[Hudson Yards] is home to more than 100 diverse shops and culinary experiences; offices for leaders in industry; significant public art… dynamic cultural institutions… modern residences; 14 acres of public plazas… and the world’s first Equinox Hotel.” In an impassioned introduction to the government report on the project, the justification for the development is outlined through estimates that in New York City, “there will be the need to accommodate over 440,000 new workers, requiring 111 million square feet of new [office] space by 2025.” Enter Hudson Yards: in addition to the 40,000 workers it is estimated to bring in, the development is projected to create 10.4 million square feet of commercial office space by the time of its completion. The project’s website additionally claims that it “will contribute nearly nineteen billion dollars annually to New York City’s Gross Domestic Product, accounting for two and a half percent of the citywide GDP.” It’s phrased as an investment in the future and the citizens of New York, and I can’t help but think of the way it’s being advertised as practically like a charity organization, under construction for the good of all.
There’s no doubt that Hudson Yards will provide unprecedented amounts of office and residential space on a significant parcel of land that was previously undeveloped (save for a train yard), but significant skepticism surrounds the claims that it will bring in billions to the economy, benefitting New Yorkers and improving various aspects of life in the city. While the developers were forced by the city to provide a minimum number of affordable housing options, by the time of completion there will only be 400 of these units out of a total of just over 4,000 apartments in the complex – less than ten percent. They will contain amenities separate from those belonging to the other ninety percent of “residences,” including gyms and laundry rooms but lacking incredibly over-the-top options such as spas, movie theaters, dining rooms, and a golf lounge with a fully-outfitted simulator. As for the market-rate housing options? Apartments will range in price from four million dollars to upwards of thirty-two million dollars, says a report from Forbes Magazine. Challenging the statements made by Related that Hudson Yards would be a significant boon to New York’s economy comes an extensive study done by researchers at the New School, which found that the development in fact returned a net loss to the city of $2.2 billion, rather than being the self-financing project it claimed to be. Ninety percent of office tenants in Hudson Yards, it says, are drawn from other areas of the city, mostly Midtown – this means that the development, instead of creating new economic growth for New York, is merely shifting existing economic activity away from other neighborhoods and towards Hudson Yards.
Stephen Ross’ master project is not the utopian vision for the future of New York it poses as. As Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times so accurately put it, Hudson Yards “is, at heart, a supersized suburban-style office park, with a shopping mall and a quasi-gated condo community targeted at the 0.1 percent… It offers 14 acres of public open space in return for privatizing the last precious undeveloped parcel of significant size in Manhattan… [It] 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 is a private space masquerading as a public one, challenging the narrative of cities as inclusive, diverse spaces where all are welcome. And there is yet more to come – what’s been constructed so far is only the first half of the development; the Western Yard is set to open later in the decade. The success Related Companies found with Hudson Yards is no doubt likely to inspire the establishment and expansion of similar developments around the city. We see such trends occuring in other parts of New York such as Long Island City and Billionaire’s Row, and I can’t help but wonder what it means for the fate of New York City and the people who live here. “The obvious precedent here,” Kimmelman writes, is “Rockefeller Center, completed during the 1930s [and] the last comparable development in Midtown Manhattan.” In contrast to Hudson Yards’ blatant refusal to interact with its surroundings, critics praised the project’s 20th-century counterpart for its seamless integration with the city around it. They argue that Rockefeller Center’s designers “seemed to have regarded urban life as an enhanceable romance,” and what makes it work is that “it is at once a formal Beaux–Arts–influenced complex of dignified towers and a lively, utterly contemporary amalgam of shops, plazas and street life… Few designs can join such disparate worlds so comfortably.” Each section of the complex works harmoniously together, creating a space that feels inseparable from the rest of the city. Hudson Yards ignores almost all of these principles. Near the top of the tallest building in the development sits an observation deck that offers sweeping views of the city, 1,100 feet below. Although I wasn’t able to visit since it doesn’t open for another couple months, Kimmelman was offered a preview of the attraction, and jumped on the opportunity:
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.
New York is awesome, I thought.
Then it occurred to me.
From that deck, you can’t see Hudson Yards.
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