It’s nearly impossible to talk about Hudson Yards over the phone—or at least, that’s what I’m told by the people who are behind the megaproject. It’s not so much a development, a number of urban planners will explain, as it is an effort in city building.
Hudson Yards is the largest private real estate development in the United States, spanning 28 acres and accommodating upward of 18 million square feet of office, retail, and residential space. It will eventually hold 14 acres of public space, anchored by a public plaza with Thomas Heatherwick’s 150-foot-tall, painted steel “stairway to nowhere” as its centerpiece. There will be more than a dozen buildings, including a number of glassy supertall skyscrapers (one with the city’s highest open-air observation deck). And the whole thing is being constructed on a platform atop the sprawling, still-operating West Side rail yards, with trains passing beneath it every day.
With that in mind, I’m encouraged to ditch a telephone conversation and instead visit the Midtown offices of Kohn Pedersen Fox, the architecture firm that master planned the development, where I can better envision the whole thing. There, KPF design director Marianne Kwok, who has collaborated on the design of Hudson Yards, is ready with a PowerPoint presentation and model of the Eastern Yard, the first phase of the megaproject. She points out nuances in the design of each skyscraper, the well-thought-out entry points from the megaproject to the rest of the city, and where the neighborhood integrates with the High Line. Just outside the conference room where we meet, photographs and renderings plaster the walls of the open office, as if reminding the architects they’re designing an entire neighborhood, not just one or two buildings.
I have to admit: It’s strange looking upon the planning of an entire neighborhood from afar, the grand task of envisioning a piece of the city out of nothing. As the first phase gets closer to completion, Related Companies and Oxford Properties Group, the megaproject’s developers, are making the case to New York they’re building an important—they would also argue authentic—extension of Manhattan. But the question remains: Will New York buy it?
Hudson Yards is unlike anything that’s been built before, even in New York City, where massive urban-planning schemes are regularly used to spin entire neighborhoods out of whole cloth. (Often to the detriment of those who lived there previously—see Lincoln Center, which displaced the mostly black and Latino residents who once called the area San Juan Hill.)
Its foundation, for one, is its own complex beast. The site where Hudson Yards is currently on the rise—roughly bounded by 10th and 11th avenues, and 30th and 34th streets—was home to one of New York’s first freight lines, the Hudson River Railroad, whose tracks were laid in the late 1840s. After decades of use for shipping cargo up and down the island of Manhattan, ownership of the rail line and its yards ended up in the hands of Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, and the Metro-North Railroad.
Developers have long eyed the site for its potential, with now-President Donald Trump purchasing a chunk of the freight yards back in the 1970s. (That portion became the site of the Jacob K. Javits Center, just north of Hudson Yards, in 1975, and Riverside South/Trump Place in 1997, which he later sold.) But the first mention of “Hudson Yards” as a potential development came in 2001, as part of the city’s ultimately unsuccessful bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Dan Doctoroff, the founder and CEO of urban innovation group Sidewalk Labs, was then the president of NYC2012, a pro-Olympics group backed by then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani. He helped city officials devise a $3.7 billion package with a master vision for the site, which incorporated a stadium, an extension of the 7 train, and more. “When I first presented the idea of the Olympics [in 1996], I had two plans,” says Doctoroff, who also wrote about the experience in his recent book, Greater Than Ever. “One became West Chelsea and the High Line, and the other was Hudson Yards.” Developing the railyards and surrounding underutilized industrial lots was “obvious,” he says.
“It was clear this was the last frontier in Manhattan,” Doctoroff notes. “The question was, What do you do with it?”
The NYC2012 team saw the Olympics bid not only as an opportunity to build a stadium—for the Olympics, and after that, the New York Jets—but to “rethink the whole neighborhood around the rail yards,” as Doctoroff puts it. New York City ultimately lost the Olympic bid, but the dream of a massive new development remained: The city rezoned the area, and by 2009, the New York City Council had approved Related’s revised plan. The developer, in partnership with Goldman Sachs (which eventually withdrew from the project), hit the ground running, kicking off caisson drilling and decking over the rail yards in 2014 and opening the first office building, 10 Hudson Yards, in 2016.
Donald Clinton, a partner with Cooper Robertson, the architecture and urban design firm that prepared the master plan for Hudson Yards, says early concepts for the site have mostly remained intact. The plan was envisioned to be heavily mixed-use, anchored by a cultural facility (what is now the Shed) and stuffed with green space. And they knew its success would depend on the extension of the 7 train, which ultimately opened in 2015. “The plan turned into zoning, and Related is now building within the framework of that zoning,” Clinton notes.
KPF is the main architect of record and behind the distinctive towers at 10, 30, and 55 Hudson Yards, but Related hired a mix of firms to create a diverse skyline. Kwok breaks down the level of texture, from a shingled-glass facade on 30 Hudson Yards to James Carpenter Design Associates’ West Podium Art Wall, in which glass “scallops” reflect the sky above and plantings below, positioned so not to reflect the Vessel in front. The Shed, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Rockwell Group, will even boast a retractable glass canopy.
But it’s the surrounding parks and newly built open space the team believes will open Hudson Yards to the rest of the city. “What absolutely turned out to be a godsend is the High Line,” says Clinton. Back when Hudson Yards’ urban design framework was in the works, no one predicted what the elevated rail park would become. “We knew it had a future, but it hadn’t happened yet,” Clinton says. Some RFPs, he adds, called for tearing down the portion that swerves toward the yards. Instead, the popular park will be a tremendous boon for Hudson Yards, as well as the perfect elevated entryway into an elevated neighborhood.
Furthermore, KPF and Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects painstakingly planned out inviting entrances at points where Hudson Yards connected to the rest of the city. “We made gestures to acknowledge the corner and street, so buildings would reach beyond themselves,” says Kwok.
With the design and urban planning in place, what remains is the most difficult task: how to create a living, breathing neighborhood that speaks to the rest of the city and its intense mix of nationalities, incomes, and personalities.
Related wasn’t particularly fazed by that challenge; instead, says Related Hudson Yards president Jay Cross, the company wanted to build off the success it found at Time Warner Center, a highly mixed-use site—combining retail, office space, a hotel, luxury condos, and restaurants—that opened on Columbus Circle in 2003. Its makeup is based off a theory held by Stephen Ross, the founder of Related: He believes that millennial New Yorkers want to live in urban areas, but want the experience to be convenient, with easy access to parks, workspace, cultural institutions, and community.
When it came to devising the makeup of Hudson Yards, Related wanted the Time Warner Center on steroids. Zoning required 50 percent of the site be utilized as open public space, which set the tone for how all of its buildings would connect. Planners also sought input from actual New Yorkers, seeking to find the commonalities among the places they actually frequent. “We did a lot of research, asking shoppers, residents, and office workers to name their favorite neighborhoods, and we’d find the common denominators,” says Cross. “All three groups liked Union Square and Madison Square; it all came down to the authenticity, liveliness, and mix of uses. That convinced us that we were on the right track.”
Today, a number of New York developers are hard at work building those sorts of landscapes—under the modern-day marketing ploy of “live, work, play”—and for it they charge a premium. (Just look to Essex Crossing, Manhattan West, and City Point for a few examples.) Hudson Yards, to put it bluntly, will embody that philosophy to the extreme.
Like the Time Warner Center, Hudson Yards will cater to a variety of uses. One tower has a hotel launched in collaboration with Equinox, the high-end fitness chain; others will house big-name corporations like Time Warner Inc., BlackRock, and Wells Fargo. There’s a seven-story shopping center anchored by Neiman Marcus, and a bevy of restaurants, including the now de rigueur food hall, this one the work of Spanish chef José Andrés.
But despite Related’s best efforts at reaching for “authenticity,” the megaproject runs the risk of imitating the Time Warner Center in another way. When that project opened in 2003, architecture critic Paul Goldberger described it as “a theme-park version of a sophisticated urban building, slickly packaged to make city life seem attractive to people who aren’t accustomed to it.” That hasn’t changed much in the past 15 years; if it weren’t for the fact that Central Park and Columbus Circle are right outside its oversized glass doors, you might think the Time Warner Center was another sanitized shopping mall, with its selection of upscale-but-mass-market shops (J. Crew, Whole Foods, Sephora) and inoffensive design.
Every new arrival to Hudson Yards comes with its own suggestions of luxury; even the Vessel, the neighborhood’s showpiece, was nicknamed “the social climber” by Ross, and deemed a “$150 million stairway to nowhere” by the New York Times. So how does a developer create an authentic, “very New York” neighborhood with Neiman Marcus as its flagship retailer, restaurants curated by Thomas Keller (not exactly known for his budget eats), and condos where the low end, pricing-wise, is $3.9 million?
It might be more accurate to call Hudson Yards a neighborhood that represents a vision of the city’s future—Justin Davidson of New York magazine called it “some other, CGI version of Manhattan... an executive’s idea of a diverse city, a place without bargains, ugliness, friction, or decay.”
Urban planners seem more curious than critical on how it will all pan out. “[Related has] hired people—like Diller Scofidio + Renfro—who know how to make things work in New York,” notes Mitchell L. Moss, a professor of urban planning and policy at NYU. Though he emphasizes that “It is too soon to judge the actual Hudson Yards neighborhood, since most of the planned housing has yet to be built,” he believes that there are other ways to evaluate the neighborhood’s success. The increasingly occupied office towers, he says, are proof that a variety of companies have responded to the promise of this new slice of New York. “The willingness to invest in parks and culture will be important … but no one in New York knows, or cares, about Neiman Marcus,” Moss says.
Clinton believes that while “there is real potential for the project to embrace a larger public,” much will depend on the incoming tenants, the programming at the Shed, and the retail mix. “You can imagine one direction that’s only aiming at rich shoppers and diners, and another that’s more public in its ambitions,” he says.
Housing could prove to be a different story. The first phase of Hudson Yards is 80 percent commercial, 20 percent residential—and the 20 percent that’s currently on the market is aimed squarely at a luxury audience. (There are 106 “affordable” apartments within its scope.) The second phase of development will tilt in the other direction, with the majority of its skyscrapers given over to housing; once complete, the full megaproject will have roughly 4,000 apartments total, with more than 400 deemed affordable.
Cross points to these numbers an example of building an equitable neighborhood, but one could argue Related got off easy on its affordability requirements, securing its development plan before the city fell into a full-blown housing and homelessness crisis. This is a neighborhood that will not include transitional housing or a homeless shelter, a missed opportunity in present-day New York—particularly when considering the fact that the first phase will come to fruition under a mayor who won off of a “tale of two cities” platform.
Doctoroff, who’s been criticized along with Bloomberg for pushing rezonings that have, in the view of some advocates, exacerbated the current housing crisis, believes the affordable housing requirements in the overall rezoning of the far west side were sufficient. “It was a material part of our thinking at that time, even though the demand for it was dramatically less than it is now,” he says. “We believed the neighborhood should be a mixed-income neighborhood—the question is to what extent, and ultimately it’s a function of how much money [a developer] can contribute, and what the city is willing to spend on affordable housing.”
Of course, the line between “sufficient” and “equitable” is a murky one, and the allure of Hudson Yards is its shiny newness. But, asks Cross, isn’t that type of construction what New York City is all about? Alongside the modern office towers, the platform also allowed Related to embrace futuristic smart city planning, like a system of pneumatic trash-removal tubes and self-watering plants. Cross believes Manhattan has been slow to develop new office space or remarkable public space since the 1990s. “Building new is totally consistent in being authentic to New York,” he says. “We just needed to build new in a way we weren’t trying to copy anyone else—we were trying to be very New York.”
Whatever you might think of the final products, they are now rising at a remarkable pace. By the end of the year, the first residents will move into 15 Hudson Yards and more office space will open at 55 Hudson Yards. The retail center will debut this March, with 30 Hudson Yards following in May, and 35 Hudson Yards likely in June. The public space is due next spring. Fifty Hudson Yards, another office tower, will open in the spring of 2022, wrapping the first phase of development in the Eastern Yard.
And this is just the first half of it; the second phase, on the Western Yard, is expected to be under construction through at least 2035. Though any concrete plans have yet to be announced—including the number of buildings to rise, or who will design them—this next stage will bring another 6.2 million square feet to the neighborhood, alongside the 4,000 housing units.
Ultimately it remains to be seen if Hudson Yards will feel like an inviting New York neighborhood to those who don’t live, work, and play there. “People will be attracted to live there for three different reasons,” Moss muses. “To be close to the river, to be close to work, and to be in New York, but not necessarily being in New York.” He believes the area might be more popular with foreign buyers and tourists for that very fact: “It’s going to be like a self-contained community, but it’s in New York.”
But talk to anyone on the team about how far the site has come, from its days as a railyard to a budding neighborhood, and the overwhelming expression is awe. “We’ve taken some railroad yards and turned them into into a phenomenal office, residential, and cultural hub,” says Doctoroff. “We have always reinvented parts of the city. The overall energy of the city doesn’t change, but we get to see it grow.”