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Lessons from the West Side yards: it's the master plan, not the starchitect (etc.)

Last night's public program, in which top-flight architects and designers presented five competing plans for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's West Side yards, suggests some conclusions:

1) There’s a huge public appetite for insight into such "city-making" projects; the Great Hall at Cooper Union was standing room only, and the audience topped 1000 (and that’s without having partisans bussed in). Each presentation got enthusiastic applause, and the audience listened carefully when each team was asked what distinguished its design from its competition.

(The graphic comparing some basic aspects of the plans comes from Friends of the High Line. Click to enlarge.)

2) It’s the master plan, stupid, not the starchitect. Each of the design teams last night acknowledged that the buildings, and the architects behind them, might change, but the strength in each project starts with the designs—and they differ. Each takes off from the MTA's design guidelines--which would've been impossible in the case of Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards, since MTA property occupies less than 40% of the site. The lead presenter for one project last night was not a building designer but James Corner of Field Operations, landscape architect extraordinaire.

3) Frank Gehry never had to do this, to stand before an audience of peers and the public, and defend his Atlantic Yards design. The closest we got was a staffer from his office, Tensho Takemori, attending one public meeting in Park Slope. Gehry was never allowed to meet with the public, and that of course after the sole-source plan had received political backing. Last night, after their 20-minute presentations, the designers answered questions (right) on a panel.

4) A project of such magnitude (26 acres, vs. AY’s 22 acres) and expense demands multiple architectural styles and multiple architects; one of the teams has seven architects working on different building types. “Of course many architects would be involved in such a big project,” said architect Steven Holl.

5) In some cases open space would be built at the street; in other cases, it would serve as a central plaza. In no cases would any open space be enclosed by three-sided “catcher’s mitt” type residential buildings or otherwise seem "private," as with a good portion of the Atlantic Yards open space. 6) This site, at up to 12 million square feet, would be denser than Atlantic Yards (8 million square feet), but almost certainly not as residentially dense.
There would be less affordable housing; the affordable rental housing would be 80% market/20% low-income, as opposed to 50% market, 30% middle- and moderate-income, and 20% low-income at Atlantic Yards. Some AY boosters say that the Manhattan project's density puts AY in perspective ("Brooklyn's plan is pikerish," writes Dennis Holt of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle), but the West Side site borders the water and nearly borders the Javits Convention Center, not exactly row house neighborhoods. (At right, Brookfield Properties' plan.)

7) The West Side yards site is rectangular. The Atlantic Yards site is not, and the railyard would be less than 40% of the site. That means that the one competing bid for the railyard, once an RFP was issued 18 months after Atlantic Yards was announced, was not a competing bid for the site. Had the city somehow drawn the curious Atlantic Yards footprint—is the 100-foot segment east of Sixth Avenue between Dean and Pacific streets blight or just a staging area for arena construction?—ahead of time and then put that 22 acres out for bid, well, we might have gotten five interesting proposals.

8) We can’t be sure what will happen. Robert A.M. Stern, an architect of near-Gehryesque stature, said it was important that the design “can grow incrementally and change over time as the project goes forward, and even after completion.” Indeed, New York magazine suggests that none of the schemes will be built as planned, but that elements of them may ultimately be part of the winning proposal, which of course depends on the numbers and promises behind the bid.

9) The West Side yards project, unlike Atlantic Yards, will go through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) and there will be opportunity for public input, both before and after a developer is chosen. A community forum will be held Monday, December 10 from 6-8:30 pm at the Hudson Guild, Dan Carpenter Room, 441 West 26th Street, Second Floor; it is sponsored by Manhattan Community Board 4 and the Hudson Yards Community Advisory Committee.

10) Atlantic Yards was proposed (well, publicly announced) four years ago, minus one week. A single-source project like it, on such valuable publicly-owned land, could never be proposed today. We know better.


  1. Regarding paragraph six of today’s post, look at the picture of the Brookfield Properties contextual model showing the Hudson yards project in the neighborhood in which it will sit.

    The Hudson Yards site though denser than AY is pushing the envelope and may itself be too dense- But, as seen from looking at the contextual model Brookfield supplied it is contextual and flowing with its surroundings. It bubbles up in density slightly over what it will be adjacent to. It doesn't jut up over the surroundings and what is planned for them like AY. For instance, AY is across the street from the new Fifth Avenue Committee Atlantic Terrace building which when complete will be 10 stories. Across the street the 15-story electronic sign on AY will itself be five stories taller. That other project involves all sorts of decisions and subsidies from the same public decision makers involved in AY.

    The reason that Hudson Yards pushes the density envelope to be even slightly bigger than its surroundings is to maximize the sale price of the land to the MTA. The thinking is that it is better for the MTA to get the value associated with this density than to give it to the adjacent land owners who get SLIGHTLY lower densities at which they can build. The Hudson Yards density ties in with the center-of-Manhattan density that flows out from Moynihan Station, Times Square and the Port Authority. Yes it is right near the Javits Center but there is an intervening parcel between Hudson Yards and the Javits Center. And pointing out that the project is on the Hudson and the Hudson River Park is a trenchant observation in this regard.

    Several things will make the Hudson Yards density much more tolerable. The additions of new public streets and pedestrian ways done the way Brookfield Properties proposal does fills a Jane Jacobs prescription to deal with and make density work. The greater and better mixed-use will also help, something Jane Jacobs also asserted. Then there is the likely quality of the public spaces we will probably get as a result of this process. Again, I would point to the Brookfield Properties proposal with Related being the second I would point to. In this regard, preservation of the High Line should also help. Adding levels of pedestrian walkways has similar benefit to adding streets.

    Also helping to make the density more tolerable will be the addition of a new subways line, probably a new Water Taxi stop, the ability of people to walk to work and the ease with which additional buses can quickly get people to most midtown destination including work.

    One thing about the Brookfield model: although it shows existing density and the zoning envelop for most adjacent new building, there are many new buildings in development just to the North and Northeast which are not shown. If shown the density would be seen as even more clearly contextual. That contextual model does not show all the big buildings being built in the area. Nearby there are another two being built by Dermot, projects by Kanga-Roo, Kaliminian, Douglaston Development, Lalezarian Developers, and Rockrose Development Company. And just uptown, as it was just announced, it proposed to build a tower over the Port Authority bus station.

    As for the proportion of “affordable” units? Right now, we are still waiting to see what kind of housing subsidies Ratner is out to grab for himself. Don’t expect his units to come out of thin air. By the same token, the developers at Hudson Yards may get subsides that could increase affordable housing there. It is important to realize where these subsidies flow will dictate where affordable units will show up. Less fro Ratner may mean more for Hudson Yards. And it might not be good to concentrate too much of these subsidies at either Atlantic Yards or Hudson Yards since it could be much better to distribute them elsewhere to other project where they could be better used.


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