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West Side yards plans compared; unlike AY, a better chance at "city-making"

Friends of the High Line has assembled graphics and compiled a chart comparing some basic aspects of the five competing plans for the West Side yards. (Click on graphics to enlarge.) Likely more information will surface at Monday's public program featuring the design teams, but we still may be waiting for financial details that will drive the deal.

Needless to say, no such offerings were possible for the Atlantic Yards plan. Extell's competing bid for a portion of the site, the Metropolitan Transporation Authority's Vanderbilt Yard, came more than 18 months later, and any matrix would've compared apples and oranges, since Forest City Ratner's project extended beyond the railyard. But other issues, such as a basketball arena and the willingness to use eminent domain, would've had to be included in the chart.

The RPA's guidance

The current issue of the Regional Plan Association's (RPA) Spotlight on the Region newsletter recommends that citizens view the display models, at the northwest corner of Vanderbilt Avenue and 43rd Street, daily from 8 am to 8 pm, through December 14 and attend the session Monday. (The display was supposed to end Monday, so the extension points to the high level of public interest.)

RPA suggests some questions to keep in mind:

Does the proposal create a well-defined public space?

Does the circulation system within the project connect to the surrounding street network where possible?

How well does the open space network connect to surrounding open spaces like the High Line, Hudson River Park, the Moynihan Station Corridor and 10th Avenue?

Does the proposal enable connections to public transit?

What kind of commitment does the proposal make to environmental design?

What kind of risk and reward does the proposal offer the MTA?

Does the proposal allow for some level of incremental development or does it need to be built out all at once?

Much of the conversation around these proposals in the media revolves around the buildings' architecture and aesthetic qualities. Yet the planning and infrastructure components of the proposals are at least as important as the towers' designs, and questions about those components need to be asked - and answered - now, early on in the planning process. Time is short: the MTA will select a developer in early 2008, after which the project will proceed through the City’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure.

West Side yards vs. Atlantic Yards

RPA Regional Design Program Director Rob Lane observes: “The scale and complexity of the initiative makes this not so much a 'development project' as an exercise in 'city building,' requiring active and ongoing participation from the public.” Let’s build a city, not develop a plan."

Note that Lane last May cited Atlantic Yards as a missed opportunity for such "city building."


  1. Transparency Triumphs- a Trifle? At Least a Trifle.

    It is great that this is happening. And here is some more great news-, the exhibit of the Hudson Yards models is very popular and has been extended until the 14th. (The extension is fairly late breaking news.)

    The extension says a lot about the dynamic of what is going on and its importance.

    Early this week, on Wednesday, Kent Barwick was on a panel at the Museum of the City of New York where he remarked about involving the public in projects from the beginning and getting input from them. With this kind of excitement these projects could, as Barwick was suggesting, encounter significantly less opposition down the line. That is if the right proposal is picked. The Curbed vote had the Brookfield development as a clear favorite with Related’s coming in second. Related’s is the one that comes closest in character to what Brookfield offers. And that is interesting. The actual financial numbers are not public yet and they could factor in, but with public input being so clear it could be a problem if the wrong proposal for the wrong reasons. (Do I need to say, “Think Atlantic Yards?”) There is also the question of density. The public would be justified in a reaction that all the proposals are too dense. But, apples to apples, they are all the density specified by the RFP. And it is greater than the density of the new zoning for the surrounding area. It is clear when you look at the Brookfield contextual model how the density bubbles up around the density proposed for the surrounding properties.

    Meanwhile,- this is interesting- Governor Spitzer came by the exhibit on Monday the 26th. Can you get a feel for these proposals without looking at these models? I don’t think so. The Governor has armies of highly qualified people to “tell him” about the proposals or show him a zillion (deceptively over-prettified) pictures. But he chose to come. Would that once-upon-a-time there had been models for five proposals for Atlantic Yards to look at. Would that the competing proposals had been apples-to-apples. Would that the Governor had the chance to look at them before deciding that he would support a highly questionable project that was the result of bad process.

    There is a lot at stake when we city-build and that demands the absolute best process.

    I find that my preferences between the models offered fall right in line with the way the readership of Curbed voted. Brookfield development is my clear favorite partly precisely because it has certain common characteristics Related’s comes in second for me. Interestingly, I think that when you refer to the Regional Plan Association's criteria and/or things cared about the Friends of the High Line you are probably going to come to similar conclusions. This is not to say that the best proposals cannot be tweaked nor that voices objecting to the very high density should not be respected.

    In terms of density, this project is will be exceptionally more dense a burgeoning thicket of density. The public will only experience it fully when the area is built up. The project will be in the middle of substantial upzoning some of which is shown on the contextual Brookfield model. 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.

  2. I dropped by the exhibit space on Wednesday and Friday and highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the future of development in New York City -- especially since the exhibit space is so unusually accessible. The exhibit space is really just a storefront on the corner of 43rd and Vanderbilt Ave., so it's quite easy to see if you are in the area.

    A bit of relevant "trivia." This storefront is in what used to be the Biltmore Hotel, which opened in 1914 and was built, in part, by the New York Central. The reason this bit of "trivia" about the hotel and this storefront is relevant to this exhibit, is that this space, like a large chunk of east Midtown (between Lexington and Madison and between 42nd and about 55th[?] streets), is actually over Grand Central Terminal's vast railroad yards -- although one would never know it as the development of the railyards has so seamlessly been integrated into the rest of midtown Manhattan. The storefront itself is over the Terminal's inbound loop tracks. (Just down the stairs that are to the west of the storefront is the Terminal's incoming station.)

    So as you walk through the area to go to the exhibit and as you look out through the storefront's windows, you are seeing what was built over the New York Central's vast Manhattan railyards. Therefore the question that I think exhibit viewers should ask themselves is this: "How do these various plans compare with the glorious urbanism of what was eventually built over GCT's vast railyards?"

    Unfortunately, though, some of parts of this glorious urbanism are 1) not readily apparent to the casual viewer (due to the brilliance of the development) or 2) no longer there (due to rebuilding over the years). But the useful and beautiful integration of the various intricate parts into a dense, complex, diverse overall urban whole is indeed really breathtaking!!!

    At least at first glance, I think the Brookfield proposal comes closest in spirit (but not as close as it should, though) to the glorious, diverse, intricate, high density FLEXIBLE urbanism of Grand Central's Terminal City (which also includes the New York General Building, the Yale Clulb, the Barclay, Park Avenue, the Waldort, etc.). The other plans, however, seem to me to be, to various degrees, overdesigned and largely anti-urban -- warmed over "tower-in-the-park" -- despite what their proponents say to the contrary.

    By the way, one of the things that bothers me about the Brookfield proposal, though, is the fact that the buildings are separated by open space from the High Line. I wonder if this was done to make their proposal more acceptable to community groups who might be opposed to the incorporation of the High Line into this development. If so, I think this is a mistake on the part of community groups, as I think both the development AND the High Line would work better if the buildings didn't stand back away from the High Line.

    When examining the Brookfield proposal, just look out the window to GCT's circumferential drive (the viaduct that wraps around GCT) to see how much better it would be to have direct connections to the developments buildings. (Although people may not realize it, there are actually entrances to/from the buildings that are on the viaduct (and the one that was built on the southwest corner of GCT is [was?] quite glorious architecturally!).

    Another bit of trivia:

    In the mid-1970s, this storefront used to be the storefront / bookstore / giftshop / lecture and exhibition space of the Municipal Art Society and its "Committee to Save Grand Central"!!! (The Municipal Art Society itself was located in a small suite of offices at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.) So, in a sense, this modest space was the precursor to the MAS' urban center.

    I should know, as I managed the storefront at this location from about June 1976 to about ??? 1977 (when the space was rented out to a religious bookstore and the MTA switched us to a different storefront that was on a corridor leading to the Times Square shuttle mezzanine). (I believe the storefront was the brainchild of Kent Barwick, during his original leadership role at the MAS. However, by the time I worked for the MAS, Margot Wellington, who eventually put together today's Urban Center, was the MAS's executive director.)

    -- Benjamin Hemric


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