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Critic Huxtable on West Side yards plans: New York sells itself short

From the perspective of Atlantic Yards critics, the plan to develop the West Side yards (aka Hudson Yards) is inevitably superior, because it starts with an RFP rather than an anointed developer.

And indeed, Gov. Eliot Spitzer this week told the New York Observer:
We are pleased with the bids as they came in—in terms of the magnitude financially, the scale of the proposals, the creativity, the involvement of some of our most prominent real estate companies and private-sector employers who want to site headquarters there. … It reflects and justifies our confidence that if we did an RFP [request for proposals] for that site, we could elicit great response.

But critics have already offered several cautions. In New York magazine, Justin Davidson warned that finance will trump design, and New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff called it a "grim referendum on the state of large-scale planning in New York City."

A tough critique

And yesterday, Wall Street Journal (and former New York Times) architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, in a review headlined The Hudson Yards Proposals: Plenty of Glitz, Little Vision, was harsh, writing that only two of the five design teams "appear to have thought about it beyond the standard investment model blown up to gargantuan scale." (She never wrote about Atlantic Yards.)

And she was sardonic about the opportunity for public input and public presentations, calling it a "charade." She wrote:
We continue to find the spectacle of developers' promotional and political savvy riveting, knowing that success will depend on the deal and not the design.

The Extell bid

She observed:
Only two of the five proposals being considered are worth talking about. Extell Development's submission, by the architect Steven Holl, could have the unity, character and potential beauty of a Rockefeller Center, and it is unique in this respect. The scheme flies in the face of the current cant about pluralism and diversity and proves once again that architecture is about vision and ideas. While the other proposals include a massive truss over the yards that is meant to support the new construction, Mr. Holl substitutes a suspension deck. (The trains will continue to run underneath.) This bridge-like deck carries the lesser weight (and expense) of a park, while the structures surrounding it, handsomely grouped for views of the Empire State Building and the Hudson River, can be built on solid ground. You have to admire Excell's courage in going with a single gifted architect and putting all its chips on design.

(Graphics from New York Times)

Note that the conventional critique is that large projects deserve multiple architects so they don't look like projects, and even Frank Gehry wanted to bring in others for Atlantic Yards, but was stymied by his client. Ouroussoff in 2005 thought the one-architect model for AY worked well, though he's tempered his opinions.

The Brookfield bid

Huxtable also likes the plan that was introduced publicly not by an architect but by a noted landscape architect:
The plan offered by Brookfield Properties is the work of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and the landscape firm Field Operations... The fine environmental hand of Field Operations is easy to discern. The planning process starts with the nature of the site, addressing the huge variations in elevation from street to platform to waterfront, changes in grade that create a formidable barrier to the city around it. This is not easy to read in the models or in the other proposals with their emphasis on hype and heavyweight names.

Continuing the local streets through the site establishes the connective tissue. Instead of treating landscape as leftover space between buildings, Field Operations makes it the unifying factor, softening transitions and tying everything together. Recognizing Chelsea to the south, the plan connects the 30th Street frontage to existing neighborhood fabric and scale, with the High Line, the elevated park-in-progress on the abandoned train bed that skirts the area, incorporated as part of the action.

Government failure

Huxtable criticizes the city and public agencies (MTA, ESDC) for failing to plan for the West Side in general, "from Penn Station and Madison Square Garden to the Javits Center."

Her conclusion:
The disposition of public land is expedited on the developers' terms even though the land is the most powerful negotiating tool of all -- something so valuable in New York that builders would kill for it -- and the Hudson Yards are an estimated $7 billion prize. It is accepted that whatever the plans are for these vast tracts of squandered opportunity, they will ultimately be controlled, compromised, or scuttled by the winner of the financial contest that is at the heart of the matter. New York will continue to sell itself short all the way to the bank.

Imagine what she might have said about a project without even an RFP.