Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Hudson Yards: Review of Development Proposal Designs

The following, while setting forth some updated analysis, is also partly in the nature of a catch-up. After the introductory update, this post sets forth comments I submitted to the MTA on December 10, 2007 about the development proposals for Hudson Yards.

I was pleased when a month later, on January 8, 2008, the MTA received an open letter from the Hudson Yards Community Advisory Committee with comments substantially parallel to my own. The Community Advisory Committee’s open letter is available at “Open letter to the MTA from Hudson Yards Community Advisory Committee”. The PDF is available too.

At the time the Committee’s letter was sent, the Committee was composed not only of key members of the community but also significant politicians and political representatives such as City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn, Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer, and
State Senator Thomas K. Duane.

The complete membership of the Committee at that time is set forth below.

Manhattan Community Board 4: Lee Compton, Anna Levin, Walter Mankoff, Joe Restuccia, Jean-Daniel Noland
U.S. Representative Jerrold Nadler (or proxy)
City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn (or proxy)
Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer (or proxy)
State Senator Thomas K. Duane (or proxy)
Assembly Member Richard N. Gottfried (or proxy)
Hell’s Kitchen Neighborhood Association – Kathleen Treat
Housing Conservation Coordinators – John Raskin
Friends of Hudson River Park - Ross Graham
Friends of the High Line - Joshua David
Manhattan Plaza Tenants Association – Marisa Redanty
Rep from 544 West 35th street – Camilla Pettle
44th Street Block Association – Renee Stanley
45th Street Block Association – Justin Krebs
Hudson Crossing Tenants Association – Brian Sogol
Save Chelsea - Andrew Berman
West Side Neighborhood Alliance - Anita Black

My comments were with respect to five development proposals that were submitted for Hudson Yards. A proposal has now been selected by the MTA.

Through a circuitous route the development proposal that was selected by the MTA was the Related Companies proposal. The Related Companies proposal was viewed by me and probably the substantial majority of the public as the second-best proposal from the standpoint of design and creation of a livable city. Brookfield Properties, which everyone thought submitted the best proposal, dropped out of the bidding. Tishman Speyer was announced as the winning proposal but did not follow through and was thereafter replaced by Related.

While it is unfortunate that we are not now proceeding with the Brookfield proposal, the Related Companies design is the closest to Brookfield’s and can be modified and improved by incorporating many features of the Brookfield proposal. We sincerely hope this will happen.

Density is an absolutely key consideration in evaluating the design and development proposals for the site. The Community Advisory Committee’s # 1 comment on the proposals is, “There is too much density for a successful environment.” The MTA is striving to put as much density on the site as possible in order to maximize the sales price for the yards. This striving for density is one of the things that makes attention to good design and things like continuation of the street grid and maximization of streets absolutely critical. Only with the best design can this proposed density be expected to work.

Should the density for the site be as great as proposed? Very likely not. The site is a good site for high-density development but the Community Advisory Committee is probably right in complaining that too much density is being squeezed onto this site; more density is being squeezed onto the site than would be built on immediately adjacent property. If you look at what is proposed for the site in the context of what is proposed for the neighboring properties you will note that the proposed density mounds up and is greater directly over the Hudson Yards property being sold by the MTA than the property that surrounds it. That is good for the MTA because it garners a higher price but bad for the public because it doesn’t make optimal long term urban planning sense. It doesn’t make long term urban planning sense because the density around the properties closest to the extension of the #7 subway line is less although it is there that it should be relatively greater.

Since it doesn’t make good long-term urban planning sense to selectively mound up extra density over the Hudson Yards site, we can assume that the decision is being driven by the practical expedient of maximizing site sale proceeds to the MTA. Some may applaud this decision given the news that subway fares are to rise again for the second year in succession. The New York Times points out today that “This would be only the second time in the history of the subway that fares were raised in consecutive years; the last time was in 1980 and 1981.” (See: “M.T.A. Plan to Raise Fares Angers Officials and Riders” By Ray Rivera)
Interestingly, the MTA is NOT maximizing the sales price of the land it is selling in the parallel example of Atlantic Yards. Rather than raise more money for capital or operating expenses the MTA is selling its property to the Atlantic Yards developer at a substantial write-down and collecting far less (hundred’s of millions less) than it could. In the case of the Atlantic Yards site the density of the site is being maxed out to an inappropriate degree, but the real estate value of that extra density that is being created with this maxing out is being given to the Forest City Ratner as the developer of the site rather than being captured by the MTA as in the case of Hudson Yards. (See: Friday, June 27, 2008 “No-property-tax status was supposed to raise the price of the Vanderbilt Yard”)

One last thing on Atlantic Yards, vis-a-vis Hudson Yards: The participation of City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and the other above named political representatives in the Hudson Yards Community Advisory Committee letter on Hudson Yards reveals where Speaker Quinn and the others should stand on the Atlantic Yards. They no doubt know this. There are many parallels between the proposed Hudson Yards and Atlantic Yards projects so that criticisms of Hudson Yards, which is a relatively good project (a high density project in a high density neighborhood), also apply to Atlantic Yards. At the same time, all the ways in which Atlantic Yards is different from Hudson Yards make Atlantic Yards a substantially worse project, probably the worst project being proposed in the City right now.

Here are the comments I submitted to the MTA in December on the development proposals for Hudson Yards.

December 10, 2007

To: Metropolitan Transportation Authority

From: Michael D. D. White

RE: West Side Yard Development Proposals: Tell us what you think. Write your comment and drop in the box.


Here are my comments on the five West Side Yard development proposals. First, Brookfield Properties design is very much my favorite. Second, all of the High Line should be kept (see the final section after comments on the individual proposals).


• It is the proposal with the best intricacy and the proposal with the best potential for adding additional intricacy with tweaking. That is important working at these densities.

• I also like its treatment of the High Line. I think Brookfield did a superb job creating a great public promenade space around the High Line and I like to think that during much of that portion of the year when people spend the most time outside there will be an arrow of setting-sunlight coming in from the river.

• It has several other admirable and varied public spaces including the best space taking advantage of the waterfront.

• It does the best job of maximizing the street connections.


I am in concurrence with the Curbed poll in that I think The Related Companies’ proposal is the second best in terms of its attractiveness to the public. Interestingly, the characteristics that make the Related proposal good are characteristics it has in common with the Brookfield proposal but which the Brookfield proposal mostly does better.


The proposal is my favorite. Here are ideas for tweaking it:

Here are some other thoughts including some suggestions for possible eventual tweaking.

Connections to the High Line. I would create more second level connections between the East/West running stretch of High Line (“West Chelsea Promenade”) and the other project public space at the South end up at that higher level. Right now there is one such connection and there should be at least one more making it easier to access the cultural space. (BTW: I note that with the Manhattan Children’s museum on the West adjoining “Hudson Green”- good idea- there are actually two cultural spaces which is good.) While some additional connections would be great, the Related proposal, by comparison, gives the High Line a sort of hug-of-death in this area and would benefit from some separations.

Possible Outdoor Promenade Running East/West Parallel to High Line. There are no places I know of elsewhere where the High Line can be appreciated from its own level or from outside and above. There is a unique opportunity to create such places here with this design. In so doing, you have the chance to accentuate the sense of place and destination. Without disrupting any plans for the foundations of the proposed buildings it should be possible to create a recessed promenade that would run alongside and at the same level as the High Line. If there is recess into the buildings there would be Bellamyesque shelter from the elements that pedestrians could opt for. The promenade would also create extra connection options capable of luring pedestrians all the way to the South of the upper-level public spaces.

Elevated Space on the South Next to the High Line. I think it is worthwhile to keep in mind the extra high density of this project which is why the extra streets the Brookfield plan are especially beneficial. It also means that extra pedestrian levels can be supported. Some of the multi-level kind of outdoor park experience created by Olmstead and Vaux can be experimented with here if, alongside the High Line, a third level is created. This could be done if, there were space elevated perhaps over interesting arches. There are two almost identical square parks abutting the West Chelsea promenade. The arches and elevated space could be at the South side of at least one of these spaces.

Differentiating the Two Square Parks Abutting the West Chelsea Promenade. The two almost identical square parks abutting the West Chelsea promenade have a nice organized feel when looked at as part of a big plan, but as they might be experienced by pedestrians it is likely best if they are differentiated so that they provide different on-the-ground experiences. This can be assisted by slightly varying their shape. Another way to add to the difference would be to partially encircle one of the parks with an elevated vantage which could be done by allowing the space elevated over the arch (or arches) described above to continue around the park. The actual open area of the green space would remain the same, but would feel different if the elevated vantage walks were recessed into the side of the adjoining buildings. If you look at the Related plan you will see that Related has a very nice triangular public space on the South by the High Line. Some of the unusual closure feel afforded by triangle shapes could help here. See my next comment.

Possible Skewing of First Floor of South-westernmost Residential Building. Without having to change the existing foundation plans for the buildings and with only a minimal, if any, amount of cantilevering, some very interesting effects could be achieved by slightly skewing the first floor of the South-Westernmost residential building. The following could be achieved:

1. A slight triangular feel could be given to the adjacent park now planned to be square.

2. There could be elevated space in the sunlight overlooking that small park that could be an extension of an elevated vantage walk. This might involve walking out from recessed space to the sunlit space. Building pillars could be left in place for an interesting exterior effect.

3. The new promenade running parallel to the High Line could widen and open up to a wider public space that could then lead down graciously via steps from the upper-level project spaces to the street level spaces below the promenade at the Southwestern corner.

4. There could be an elevated space at the Northwest corner of the building from which the public could appreciate “Hudson Green” on high. This space could even be accessible via connections from the elevated space overlooking the High Line. It might make either a good special function space or a good performance space. Perhaps both. (Yes, I know it is under residential space.)

Connections Between the Street under the High Line and the Higher Ground Level of the Project’s Other Public Spaces. The “West Chelsea Promenade” could be quite an extraordinary Mecca. You have Chelsea at one end of the High Line, the Javits Center at the other, and the projects green space will draw from the center of town- The Moynihan Station and new buildings in that area. “Hudson Place” as the southern end of the new boulevard/park (Senator Schumer et. al. permitting) and the cultural space will also draw people in. There will the buses and new subways and new water taxis all ending there. Done right it will have quite a draw. Therefore as much attention as possible should be paid to the space and part of this is connecting the street below the High Line to the great spaces at the project’s own ground level. There could be a very interesting stair connection, perhaps a double staircase wrapping the corner, at the corner where the Western four residential buildings reach the cultural center at the edge of the “West Chelsea Promenade.” As a destination spot I see this as being a location for a lot of interesting retail, maybe like the areas in Rome where small vendors sell silk and leather.

“Hudson Green.” I think “Hudson Green” is ideal. In talking to people about it I would emphasize its similarity in size (and other aspects) to park at the North of Battery Park City because people generally know and like that park. It is great the way it is open to the Southern and Western sun. In contrast, the Steven Holl design for Extell is oxymoronic: It makes a big thing about the angling of buildings on the South to let the sun’s light through as it travels the sky but the answer would have been not to put the tall building on the South side of the property at all. If I were to mull over any tampering with it, it might be to make it just a little less rectilinear. In Related’s plan I like the nonlinear narrowing with the slight triangular point of the big east/west running main space. I know that there is an argument that Brookfield slightly diverged from the RFP guidelines by the way in which the Hotels break up the green space while providing a needed wind break. I think this defines the public spaces in a superior way, but I am also wondering whether the criticism could be addressed somewhat by providing an interesting feeling of connection under the hotel space via a route that could be very interesting to travel. Maybe part of that route would share connection with the streets.

Connections to Hudson River Park. I would make the connection between the High Line and Hudson River park a better more direct one. Right now, “Hudson Green” connects with the High Line and connects via a walk way to Hudson River Park. If you want to go from the High Line to Hudson River Park you can do it by going back through “Hudson Green” but it should be possible to go more directly.

“Hudson Hall” & Adjustable Outdoors. When I asked questions about “Hudson Hall” it wasn’t entirely clear whether this space was going to be more indoor or outdoor in character. But that makes me think about something I have been wondering in general. On reason I avoid and don’t enjoy Related’s Time Warner Space is that it has such a stuffy interior mall feel. Space is more fun when it is outdoors and alive with breezes. On the other hand, there are times when protection for the elements is desirable. It seems to me that with the proper mechanics there can be space that changes in character as the situation changes and that this space could be quite “green” if properly managed. In a way, it goes back to having windows that open. Looking forward, it ties in with the intelligence of computers to know what the weather is or even what the weather is going to be. People who own their own houses in the suburbs can economically cool them with central attic fans that effect a quick exchange of air with the outdoors when the temperature conditions are appropriate. Looking at the design of “Hudson Hall” I wonder about whether it could sometimes share climate with the outdoors on a nice day and other times have its own interior climate modulated largely by exchanging climate with the outside. Bring in cool evening air in the summer. Let the space be sometimes sun warmed when appropriate. I wonder whether this approach can be carried over to other public spaces in the project as well.

Good Continuous Flowing Ground Floor Retail. One of the things that the Brookfield plan does very well is provide lots of continuous forking paths for a flow of ground floor retail trails. Because of the density and destination nature of the site, it should be possible to support a lot of retail. In contrast, Related’s proposal disintegrates in certain places into separated tower-in-the-park buildings that would break up that flow. Once again, there is a huge opportunity for multilevel retail tying in with the High Line.

Floor Plate Sizes. I know that floor plate sizes have been discussed as a matter of importance. The Tishman proposal seems to make them important above all else. That is one reason their result is so intimidating. I gather that Doctoroff may be preoccupied with the subject in terms of New York competing with London as a financial center and the theory that there may be a continuing growth in the need for sizable trading floors (That is not necessarily my own bet). You seem to have an easy option for increasing large floor plates by increasing the height of the low structure abutting the Northwest condominium building. (The top of that space can also be a terrace overlooking “Hudson Green.”) Height could also go up for the buildings abutting “Hudson Place” immediately on the East.

Integrate Space for Vintage Orchestra(s)? I would love it if you might be interested in the following. I am in contact with a vintage orchestra that is looking for a more suitable permanent home. There is another vintage orchestra with which they might conceivable share space. The orchestra is based in New York and plays fairly regularly on Prairie Home Companion. The optimal venue would probably be a nightclub style seating about 200.

Building Textures. One thing that Related did well was posting pictures showing their proposed buildings with a range of various building styles and textures, a number of them reminiscent of older buildings on the West side. I think various textures and variety is a good way to go and it makes the density less intimating and everything seems more comfortably familiar. It is still possible to have big windows on the Hudson with these other styles and I think people are getting tired of glass as the perpetual answer. One thing that is interesting when you look at the Related visuals is that Related has a clump of residential buildings that look like they come straight from what we did at Battery Park City. Since they were therefore very different, they stand out oddly in the model, but the picture on the wall with different textures reconciles quite well how they would fit in.

Setbacks. Given the prescribed density, there is not much opportunity for setbacks though they can add a lot to a landscape. Maybe a few things like the skewing of the first floor that I described above can add something that may help in a way, but it may just be too bad that there isn’t more opportunity in this regard.


The Steven Holl design for Extell is oxymoronic: It makes a big thing about the angling of buildings on the South to let the sun’s light through as it travels the sky but the answer would have been not to put the tall building on the South side of the property at all.

The cable system for construction is ingenious, but it only makes sense to use it if such a huge new section of the city can, at the same time, be well designed. This proposal does not demonstrate that this can be achieved.

Jane Jacobs derided tower-in-the-park design as towers in urban “prairies.” This exemplifies that unless it is a tower in a “moor.” In this case “moor” would be less. The design does not even allow trees. There will be no way to go back and retrofit the landscaping to break up the vast center with any feel of intricacy.

The buildings themselves worsen the experience by being huge, bland, featureless and repetitive. And anytime a building gets described as resembling a “tuber” you know you are in trouble.

Keeping the High Line is good though.


One problem with the Durst/Vornado and Extell plans is that they have too little sense of human scale. For instance, the sinuous taffy-pull shape of the Durst elevated people walkway (that “makes up” for destruction of part of the High Line) leaves you uncomfortably clueless about scale, aside from being rather silly. The proposal also lacks intricacy.

The green ideas and effort is nice- but this is something that any of the proposals can be asked to do. It does not substitute for good city-making or design.

The fact that the proposal does not fully preserve the High Line is a definite negative.


Brookfield handles the High Line in an ideal way on 30th Street by being mostly separated from it. By contrast the Related proposal gives the High Line a sort of hug-of-death in this area and would benefit from some separations. Whereas, I would tweak the Brookfield plan to add some connections to the High Line on the South, in the case of Related's plan I would tweak it to add some separations in the same area. Keeping the High Line is good though.

There are a lot of things I like about the Related proposal though I have to get over a personal blue state reaction to Fox/Murdock.

I really like the triangular public space on the South.

I like the nonlinear narrowing with the slight triangular point of the big east/west running main space.

There is a clump of residential buildings that look like they come straight from what we did at Battery Park City. Since they were therefore very different, I had to struggle with that for a while even though I would love a whole complex done this way. The picture on the wall helped me reconcile what I thought about that. I come out positive on the tension in design. But looking at the picture made me think about some of the 12th Ave/West Street buildings further downtown that have an even older echo and it seemed to me making some of other buildings mimic that old style even more might help really pull together the conglomeration of style effect you are going for but which is not so absolutely obvious. It wouldn't be necessarily to give up big windows on the water but it might reduce construction costs.

The recent changes Related made to it main model during the exhibition improve the proposal by making the Eastern buildings less like the Time Warner complex. I don’t like the Time Warner complex. I like that there is lot mixed together in the complex. I like some of the performance space there. But I generally avoid the complex. I remembered liking very much the Dan Brodsky plan that lost out to Related and thought it echoed CPW well.

The idea of the waterfall of trees in the western facing windows of the tallest building. Dramatic and fun but it may be a full employment challenge for arborists which might wind up getting solved with some fairly generic easy-to-grow varieties the selection of which, accordingly, may feel a bit vintage in about 10 years.

Especially as buildings near the water, the lines for linked and flowing retail is too broken. The tower in the park stuff never works out that well in actual experience. There are some ways to play with fixing this though.

There is a huge opportunity for multilevel retail tying in with the High Line that is missed. Going for extra retail will be supported given the density that is coming and the potential destination aspect of the site. You have Chelsea at one end of the High Line, the Javit's Center at the other, and this is a park that will draw from the center of town- The Moynihan Station, (and new Related buildings over there), buses and new subways and new water taxis will all end there. Done right it will be a Mecca.


This plan is intimidating and dull partly because too much stress is put on achieving a high proportion of large floor plate building based on a questionable bet that this is what the financial industry will be needing in the future. This is not a good bet and too high a sacrifice to make. Go back and study where Wall Street is really heading: this is a bet that probably won’t pay off.

The full High Line should be kept.


It may turn out that there is some arguable cost involved but I think the question of whether the northern section of the High Line should also be preserved is a no- brainer. Of course the full High Line should be preserved.

1. A significant part of the High Line’s overall impressiveness is its total length. Shortening the High Line at its northen end will be a loss for the entire High Line. It will affect the language of every major tourist guide to the City forever onward.

2. The High Line is a unique opportunity being realized to create quiet public park space. The High Line is an exception to a current trend where significant amounts of our newly created City park space are subject to a great deal of highway noise.- Conversely, most of the High Line, because of its elevation and mid-block locations and distance from major roadways, will by and large provide a quiet experience. Anything that adds to the overall High Line experience will augment this rebalancing of the equation even though most of this northern portion of the High Line will not, itself, be one of the very quiet parts of the overall quiet park.

3. The High Line is creating obvious value to the City as demonstrated by the way in which developers are excitedly and quickly flocking to develop adjacent to it. I read reporting that a study commissioned by Friends of the High Line and conducted by the consulting firm Hamilton, Rabinovitz & Alschuler estimated the High Line would add 7% to the value of residential development at the Hudson Yards. That means hundreds of million dollars extra to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (the seller) and to the City in tax revenues if the High Line is preserved in this area.

4. This is one example of a situation where the benefit of a one-time opportunity must be measured not in immediate terms but in terms of something that, like other great parks that have been created, will shape the City a hundred or more years into the future.

5. This particular terminating portion of the High Line offers the most dramatic and closest elevated view of the Hudson River of the entire High Line and links it with another major linear park, the Hudson River Park. If anything, opportunities should be reviewed for how to optimize this hook-up.

6. The High Line’s presence in this northern area provides sorely needed amelioration of some of the flaws of the Javits Center which is likely to remain at that site. It will afford the Javits Center with an immediately adjacent connection and humanizing relationship to the rest of the City through a high-profile public amenity and social experience. It will serve to help integrate the Javits Center with the rest of the City and help deal with the way in which the Javits Center is currently an austere place, which upon exiting you immediately seek to flee. There is also perhaps some opportunity in that the westerly side of the Javits Center has elevated areas that could integrate with the elevations of the High Line. Taking the opportunity that is present, Javits visitors could exit the Center and immediately begin a leisurely stroll through some of the most interesting experiences and neighborhoods available in New York. If the opportunities are destroyed, then out-of-city visitors at the Center will be handed maps of the City and told that if they exit the Center and navigate some unfamiliar streets they can eventually hook up with this interesting experience. So more often than not they may never do it. What a waste that would be.

7. Any cost of preserving this section of the High Line should not be measured against the cost of demolishing it. It should instead be measured against the cost os replacing it with a fully comparable substitute amenity. Demolition for plaza or park space does not constitute a comparable amenity either in terms of area of public space or otherwise.

8. If the High Line is destroyed in this Hudson Yards area it will always be famous for what WASN’T done. In operatic terms for those of us who are fans of opera, it will be as famous as the end of Turandot, where virtually every opera aficionado knows that Puccini died in the middle of writing it so that the first time that Turandot was performed, Toscanini, as conductor, stopped, set down his baton before reaching the end of the opera, turned to the audience and said, “Here is where the master laid down his pen.” Likewise, if the High Line isn’t completed through to its end, people will stroll a truncated mile upon it and get to a point, turn to each other and say, “Here is where the High Line used to continue, could have continued, and doesn’t now.” It would be dreadful if this became a disappointing part of every tour guide’s repertoire offered to all the tourists they address to take home to their respective home country.

As for High Line design: There should be no abrupt design transitions.


One final comment overall. Most New Yorkers would be quite happy if this effort were not striving for this extreme density even though lower density would reduce proceeds to the MTA. But if there is going to be insistence on extreme density there must be truly excellent design to pull it off.


Please feel to contact me if you want. I am a lawyer with a lot of experience in government, public finance and development and I have a degree in urban planning.

1 comment:

Walter Plinge said...

Are you on Quinn's payroll? Why are you shilling for bad development?