Friday, October 12, 2012

Justin Davidson’s New York Magazine Review Of Hudson Yards Echos Concerns Raised By NNY, But Does So Without Mentioning Obvious Atlantic Yards Parallels

This week’s New York Magazine presents us with Justin Davidson’s “exclusive preview” of Hudson Yards:  From 0 to 12 Million Square Feet, published Oct 7, 2012.

That well worth reading article manages to raise a number of points that echo issues Noticing New York has been writing about, including a concern Noticing New York revisited and featured in an article posted here the day before Davidson review.  This concern was highlighted in the teaser caption leading into the Davidson review (“In a few weeks, construction begins on New York’s largest development ever. Hudson Yards is handsome, ambitious, and potentially full of life. Should we care that it’s also a giant slab of private property?”) and Davidson further zeroed in on it with the two concluding paragraphs with which he buttoned up his four page review of the coming project: Should we worry that  this “Mega-metropolis” is private property of a single owner?:
The plaza is the node where the site’s conflicting forces reveal themselves: the tension between public and private, between city and campus, between democratic space and commercial real estate. Occupy Wall Street’s takeover of Zuccotti Park last year pointed up the oxymoron inherent in the concept of privately owned public space: You can do anything you like there, as long as the owners deem it okay. Childs hopes that his client’s insistence on premium-brand design won’t make Hudson Yards just the province of privilege. “We want this project to be laced through with public streets, so that everyone has ownership of it, whether you’re arriving in your $100,000 limo or pushing a shopping cart full of your belongings.”

The plans include drop-off lanes, so the limos are taken care of. But if the shopping-cart pushers, buskers, protesters, skateboarders, and bongo players start feeling too welcome at Hudson Yards, Related’s security guards will have a ready-made argument to get them to disperse: This is private property.
Here is Noticing New York’s last meditation on precisely that subject: Sunday, October 7, 2012, Will The “Daily News” Plaza at the “Barclays” (LIBOR) Center Be A Public Space For Free Speech?: Police Issue A Directive To The Contrary.)

The thing to note is that all the valid concerns in the Davidson review, including this one, respecting the 26-acre Hudson Yards project also apply (and get focus on from Noticing New York) in terms of Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards mega-monopoly but there is no mention of this by Davidson.  In fact, the language of the Davidson article is frequently written in a way that seem to imply that the sister mega-project Atlantic Yards must not even exist, this right at the same time as all the current hoopla accompanying the opening of the first Atlantic Yards building, the so-called “Barclays” Center, and just weeks after Davidson’s own New York Magazine review of that “Barclays” Center in an issue if the magazine featuring a cover story about the arena’s debut.

The New York Magazine description of Hudson Yards as a “Mega-metropolis” is reminiscent of Noticing New York’s regular description of Atlantic Yards as a mega-monopoly.”   Compared to the 26-acre Hudson Yards, the Ratner mega-monopoly, placed atop the converging ganglia of Brooklyn’s most important subway lines, consists of 50+ acres.  Most of those Ratner acres are contiguous, a contiguity achieved through government assistance; eminent domain abuse for their acquisition by Ratner and subsidy for his continued ownership.  At the Atlantic Yards site itself there are more than 30 contiguous Ratner-owned acres.  The Atlantic Yards site itself is nominally just 22 acres, but that doesn’t change the fact that with the adjacent property already owned by Ratner when he decided to wipe out competition in the neighborhood (via eminent domain), it’s 30+ contiguous acres all together.  And the Forest City Ratner overall plan concerns the entire 30+ acres.

The other thing that makes the Ratner mega-monopoly comparatively more extreme is the immense jump in density preferentially assigned to the Ratner-owned property over that of his neighbors.  Not so with Hudson Yards: Hudson Yards is only slightly more dense than its surrounding neighborhood.*  The Hudson Yards density is odd because the greater density the neighborhood ought to be the property closest to the subway lines, but the oddnesses are not so nearly as odd as the extremely preferential density being granted Ratner with an override of city zoning that was not subject to traditional public review.

(* What is considered dense in midtown areas relative to other midtown areas may start changing:   The Bloomberg administration recently unveiled plans to almost double-- starting in 2017-- the density of Manhattan’s already very dense Midtown business district surrounding Grand Central, from 39th Street to 57th Street on the East Side.) 

I have presented Noticing New York criticisms of Hudson Yards but in many ways the government handling of Hudson Yards is significantly superior to Atlantic Yards.  Hudson Yards was subject to a fairly careful competitive bid: Atlantic Yards was not.  The MTA got what was probably the best price that could be gotten for Hudson Yards, given the way the request for bids issued was structured: Not so Atlantic Yards where there was what was essentially an escalating giveaway by the MTA to the developer on multiple fronts.

In terms of design caliber I also thought that the Related Companies proposed design for the Hudson Yards site was one of the better designs. . .  Not the best— I thought that the design presented by Brookfield Properties* was the best— but better than the poor design of Tishman Speyer, the company that first won the right to Hudson Yards acres and then defaulted on fulfilling the terms of their bid.

(* Ironically, since we are speaking in key respects about free speech in essentially public space that winds up subjected to privatization, it is impossible not to note that in a universe that is growing absurdly small in terms of the identifiable 1%, Brookfield is the nominally “private” owner of Zuccotti Park without whose participation there couldn’t have been an eviction of Occupy Wall Street’s 99% from that park.)

The better attributes of Hudson Yards notwithstanding, I have been critical of the Hudson Yards plan in several respects, going back a number of years.  For one thing it's too dense.  My major criticism is that rather than bidding out the site as a whole to one developer years ago (and have it lie fallow for so long), government should have prepared the site itself, then bid out subdivided parcels to multiple developers:
If the government (as opposed to a private developer) was preparing the site it would not be necessary to postpone the site’s preparation at this time. Site preparation during the current economic downturn might even be cheaper. As it would be a public work, it would arguably be in the running for funding through federal stimulus, an important part of that being that the prepared parcels would later be bid out. But stimulus money cannot be given to a private developer already signed onto the deal because it would totally change the equation based upon which the developer bid to pay the public a low amount for the site. Used that way, the money would eliminate the risk developer assumed and constitute an award of enormous private benefit to the developer without bid.
Just the way that real estate developers create value by subdividing property, had the government subdivided Hudson Yards (and Atlantic Yards) like what was done with the Battery Park City site, the cumulative amount government would get for the acreage it sold would be far greater.

Speaking in larger terms that applied to this and multiple other projects being championed by the Bloomberg administration at the time I said:
Strip things down to their core and you find that something is being sold. What is being sold is what belongs to public. Sometimes it is referred to as the “public realm.” That means such things as the right not to have our streets and avenues closed and sold off, the right to our historic neighborhoods, the right to good urban design, livable density and the right not to have our parks or amusement areas like Coney Island given away for development or speculative purchase.
Davidson, in his Hudson Yards review, presents his misgiving about the single developer approach in design terms: The potential for the possible “thrilling coherence” of “auteur” style development versus the risks of  “a place of oppressive uniformity, where each aesthetic miscalculation is multiplied many times over.”   Or, as Noticing New York has written, from a Jane Jacobs perspective, will we, with the single ownership of mega-projects, experience the banes of regimentation and monotony?  Davidson notes that the Related Companies were responsible for the Columbus Circle Time Warner project (rather mall-ish in Noticing New York’s estimation) and offer the none-too-encouraging observation that Hudson Yards could be that Columbus Circle project writ large:
 . .if you imagine the complex blown out to five times its size, you begin to get a sense of what’s coming at Hudson Yards. . .   But massive as it is, the Time Warner Center is dainty by comparison.”
Net Net: By subdividing properties like Hudson Yards and Atlantic Yards to be bid out and developed by multiple developers the public gets: 1.) Faster development, 2.) more money for the land it is selling, and 3.) better design.

In addition to what's said about free speech in public areas that have been "privatized," Davidson’s article is filled with other statements that cry out for a refrain of “What about Atlantic Yards?” in response:
    •    New York has no precedent for such a dense and complex neighborhood, covering such a vast range of uses, built in one go.           
            What about the bigger and more intrusive Atlantic Yards?

    •    $3 billion in taxpayer-funded improvements encircle the Related fiefdom—not including city tax abatements. “Where else have you ever seen this kind of public money for infrastructure to service a whole new development, in the heart of the city, with that much land and no obstacles?”           
            What about the huge amount of subsidy going to Atlantic Yards?  It’s hard to do apples to apples comparisons but $2-$3 billion in subsidies are going to Atlantic Yards.

    •    [On squeezing suitable public open space in amongst oversized skyscrapers] That’s a spectacular challenge; there are few great models for a European-style piazza within a ring of skyscrapers.
            What about Atlantic Yards?  Its towers too will be inordinately belittling to their interspersed public spaces.  Davidson quotes Thomas Woltz, the landscape architect charged with the challenge:  “In an open space next to 1,000-foot towers, our tallest tree is going to be like an ant next to a tall man’s shoe”

    •    Bloomberg hoped to draw the 2012 Olympics to New York with promises of a West Side stadium. The fact that London won the games was a disappointment to him but a stroke of luck for the West Side, scuttling what would have been a disastrous stadium plan, while at the same time calling attention to the value of the real estate above the tracks.
            What about Atlantic Yards that jammed a sports arena into the middle of conjoining brownstone neighborhoods and overriding city ordinances that should have required at least 200 feet of distance between such an arena and residences.  The West Side stadium wouldn’t have done that.

    •    The site as a whole is a yawning pit, not so much a blank slate as an empty socket, surrounded by amenities and infrastructure just waiting to be plugged in.
             What about Atlantic Yards?  Don’t people need to be reminded that the Atlantic Yards footprint, by comparison, wasn’t “an empty socket,” that 60% of it was a neighborhood that was a mixture of valuable historic buildings, busy business, and a lot of recent new development, all of which was scooped out and thrown away to make way for Ratner?
The Davidson article is full of good points and presents much to mull over, but as with so much in life what isn’t said may be more important than what is said . . .  Interesting in an article that buttons up its ending with concluding statements about the value of free speech when its exercised!

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