Ada Louise Huxtable Attacks Rail Yards Planning Process

Wall Street Journal

Architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable takes the Rail Yards planning process to task today. She's skeptical of a process she sees as offering too much to the developers to the ultimate detriment of the public good, because

"It is hard to believe that teams with this much financial heft and assembled star power could come up with something so awesomely bad."

Notably, she singles out the possible preservation of the High Line as a rare triumph of public opinion in this process:

"This section of the High Line was considered expendable by a number of the developers until public opinion made them think otherwise; it appears in all of the schemes, usually as a kind of peripheral trim. Or worse, a device for enhancing commercial properties by allowing direct exits onto the elevated park, a terrible idea.

Huxtable suggests the lack of visionary (or even sensical) planning is due to the City's focus on financial incentive over public benefit:

"The most disturbing aspect of this high-stakes game is the default of the city and the public agencies involved: their failure to create -- or is it simply disinterest? -- a coordinated plan for a West Side bursting with development from Penn Station and Madison Square Garden to the Javits Center, allowing these cobbled up investment schemes to substitute for any appropriate, larger solutions.

The city thinks like a developer; that vision thing, the long-term overview, the balance of private investment and public utility and amenity, is just not there."

Read the complete article after the jump.


The Hudson Yards Proposals

Plenty of Glitz, Little Vision

If anything ever proved the old saw about committees and camels, it is the schemes for the extremely large and extremely lucrative redevelopment of New York's Hudson Yards, the 28 acres on Manhattan's far West Side currently up for sale by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to the bidder with the most financial allure and the best camel -- oops, plan.

Associated Press

Anyone who has watched this ritual real-estate dance in New York before knows what to expect: After the display and the discussion and a tortuous path of Catch-22 obstacles and Machiavellian deal-making, we will get a lot of very, very big buildings that will make someone very, very rich. There will be a great many of these very large buildings because the site is enormous. The 28 acres that span the rail yards from 30th to 33rd streets and 10th Avenue to the Hudson River, dwarfing Ground Zero's 16 acres, have already been rezoned in part for the biggest buildings possible.
The only other thing we can count on is that whatever is eventually built there will bear very little resemblance to what we are being shown now. For which we should be tremendously thankful. Because it is hard to believe that teams with this much financial heft and assembled star power could come up with something so awesomely bad. Only two of them appear to have thought about it beyond the standard investment model blown up to gargantuan scale.

The scenario is right on schedule. The decision by the public agency, the cash-strapped MTA, to sell the land to private developers was followed by a request for proposals that included guidelines for commercial and residential construction, landscaped open space, and a cultural building and school. (Historically, the amenities have a way of fading away or being relegated to reduced, fringe status later on; see, for example, the case of the disappearing cultural buildings at Ground Zero.)

Once the bids and presentations are in and the show is over, the real negotiating will get under way. So why the charade -- the expensively executed and seductively lit models, the earnest presentations by the architects, the request for public reactions? Why do we discuss the proposals at all?

Extell Development's Submission
Hope springs eternal, of course, because the chance to create something of lasting value on this incredible site begs to be honored; other world cities are making it clear in projects of similar magnitude that more than money matters as they embrace standards of architecture and planning that leave New York in the dust. 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.

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.

The Brookfield Properties Plan
The plan offered by Brookfield Properties is the work of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and the landscape firm Field Operations. (Brookfield-owned property in Lower Manhattan includes The Wall Street Journal offices at 200 Liberty Street.) 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.

Brookfield

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.

This section of the High Line was considered expendable by a number of the developers until public opinion made them think otherwise; it appears in all of the schemes, usually as a kind of peripheral trim. Or worse, a device for enhancing commercial properties by allowing direct exits onto the elevated park, a terrible idea. Skidmore, Owings and Merrill's most conspicuous contribution is a pair of skyscrapers that look, in profile, alarmingly like sex toys. A reasonable selection of innovative architects completes the proposal.



Both the Extell and Brookfield schemes suffer from the lack of a major tenant. Tishman Speyer has the promise of Morgan Stanley, the Durst Vornado team has brought along Conde Nast, apparently already out of room in its relatively new Times Square headquarters, and the Related Cos. comes with News Corp., which recently added The Wall Street Journal to its publications with the purchase of Dow Jones. The fact that such deals frequently fall apart in the changing economic climate of the intervening years of construction doesn't seem to diminish their value.

Related

The Related Cos., with a drop-dead list of consultants, contributors, collaborators and anyone else who could be thrown into the mix (design teams can be camels, too), has covered all possible bases with something dreadful for everybody. This is not planning, it's pandering. They are either cynical or clueless; how else to explain the grossly opportunistic architectural zoo of Arquitectonica's jazzy modern and Robert A.M. Stern's retro-traditional and the high-powered skyscraper-style of the lead firm, Kohn Pederson Fox? Related is rumored to be the front-runner because of a shrewd combination of financial backing, political connections and establishment names. It is quite clear that they know what they are doing and why they are doing it -- and it is perfectly awful.

I seem to have blocked out the Durst Vornado team; possibly there were too many abstract planning cliches fished out of the past to absorb. I am resisting the inexplicable revival of the discredited elevated walkways of the 1960s that were a notorious failure in places like London's Barbican and South Bank, presented under the trendy archispeak of "biomimetic concepts," "microclimates" and "layering." Even worse, they slither across parkland, where they do not belong, and will stand vacant and unused because it is already a matter of record that people avoid them. The rest is standard city-of-the-future.

Finally, there is the elephantine dead-on-arrival proposal by Helmut Jahn and Peter Walker for Tishman Speyer. What in the world were they thinking? This oppressive arrangement of immense matched towers (I will not mention the diagonal stripes) relates to nothing; it is a throwback to the most insensitive urban renewal projects of the past century. The landscaped platform and its concentric steps evokes all those abandoned outdoor amphitheaters that looked so great in bird's-eye views but never worked. You have the feeling that if you gave the whole thing a good push it would slide right down to the bottom of the Hudson River.

Durst

The most disturbing aspect of this high-stakes game is the default of the city and the public agencies involved: their failure to create -- or is it simply disinterest? -- a coordinated plan for a West Side bursting with development from Penn Station and Madison Square Garden to the Javits Center, allowing these cobbled up investment schemes to substitute for any appropriate, larger solutions.

The city thinks like a developer; that vision thing, the long-term overview, the balance of private investment and public utility and amenity, is just not there. 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.
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