Few New Yorkers make it over to the Hudson Yards on the Far West Side of Manhattan, and there is no reason that they should. Only a few blocks from Midtown, the Hudson Yards are the stale butt end of Manhattan Island, the exposed tracks over which the trains pass from New Jersey into Penn Station. There is, at present, no charm in these 26 acres that stretch from 30th Street to 33rd Street and from Tenth Avenue to Twelfth Avenue — not even that charm of abjection that attaches to such rusted wrecks of the industrial age as the High Line, which, in a much-anticipated urban reclamation project, will soon become a park.
Last week, the MTA, which owns the Hudson Yards, unveiled five developers' ambitious and competing plans for the creation of a new community to be built over the tracks. The MTA, which had previously voted to develop a Jets stadium on the site, required that all the developers build in such a way that the trains continue to function throughout the construction process. Each entry incorporates the High Line into its design, combining mixed-use residential and commercial space, and providing for a yet-to-be-named major cultural institution.
The plans are on display for one more week in a storefront occupying the northwest corner of Vanderbilt and 43rd Street. Yet they are so schematic and so liable to change that it takes a trained eye to think away the jazzy renderings of curtain-walled towers and the diffused-focus images of sunlight reflected off the lacustrine waters of the Hudson — all that spurious specificity that developers use to seduce the public. The one thing we do know is that what is finally built will probably look nothing like what is planned today.
One thing that deserves our provisional praise is the commitment of several of the aspiring developers of the Hudson Yards to invite a variety of architects to design one building each. Thus the plan of the Related Companies calls upon the diverse talents of Kohn Pedersen Fox, Robert A.M. Stern, and Arquitectonica, all of whom can do distinguished work. The Related Companies proposal has the News Corporation as its main tenant in a 1,080-foot tower midblock on Tenth Avenue. This plan calls for 13 additional buildings and a 9-acre park.
Brookfield Properties has solicited designs from Skidmore Owings & Merrill, SHoP Architects, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and SANAA, among others. In addition to a dozen buildings, this proposal provides for two parks, each 3 acres, with a 3.5-acre plaza near Eleventh Avenue. Perhaps the most attractive part of this plan is the notion of opening up the street grid once again.
The Durst Corporation — together with Vornado — has called upon FXFowle and Pelli Clarke Pelli. FXFowle is one of the leaders of green architecture and that is what is being sold here. But at this point, it is hard to imagine that any building that rises in Manhattan will not trumpet its green credentials, and environmental concerns have already begun to take their toll on this firm's designs.
Perhaps the least appealing proposal, on the basis of the renderings, was submitted by Tishman Speyer and Morgan Stanley, according to designs by Helmut Jahn and Peter Walker. The dominant idea here is that the 13 towers diminish in height as they progress from east to west. But they look so soulless and impersonal that this project would seem to have little chance of success.
Only one of the developers, Extell, has entrusted the whole project to a single architect, Steven Holl. If there is one architect in the bunch who has exhibited to date the poetic elevation needed to design an entire community, it may just be Mr. Holl. The most attractive part of his plan is the decision to have a continuous park from Tenth Avenue to Twelfth Avenue with buildings flanking it. Less inspiring is the notion of suspending the park over the rails, rather than covering them up, in a misdirected homage to the industrial grittiness that underpins the development.
But because the plan that is ultimately adopted will probably look nothing like those that have now been submitted, the most useful thing might be to make some general observations about the development of the Hudson Yards. Consider that the guidelines require the project to be "mixed-use," the urbanist shibboleth of the day. To say that it is a shibboleth is simply to observe that its benefits are held to be so implicit that they are never questioned. Let us question them. Certainly it would be a fine thing if a vibrant, 24-hour community were to rise over the Hudson Yards. But to do that, you need far more than a shotgun marriage of office towers, affordable housing, and, as a sop to public sentiment, cultural institutions. Come to think of it, is there anywhere in the world today where this forced conjunction can be shown to have worked well? Surely you have vital 24-hour residential communities, some of them mixed with cultural institutions. But it is hard to see how the preponderance of office space that is envisaged for the Hudson Yards would sort well with housing, especially low- and middle-income housing. Nor is it clear how, in the context of housing and office space, a single cultural institution would ever constitute enough of a draw that it wouldn't seem irrelevant and out of place.
Indeed, it is difficult to find a single instance of a planned residential community that achieved that holy grail of 24-hour organic vitality. In New York, it is impossible. It is possible to find something to praise in Battery Park City, Trump Place, Tudor City, and even Stuyvesant Town. But no one can be under any illusion that these developments are anything other than what they are, artificial zones separated from the rest of the city in varying degrees of porousness.
Another problem that will bedevil the ultimate success of the Hudson Yards is the neighbors it is set to inherit. New York obviously requires a big convention center such as the Javits, which needs to expand and will expand, according to the latest plans. But the Javits, even in that new and improved form, is doomed to be a massive dead zone whenever a convention is not taking place—that is, most of the time. And because the Javits Center will not enhance the vitality of the nearby Hudson Yards, it must necessarily deplete, to some degree, whatever vitality the Hudson Yards might manage to generate. The same is true of the buffer zone separating the eastern edge of the yards, at Tenth Avenue, and the western edge of Midtown, at Eighth Avenue. It is far more likely to serve as a barrier between these two areas than to be enhanced by their proximity.
Fortunately, we are in the rare position to be able to say one thing with absolute certainty: Whichever plan is finally realized — and it looks as though one of them will be — it will be indisputably and incalculably better than what we see there today.