Follow the Money

With the winning bid for the Hudson Rail Yards announced, the author takes a critical look at the flawed selection process.

If architecture critics have any influence or intend to serve as advocates for public policy decisions or the choice of developers on public land, they pretty seriously missed the boat on the project planned for the Hudson Rail Yards, 26-acre section of the 350-acre Hudson Yards development between Penn Station and Hell’s Kitchen. Like most major projects in New York that involve public land, the development strategy was inevitably going to need to minimize the use of public funds through some kind of private investment. Nobody was suggesting that it was wrong for the MTA to leverage the land to offset the huge cost of a subway extension, a prerequisite to creating a new district in the city that has the added benefit of making the Javits convention center suddenly less remote from public transport. And the developers of the site were happy to kick in for the cost of building a platform over the functioning Long Island Railroad train yard—$2 billion by itself—and adding a gigantic park in the middle that would take up half of the site. The problem with West Side rail yard development, according to the critics, was scale. And by scale, they meant tallness.

Ever since Jane Jacobs valiantly fought off Robert Moses’s highway through Washington Square Park, scale has been the bugbear of the high-minded urban critic. It’s a key complaint about the Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn; the rezoning of the north Brooklyn waterfront to facilitate a promenade and public parks rather than industrial waste and trash collection; and it even figured—improbably—into discussions of the World Trade Center site. When you hear the word scale, reach for your gun, as Mao might have said.

Not every neighborhood has to look like Greenwich Village. In fact, if they tried to put another Greenwich Village on top of the Hudson Yards, we could reasonably expect critics to complain about historical pastiche. They would be right. But more gravely, the underdevelopment of the site, one of the few areas where enormous buildings would have almost no effect on site lines or quality of life in the surrounding neighborhoods, would be absurd land-use planning, and a major lost opportunity for economic growth and new architectural landmarks in the city.

For all the overheated rhetoric surrounding the few high-rises cropping up on the Lower East Side and the Williamsburg waterfront—and even, improbably again, Times Square—New York is growing slowly relative to Beijing, Moscow, Dubai, and countless other cities. We certainly don’t look forward to a time when historic neighborhoods are razed to create skyscraper cities. But investment is a hugely important part of a thriving city, and New Yorkers are fortunate to be able to pick and choose what kind and size of investment we prefer.

In most places, if anyone wanted to drop some billions of dollars into the expansion of the central business district, you could expect a fair amount of excitement and no end of crowing ceremonies on the part of city leaders. Here we had five teams of banks, developers, architects, and other designers fighting for the chance. And in all likelihood—barring an economic catastrophe far greater than hundreds of billions of dollars in stupid and poorly regulated mortgage loans—the winner will eventually double their money by the time all is said and done. (It’s worth recalling that the size of the U.S. economy was nearly $14 trillion last year.)

Despite the sometimes heady presentations of architecture and planning schemes at Cooper Union and in a gallery across from Grand Central, the MTA always made it clear that they would be voting on a development scheme for the site, not an architectural scheme, though there was very little transparency in terms of what the basis for its evaluation would be. None of the teams were permitted to put a dollar figure on the amount of investment they were proposing, at least publicly. Given the historic infiltration of the construction industry, someone should perhaps look into a conspiracy behind its selection of Tishman Speyer’s proposal with Helmut Jahn and Peter Walker, the only criminally bad architectural plan proposed. During the embarrassing initial presentation I noted to myself its fascistic symmetry and grandiosity, which I don’t mean as a slam against the German-born architect so much as a slam on fascistic symmetry and grandiosity. But, again, architecture was never the point, and the clumsy presentation seemed to acknowledge that.

Presumably the MTA was looking for a developer who actually had the financial resources to pony up for the land and build the project, which automatically excluded the anemic proposal by Extell Development and Steven Holl Architects, in any case a completely rhetorical plan lacking in detail and mostly intended as a kind of finger in the eye of large-scale development. Its gray military bastions huddled at the edges would have had the advantage for Holl of not obscuring his view of the Hudson River from his office on 31st Street but hugely undersold the site’s potential in terms of size and signature buildings. Times critic Nicolai Ouroussoff—posing as the social conscience of a profession that likes to flatter itself by pretending to have a conscience—bought into it hook, line, and sinker, as it were, appearing to recoil against the very idea of profit-taking in real estate. One would have to be a slightly nuanced urban critic to begin from the point of view that profits and public interest are not necessarily in opposition—that the use of the market to promote the public good is how pretty much everything worthwhile gets done—and a somewhat more nuanced architecture critic to do more than celebrate this merely rhetorical proposal in contrast to the genuine corporate trash.

For what it’s worth, I was always somewhat a fan of the eclectic proposal by Brookfield Properties with its hit list of contemporary architects, urban designers, and landscape architects, a truly spectacular assortment of inventive practices that included Thomas Phifer, SHoP, Diller Scofidio, SAANA, Field Operations, and Handel Architects, anchored by the skyscraper specialists at SOM, with Buro Happold on board for engineering. It had a thoughtful approach to the integration of the High Line, which extends into the site, in a way that fluidly merged the two districts, with smart planning along the border as a transition to a cultural center by the Japanese wizards at SAANA, and the ingenious landscapes of James Corner and the bolder meat-and-potatoes architecture in the middle. Clearly Brookfield too lacked the financial wherewithal to compete with the big banks, however, dropping out before a decision was announced, reportedly to focus on one of the adjacent sites that will be developed in a separate bid.

But I was also not totally apoplectic about the similarly eclectic but squarely middle-brow plan—mishmash is probably the word—by Kohn Pedersen Fox, Arquitectonica, Robert A.M. Stern, and West 8 for Goldman Sachs and the Related Companies, despite the latter’s history of defacing major public squares with clunky buildings like One Union Square South, the Astor Place condos, and the Time Warner Center. It would have turned the park into an instrument of branding for News Corp, but I don’t have that much of a problem with corporations per se and Rubert Murdoch owns a lot of classic movies that they were planning on showing on a big screen. FxFowle’s project with Pelli Clarke Pelli for Durst Vornado could have reliably been expected to more than fulfill the sustainable building promises made by all bidders—in accordance with the new PlaNYC guidelines— with a workman-like but pretty generic and inoffensive office-park architecture. In any case, all of this is moot, since the bottom line was always the bidding process taking place behind closed doors. Follow the money, as someone supposedly once said. Instead of architecture critics and tastemakers parsing aesthetics, we needed real estate and city room reporters to dig a little. The high-rise haters would have done much better to look for a rat behind the scenes (maybe a hooker scandal among the board members).

But so what if the MTA did in fact choose the developer based on how much they were willing to pay for the land? That’s the purpose of a competitive bidding process, greatly preferable to politicians handing out deals to connected insiders, as the Times noted on its editorial page. How do you quantify the value of a better urban design scheme, more sustainable features, better integration of the High-Line, more inspiring skyscrapers? A hundred twelve million dollars for a skyscraper aiming for LEED Platinum, as the outbid Durst Vornado partnership proposed? Five hundred million for city control of the site, as it offered? How much of a fare hike would New Yorkers be willing to pay for each improvement—in an area that most of us have never set foot and are unlikely ever to go? And how much profit or potential loss is publicly acceptable on an investment of untold billion dollars over the course of maybe 20 years?

Without a more transparent process it’s almost impossible to judge, but the World Trade Center competition suggests that more public involvement is not necessarily the answer. What seems clear is that shadowy agencies like the MTA and Port Authority, originally established to balance the competing interests of various states and cities in the metro region—there are at least five Pataki appointees still on the MTA Board—are ill-equipped to deal with these kinds of projects. I personally would have hoped that the critics, if their opinions mattered, had pushed for more ambition not only in terms of style but also size, something to compete with the gigantic carbon-neutral cities breaking ground in Abu Dhabi and the supertall buildings under construction in Dubai, even if that meant having to come to terms with the shocking prospect of somebody making a profit from real estate in New York.

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