Hudson Yards Offers Hot Market Banal Towers, Curvy Condos

Manhattan’s Hudson Yards mega-development is rising again, twice as large as Rockefeller Center and more centrally located than London’s Canary Wharf.

Construction has begun on a 47-story office tower at the edge of one of the busiest rail yards in the U.S. The $15 billion development will ultimately roof much of the 26-acre yards and stretch west from Midtown’s brawny brick to the sparkling park-edged Hudson River. A swath of greenery will flow around 10 high-rise towers.

Hudson Yards’ prognosis looked cloudy as little as a year ago. Now New York’s real-estate market is so hot it’s being chased by recently announced mega-developments along the Brooklyn and Queens side of the East River.

These new projects, comprising dozens of towers, are dominated by apartment buildings and don’t have the proximity to the Midtown commercial core that Hudson Yards does. They will have gorgeous waterside esplanades and spectacular views.

Related Cos. made a $1.05 billion deal with the rail yards’ owner, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, in 2008 just as the real-estate market was collapsing. Then its partner was Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and News Corp. was the anchor tenant.

With Toronto-based Oxford Properties Group Inc. -- the real estate investment unit of Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System -- as Related’s new partner and a reviving real-estate market, the project has come out of hibernation.

Confused Assortment

Hudson Yards is big enough to incubate a truly 21st-century downtown. Related, which tends to default to the cookie cutter, isn’t going that far. The design is still a work in progress, yet could be much richer than the confused assortment offered in 2008 that looked like a graveyard of developer castoffs.

Related and Oxford currently are working on the eastern half of the site. Architect Kohn Pedersen Fox will pair the tower rising now with a second, 69-story one, and run a multi-story mall (designed by retail specialist Elkus Manfredi) between them. The combination will make a long, intimidating wall along 10th Avenue, leavened by tall, glassy entry lobbies at the corners.

The cockeyed towers tilt and fold into knife-edge peaks as they rise from appendages in the shape of prisms and skinny wedges. These drop away as the towers go higher.

An observation-deck prow cantilevers 80 feet from the upper reaches of the taller building. Inside will be restaurants and a VIP club.

Related’s floor layouts are backward-looking, reflecting the energy-inefficient, low-ceilinged norm that’s claustrophobic in today’s high-density workplace.

Atrium Light

By contrast, leather-goods retailer Coach Inc. signed on for 740,000 square feet in the first tower, and shows how the buildings should be done by slicing a dramatic 15-story atrium so its space could be filled with light.

Related and Oxford fill out the eastern superblock with two very tall residential towers that rise sheer, like bespoke missile silos, along 11th Avenue. David Childs, of Skidmore Owings & Merrill LLP, stacks stores, a giant fitness center, offices, a hotel and condominiums within a silkily rounded 60-story tower that telescopes into smaller sections as it rises.

The reflective-glass exterior is treated like tufted upholstery in the 72-story residential tower by Diller Scofidio & Renfro with the Rockwell Group. Metal straps cinch the upper half into rounded columnar forms. The skyscrapers could be finished by late 2017.

Unfortunately, all four towers collide jarringly. Their designs are veneered on, just like tower clumps in the instant downtowns of emerging global hubs.

Culture Shed

The Culture Shed, a transformable art and public-performance venue, is the only unique element in the entire development. Rockwell and Diller Scofidio & Renfro designed an exterior carapace of accordion-fold segments in lacy metal trusswork. Garaged in their residential tower, it rolls onto the plaza on railroad tracks as an open-air pavilion to host performances or a greenmarket.

Wouldn’t it make a richer contribution if it opened directly onto the river?

The towers and the Culture Shed face an urban plaza that could conjure exciting urban spectacle out of a ballet of movement. The plaza is fed from the shopping mall (right now looking like Related’s bland Time Warner Center mall on steroids). The northern terminus of the High Line Park spills into it, as does the southern end of a park the city is building.

But the icy gigantism of the surrounding buildings is daunting. Recent renderings show an oval surrounded by generic trees and a gushing fountain that looks as if it had been picked from a catalog. These items are too feeble for the task.

Hunting Artwork

Related is hunting worldwide for a monumental artwork as the plaza’s focus. Landscape architect Nelson Byrd Woltz will redesign the plaza around it. I’m hoping for the sublime not the ridiculous.

Only tentative plans exist for the river-facing western superblock. Rectangular residential blocks and a school run in a much too rigid line on the north and south edges, while three rounded residential towers carve open space into a small internal park.

An elevated lawn opens toward the river, with a swath of it flowing down to slide beneath the High Line.

The scale of these spaces is more realistically human than the 2008 plan. If the designs are further refined to let sun, shadow and the tantalizing river view dance among the towers, Hudson Yards would make a surprising, gorgeous contrast with Manhattan’s dour grid.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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