The particulars of the proposals that at least five development teams will file today with New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority are sure to differ somewhat in their respective visions of the future of Manhattan's gritty Hudson Yards district. But the plans will certainly all be powered by the same overriding conceptual engine: this contested site is -- no pressure, folks -- intended to set Manhattan on course for the 21st century and save the city from global obsolescence.
Large and raw, Hudson Yards isn't just another development parcel. It's a very real and potent extension of what is already the nation's largest, wealthiest and most powerful Central Business District. It's a new piece of -- not just a new adjacency to -- a market that is the very definition of high barrier to entry. But even before a piling has been driven into what will likely be the billion-dollar decking over of the rail cut that is Hudson Yards itself, the site bears the expectations of many constituencies: City Hall and Albany, the would-be developers, the larger real estate industry and the city's business interests, and of the local and regional community.
The Larger Design
The entire redevelopment district, which is larger than the site immediately in question, holds out the potential to engender business and economic development on a grand scale and even resolve, through new mass transit, commuter and freight rail and trans-Hudson connections, some of the terribly difficult infrastructure challenges faced by the entire metropolitan region and especially the city.
Without this outlet, Manhattan's physical and commercial expansion runs dead-end into the water-tight Financial District and landfill-limited Battery Park City, and then must feed on itself. That's even considering the hoped-for redevelopment of the nearby Penn Plaza district to the east of this site by
Vornado Realty Trust
(a contender for designation as developer of Hudson Yards with its partner, the Durst Organization), as a 10 million-square-foot commercial center pales next to the civic scale of Hudson Yards.
After more than five years of post-9/11 growth and prosperity, New York City appears close to the crest of a spectacular summit. But there are persistent current and long-term challenges, including an overburdened infrastructure, killer housing costs, widening wealth gap and a population headed for serious expansion. Now, the city faces two related and more immediate hurdles that place added pressure on the public and private entities that will combine to build out Hudson Yards to its fullest potential.
First is the imminent end of the Bloomberg era -- the departure of a uniquely apolitical, independent steward and problem-solver. And virtually synchronous with that is what we are witnessing the first signs of now: the retrenching of the financial services industry, which hand in hand with this mayor has carried the city aloft to its current glittering pinnacle, but whose global center of gravity has already shifted undeniably to London.
What does that all have to do with Hudson Yards? Grasping the implications of these issues and the momentous changes wrought by globalization and harnessing them in ways that will maximize the city's strengths for the foreseeable future and beyond is a singular burden for an industrial wasteland-in-waiting to bear.
Taken together in the context of the redevelopment of Hudson Yards, this set of conditions calls for the kind of imagination, excitement and muscular creativity that is what has given New York City its true global edge over the previous century and a half.
There are already rumblings that at least some of the developers in the Hudson Yards mix are thinking along these lines. For example, the usually design-challenged -- indeed, design-averse -- Gary Barnett of Extell Development has hired ground-breaking architect Steven Holl as his master planner. Those who have seen the plan (under strict confidentiality orders barring them from revealing even its existence) say only that it has promise.
The other news that has leached out regarding the various proposals is that at least one team -- Durst and Vornado -- is coming forward with a major commercial tenant in hand -- Conde Nast, which would relocate west from its already pioneering headquarters at Durst's 4 Times Square. There is also speculation that Tishman Speyer will show up with
in tow, not just as a financial partner but also as an eventual tenant.
Three of the proposers (Vornado, Related and
) have significant interests to the east of the development site. Vornado, the largest private landowner in the area, controls the Penn Plaza area; jointly with Related, it also controls the redevelopment of the James A. Farley Post Office, which is intended to become a rail hub and to where the two firms want to transplant Madison Square Garden. They have, from time to time, released a minimum of imagery for this project, which entails the remaking of major historic work of architecture designed by McKim, Mead & White.
On its own, Vornado has been even less forthcoming with its Penn Plaza plans. But both firms have impressive precedents to point to, including Cesar Pelli's office/condo tower housing Bloomberg LP for Vornado and Related's Time Warner Center. The latter is less successful as a design exercise, but its commercial success and its power on the urban stage are undeniable.
Between the western flank of the post office building and the eastern edge of Hudson Yards, Brookfield controls a major blockfront on which it continues to explore development possibilities with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill as its architect. Brookfield's development pedigree is undeniable -- as the successor to Olympia & York, it can claim World Financial Center as a legacy of its development approach. In Toronto, it can also point to BCE Place, a mixed bag with its standout Calatrava atrium showing up the less-than-exciting skyscrapers surrounding it. Brookfield is also contemplating a major overhaul and expansion of its retail offerings at the World Financial Center.
Tishman Speyer, with nearly $40 billion in assets under management, is known as much for its repositioning of trophy assets such as Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler Building and the Met Life Building as for developing them, as it did with the Messeturm in Frankfurt. With its ownership now of major apartment holdings through New York's Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village and now Archstone Smith, it can be said that the company has a lot on its plate. But it also has the political and financial clout and steady hand of Jerry Speyer, who sees this as yet another opportunity to put his particular stamp on a whole new piece of Manhattan.
The real outlier in the contest is Gary Barnett and Extell. Unlike the other four, which all boast decades of ownership and development experience in the city and whose key players -- Steve Roth of Vornado, Douglas Durst, Steve Ross of Related, Ric Clark of Brookfield and Jerry Speyer -- comfortably inhabit in the real estate firmament, Barnett is a relative newcomer. The projects he is known for are almost exclusively residential and often controversial, but he has moved with almost lightning speed to erect high-rise condominiums across the city.
And despite being somewhat late to the party, he has managed to bring powerful allies on board at Extell, such as Marc Shaw. Shaw left his post as Bloomberg's first deputy mayor in March 2006 to join Extell, which nearly a year earlier made its biggest splash to date by partnering with private equity giant Carlyle Group to buy a $1.8 billion parcel on Manhattan's West Side -- about a mile from Hudson Yards -- from Hong Kong investors and Donald Trump.
At the time of publication, Peter Slatin had no positions in stocks mentioned.
Slatin publishes the independent real estate newsletter theslatinreport.com. He has written extensively about real estate and architecture for publications ranging from Barron's to The New York Times, and is on the editorial board of Real Estate Portfolio, published by the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts. He was the founder and editor of Grid, an award-winning real estate business magazine.