A glittering new development in New York, billed as the largest private real estate project in the history of the United States, makes its debut this week on Manhattan’s west side.
At the development overlooking the Hudson river, called Hudson Yards, soaring office and apartment towers now stand on top of active rail yards, creating a new business district west of the heart of midtown Manhattan. Some hail it as the city’s next great neighborhood, while others criticize it as a sanitized playground and work campus for the rich.
“This is one of the great transformations of New York City,” said Mitchell Moss, an urban planning professor at New York University. “They took an area of the city that had been run down, that had been a place people avoided, and they turned it into a live, active part of the city.”
While Friday marks the official opening for the $25bn project, some of the 15 buildings slated for the 28-acre site are already open, and some are still years off.
Planning for the area dates back decades, when the city hoped to host the 2012 Olympics and envisioned a new football stadium in one of the last large undeveloped areas in Manhattan. The Olympic dream and the stadium plan both died, but the idea of building up the far west side lived on, with developer Related Companies eventually taking the lead.
A public project to extend of the 7 subway line made it possible, with the city’s first new subway station in a quarter-century opening in 2015. (Like the rest of the problem-plagued subway system, it has its troubles: escalators have broken down at the cavernously deep station.)
The office buildings at Hudson Yards have drawn tenants such as BlackRock, Coach, Kate Spade and Warner Media.
On 15 March, the public will be invited into the opulent area, to public plazas surrounding the art work Vessel, a 150ft-tall climbable sculpture made up of interlocking flights of stairs.
Also opening is The Shops & Restaurants at Hudson Yards. It’s a mall, but the developers fashion it thus: “Think Soho and Madison Avenue, only climate-controlled and weather-proofed.”
How New Yorkers will take to the new shopping center remains to be seen, but developers expect half the visitors to be tourists. The project sits at the northern end of the hugely popular High Line park. Only a few of the retailers featured are based in the city.
“This will be one of the handful of places you just simply have to come,” said Kenneth Himmel, the president and CEO of Related Urban, who showed reporters around this week as workers made final touch-ups to prepare the Italian marble-floored building for the crowds.
Well-known chefs such as José Andrés and David Chang are opening restaurants. There’s a three-story Neiman Marcus, the first in New York City, where shoppers can get a mani-pedi, meet with a digital stylist and try on pricey clothes with one of the five different lighting options available in the fitting rooms.
Still to come, the highest outdoor observation deck in the western hemisphere is expected to open on the 100th floor of 30 Hudson Yards, a skyscraper that measures 1,296ft, taller than the Empire State Building. Visitors will get panoramic views of the New York skyline and a glass floor to gaze down on the city below.
The current development sits over the eastern part of the railyard, which serves nearby Penn Station. There are still years of construction to come to build a platform over the western yard. Eventually, 4,000 apartments are planned for the site, with about 430 of them renting below market rates in the city’s affordable housing program.
Stephen Ross, the billionaire founder of Related, is the mastermind behind the project, and plans to live there.
Even the trees at Hudson Yards are air-conditioned, with a climate control system installed to “ensure that the plants and trees at Hudson Yards will be the most pampered in New York City”.
All the opulence has drawn its share of criticism as a mega-project pandering to the rich and tourists with taxpayer dollars, while ignoring the real lives of the majority of New Yorkers.
An article in New York magazine labeled the development a “billionaire’s fantasy city”.
“I can’t help feeling like an alien here, as though I’ve crossed from real New York, with all its jangling mess, into a movie studio’s back-lot version. Everything is too clean, too flat, too art-directed,” wrote architecture critic Justin Davidson. “This para-Manhattan, raised on a platform and tethered to the real thing by one subway line, has no history, no holdover greasy spoons, no pockets of blight or resident eccentrics – no memories at all.”
Taxpayers helped make it all happen. The city is laying out a total of $5.7bn in tax breaks, bonds and other spending in the area. Much of that is for public infrastructure: the extension of the 7 train, parks and a new public school. But Related and other commercial and residential developers are also getting a hefty break on their property taxes, adding up to more than $1.4bn, according to a November analysis by the New School.
“This project was sold as a self-financing project, which makes it sound like it’s free, but the reality on the ground is it’s actually very expensive,” said New School researcher Bridget Fisher, one of the report’s authors.
But the distaste in some circles never morphed into the wave of opposition that has greeted some New York mega-projects, like the now-scuttled plan for a new Amazon headquarters.
In a mostly undeveloped area, there were few home and business owners to fight the wrecking ball. And the deal was done before the current anti-corporate turn in the city’s and the nation’s Democratic politics.
Another critic, Eater’s Ryan Sutton, panned the development’s dining scene, writing that it “solidifies Manhattan’s slow transformation from one of the world’s most distinctive urban centers into a nondescript international mall for the wealthy” with a “style of urban planning that favors destination diners (and those who live in the luxe apartments) over anyone who hopes to walk down the block and feel the energy of people spilling out of crowded bars and culinary establishments”.
“It’s a reinvention of New York that would make a Las Vegas casino owner proud,” he wrote.