The city may call it Midtown West, but the corner of 8th Avenue and 41st Street certainly doesn’t feel like Midtown. The monochromatic New York Times tower has nothing in common with the lights of 42nd Street, and the new Eleven Times Square, with its relatively rectilinear offices atop layers of scrolling screens, has nothing in common with the Port Authority, which has spawned a brand-name, low-price hotel district just to its south, where McSam and the Lam Group have squeezed shiny buildings onto narrow tenement lots. And that’s only one clash of cultures between the titans in this so-called neighborhood.
One can still happen upon charming, low-rise residential streets like West 44th, properly known as Hell’s Kitchen, where the Actors Studio keeps company with home store Domus, and the new construction is the modestly scaled, rather elegant Chatham 44. Another pocket of old-fashioned residential exists south of the Farley Post Office on West 30th Street. These streets are anomalies amid the transportation no-man’s-land imposed by railroad tracks, tunnel ramps, and bus station access.
Today they are the last holdouts in an above-ground landscape rapidly undergoing transformation, as the march of luxury residential towers like River Place, Atelier, and now Silver Towers heads across 42nd to the river, buffered by huge commercial assemblages from Extell and Moinian opposite the Javits Center. At least, that was the plan until last fall. Now action has all but halted and will likely remain that way until the No. 7 train extension to 34th Street is more than its current hole in the ground.
The city’s vision for the area, embodied in the 2005 Hudson Yards rezoning text, centers on a brand-new Park Avenue called Hudson Boulevard, which slices the long blocks between 10th and 11th from 33rd to 39th streets. Originally intended as the pompous lead-up to the West Side Stadium, its new role is to create focus and amenity for a future row of green office buildings on its west side, and residential towers to the east and north.
The first three blocks, 33rd to 36th, are scheduled to open in 2013, when No. 7 riders could exit a Toshiko Mori teardrop-shaped station at the base of the park-slash-boulevard to be designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA). There are two LEED-certified office buildings in development, Extell’s World Product Centre and Moinian’s 3 Hudson Boulevard, that would open at the same time if both financing and tenants appear.
But Anna Hayes Levin, current chair of the Hudson Yards Community Advisory Committee (HYCAC), doesn’t think the boulevard of skyscrapers could or should happen. “It is a very unlikely place for commercial development,” she said. “Hudson Boulevard is a boulevard to nowhere—it only goes to 39th Street, into the maw of the Lincoln Tunnel. A better way to increase green space in the area would be to build a series of linked parks in the through-block open spaces over the Amtrak train cut. That way you would get a more organic, neighborhoody feeling.”
Right now, construction in the area is all rentals, including a 34-story High Line–adjacent tower at 316 11th by Douglaston Development, and two Rockrose projects at 37th and 10th. Earlier this year 455 West 37th was leased, and the two linked towers on the west side of the street should be ready in spring 2010. “The timing is not great for it,” admitted Rockrose director of planning John McMillan, “but no one else is building, so there will not be much else online when it’s completed. To establish a new neighborhood takes housing.”
They chose this particular intersection because of proximity to the Baryshnikov Arts Center at 37 ARTS and a large loft building on 37th, since those projects “established a residential bulkhead.” A similar bulkhead may be established when the northern section of the High Line opens in 2010, linking Chelsea to Midtown. Community Board 4 is also working to rezone 11th Avenue north of 42nd Street for residential use, extending Hell’s Kitchen west onto a street of auto dealerships.
With zero demand for new office space in Midtown and vacancies at a ten-year high, Moinian director of development Oskar Brecher says his company is in negotiations (and potentially litigation) with the city about starting the small residential portion of their Hudson Boulevard site in advance. Like Brecher, architect-developer Jared Della Valle of Alloy LLC, which owns a mid-block site between 35th and 36th streets, bemoaned the Hudson Yards rezoning for coupling residential and commercial development. “The city has the perspective that this is a 30-year plan, and that it will fill in the way they envisioned it,” said Della Valle. In the meantime, he suggests cultural organizations should come up with interim uses (outdoor movies? Serra sculptures?) for all those fallow lots.
Then there’s the biggest site, the Hudson rail yards. Construction on the eastern yard could start anytime (once Related signs a contract with the MTA), with buildings ready in 2015, but now is clearly not that time. The company has a new plan—released this spring as part of the ULURP review for the site—designed by KPF with MVVA as landscape architect, that has received favorable reviews from the community for putting streets back in the superblock and breaking the open space into smaller, more purposeful parks.
But what’s a park, even one at the end of the (probably) retained High Line, if it’s shadowed by 50-story towers? Because the floor area ratios for Hudson Yards are being calculated across the entire site, which includes ten acres of open space, the buildings can be much taller than those on a typical city site with a FAR of 10. “It makes sense to have a high-density corridor between 30th and 34th streets, around Penn Station, and then extending west at diminished densities,” said HYCAC’s Levin.
The community advisory group’s other major concern is giving a single developer power over such a large chunk of the city. Regional Planning Association president Robert Yaro expressed the same fear and suggested a solution in a recent interview: If the city wants to be involved in the planning, let them set up an authority like the one that has run Battery Park City. That way, the streets and parks would be owned by the city, which would also have the ability to sell development parcels over time, reacting to the city’s changing needs. Related, instead, has to plan today for what New York buildings might be needed in 2015, 2020, or never.