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01.20.2012
Editorial> What's Next or What's Now?
Will today's mega-projects retain their glamour long enough to be built?
Cornell's planned tech-campus on Roosevelt Island (left) and the proposed convention center in Queens (right).
Courtesy SOM & Genting

The rollover to the New Year came with not one, but two bold initiatives showing New York still has the gumption to think big. First came the announcement about turning a hop-skip middle-class enclave on Roosevelt Island into a $2 billion dynamo tech campus to rival Silicon Valley, followed barely two weeks later by the equally nervy announcement that, Javits-be-damned, the state would back the $4 billion private development of the world’s largest, newest convention center in Queens. The press releases gushed about the benefits: a convention center 20 percent larger than the 3.1 million square foot McCormick Place in Chicago; 3,000 hotel rooms; gambling joints, and—last but not least—a multi-billion development opportunity for the cleared Javits site. And on Roosevelt Island, housing for 2,000 students; construction jobs for 20,000; 2 million square feet of sustainable building as part of one of the largest development projects in the city’s history.

The Roosevelt Island tech campus is a pet project of the mayor’s; the convention center in Queens is the governor’s baby. No question, these are transformative ideas for the city. Or are they, as one wry observer put it, manifestations of Pretty New Girl at the Dance Syndrome?

The city is currently crowded with former dance partners: World Trade Center; Hudson Yards; Governors Island and Moynihan Station are all to some degree public-private ventures that in their day were also the darlings of mayors and governors. Each one is moving sluggishly, if at all, or stuck in some ungainly, partially formed, adolescent-like stage where no politico wants to dance.

At World Trade Center, there is a paralyzing disagreement between the Port Authority and the September 11 Memorial & Museum over infrastructure costs; Hudson Yards is inching along glacially causing developers to try and make major hay out of blades of grass (OK, so Coach is leasing. That’s 600,000 square feet in a 2 million square foot tower within a 26-acre complex that will be offering more office space in 20 years than in all Portland, OR. Get on with it!); Moynihan Station has acquired a Hugo Cabret-esque aura of unreality as its sponsor developers search in vain for the key that will unlock the profitability of the grand old space. Governors Island is almost an exception moving forward with a $300 million first phase but only after a prolonged tussle back in 2010 between Bloomberg and Paterson over control of the island.

Focusing on getting any one of these projects on track and on to completion wouldn’t be glamorous. Too much strife and politicking—too much reality—has tarnished their stance as photo ops for wide-armed pronouncements of a bold new day dawning in New York.

For that, only very shiny projects will do. As always, the brand new is only as exciting as the facts are vague. One can project anything, or, as the Governor put it, “It will be all about jobs, jobs, jobs, tens of thousands of jobs.” Once grinding underway, however, it ends up being more about costs, costs, costs—and time. (Four governors have tried to usher in Moynihan Station.)

At Rockefeller Center, easily the city’s most beloved mega-project, the first set of buildings took an almost instant ten years to complete, and another 35 years of slow build-out; Battery Park City has been in the works since 1968; the 17-acre United Nations has probably been the speediest: it took only four years from the Rockefeller family donating the land to the completion of the Secretariat in 1950. Then again, it’s not technically in New York.

Vast, speculative projects have ever been the darlings of politicians. They reflect civic ambition and competitive drive, good qualities in a leader. Less exciting but just as necessary is dogged and flexible determination. And so when potential convention operators balk because the connection to and from the Queens venue and the airport is direct but it’s impossible to get anywhere else, or when Roosevelt Island needs more new infrastructure than ever imagined (For instance, the electric-only island needs gas lines; trash disposal is currently by pneumatic tube) postponing any ribbon-cutting fantasies well past the current mayor’s and governor’s terms, well, then we can only hope that the next round of mayors and governors and the ones after that will still love today’s grands projets when they are more mud than magnificent.

Julie V. Iovine