After years of politics and planning, community building, false starts, and new beginnings, the transformation of the far West Side in the 30s is underway, but details are only now coming into focus. AN examines three aspects of ongoing development that have the potential to make all the difference—the Jacob J. Javits Convention Center; Section 3 of the High Line; and the Hudson Park and Boulevard.
Second Life for the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center
Governor Andrew Cuomo’s January 4 State of the State message included welcome news for West Siders who dream of a day when the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center no longer dominates their neighborhood. A proposal to replace the 1986-vintage, 1.37-million-square-foot hall with a 3.8-million-square-foot facility in Queens wasn’t buried in the details of Cuomo’s address: It was front and center, the first item in his economic blueprint, promising jobs, tourist dollars, and, for the West Side, $2 billion in potential private-sector development along the Battery Park City model—minus the Javits.
It all sounded grand, except that it echoes the same expectations that gave rise to the convention center in the first place when it was expected to generate 16,000 permanent jobs, $38 million in city taxes, and some $832 million in revenues to the city. And while, two years after opening, it brought in $988 million, according to a report published in The New York Times, it remained a crystalline white elephant blocking integrated urban development on the far West Side.
The Javits was conceived by Governor Hugh Carey’s administration with the highest hopes and with the best talent brought to bear. James Ingo Freed of I. M. Pei & Partners (later Pei Cobb Freed & Partners) envisioned it as a 20th-century crystal palace where, according to firm descriptions, “the play of solidity and transparency in which the vast interior, flooded with natural light, combines indoor and outdoor views” makes the space, with its glass vestibule soaring as high as 150 feet, “a covered city square” rather than the industry-standard remote, windowless mega-box.
A vision of connecting to the waterfront with a retail and restaurant-lined galleria running from east to west and engaging the local population was never realized. Shortly before it opened, Paul Goldberger wrote in the Times of its contradictory nature, describing the exterior glass as forbidding and the use of concrete within as excessively heavy. “It seems to call at once for a Boeing 747 and for a string quartet,” he wrote.
Apart from political penny-pinching and neglected maintenance, Freed’s design was also a victim of bad timing in several respects. In the 1980s, the waterfront was in an apparently irreversible state of dereliction, prompting the architects to turn the building’s back on the river. It faced limited material choices, too, according to FXFOWLE principal Bruce Fowle, whose firm is now partnering with Chicago convention specialists Epstein and an all-star engineering team on the convention center’s current $463 million renovation. Pei & Partners initially specified a reflective glass (also used in Boston’s Hancock Tower), which would have brightened the appearance. “When that suddenly went off the market, they had to change it to the best-performing glass they could find, which was dark bronze with a very reflective coating,” Fowle recalled. “Any hope of transparency in the building from outside was lost.” Since 1980s’ glass was less flat than today’s, he added, “each pane was pillowed, in effect, so you don’t really see a very pure reflection; it’s a quilted look.”
Inside, leaks were a problem, necessitating tarpaulin “diapers” with hoses hung from the ceiling to direct rainwater into barrels. Keeping the glass clean was also a challenge: Fowle noted that the “interior system of gantries and elevators [was] abandoned at least 20 years ago.”
However, Freed’s futuristic space frame is surprisingly well preserved, said Tian-Fang Jing, a principal of Weidlinger Associates (structural engineers on both the original job and the renovation). Fast-track scheduling left the original supplier of the casting nodes unable to maintain quality control, but cracked ones were later replaced by Japanese forged-steel nodes, which remain sound.
Now that the materials and technologies are available to complete what Freed and Pei started, Fowle believes that the building’s strengths outweigh its acknowledged limitations. The new Javits has a higher-performing curtain wall of flat, transparent, bird-safe fritted glass (Viracon VNE1-63) in 5-by-10-foot modules, not 5-by-5-foot ones (meaning less metal and a more open feel), with scaffolding and rolling gantries to ease maintenance. It will also be 26 percent more energy efficient, with a 6.75-acre green roof and high-performance rooftop HVAC units. Improved waterproofing using perforated acoustic decking to reduce corrosion, plus stormwater absorption by the green roof, a light variety with regional succulents planted in 1½-inch soil (easily supported by reserve load-bearing capacity, Jing said, since the frame’s design was more conservative than the code specified), ensures that the reborn Javits should be diaper-free. “This building’s already been standing there for more than 25 years” despite rampant water damage, Jing concluded, “so another 25 years shouldn’t [be] any problem.”
Given the position that the casino developer Genting is taking on guarantees connected to the proposed convention center in Queens, replacing the Javits may well take a quarter of a century. In the meantime, advocates of its removal are wringing their hands in anticipation. The Regional Plan Association (RPA), the Hell’s Kitchen Neighborhood Association (HKNA), members of Community Board 4, and others have bruited various plans that sell off or demolish the Javits superblock. A 1999 proposal by the Design Trust for Public Space and HKNA, published in 2002 as Hell’s Kitchen South: Developing Strategies, envisioned a relatively small-scale neighborhood with waterfront access, a repurposed multi-use Pier 76, and an expanded Hudson River Park. Take the Javits out of the mix, suggested HKNA-affiliated architect Meta Brunzema, and “there’s an opportunity to create a really great open-space network that will tie into the High Line.”
“It’s fairly clear that the highest and best use for the land Javits sits upon is not Javits,” observed Vishaan Chakrabarti, director of Columbia’s real estate development program and partner at SHoP Architects. A new mixed-use neighborhood restoring the street grid and waterfront access “would transform not just the Javits site but some 60 or 70 blocks of west Midtown,”perhaps breaking the logjam of Hudson Yards, Moynihan Station, and other projects. An outer-borough convention center is a separate riddle, contingent on high-speed rail access.
“To be fair to all of the businesses and hoteliers that have come to rely on the business that flows from the Javits, you need to have some sort of smaller but significant conferencing facility in Manhattan,” Chakrabarti added, noting that the RPA’s suggested site, Farley Annex, is plausible. “None of these ideas are going to happen tomorrow, and money is needed to be spent at Javits to simply maintain the facility and keep it operating, so the mid- to long-term planning exercise of where our convention center belongs shouldn’t get tied up with the short-term needs of fixing the existing facility. But at the end of the day, it’s simply no longer the right spot for a convention center. The land is simply too important, not just in terms of economic value but social value.”
As its neighborhood sprouts new attractions, the era of an isolated, pedestrian-unfriendly Javits may be ending; a reevaluation may be in order. “People still think it’s the old Darth Vader building,” Fowle said. “That’s a mindset that they have, and until people see it, it’s not going to change.”
Frequent AN contributor William Millard last wrote about constructing the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.
The private side of section three of the High Line
While unveiling the latest High Line designs by James Corner Field Operations with Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) to the community on March 13, principal James Corner plucked a phrase from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, calling the latest venture a “brave new world.” Unlike the last two sections, which are surrounded by multiple property owners, Section 3 wraps around one massive project, Related Properties’ Hudson Yards. With a hint of anticipation at the stakes of the public/private partnership, Propero’s quote concludes, “Gentle breath of yours my sail must fill, or else my project fails.”
While plans for Section 3 keep operations, design, and ownership separate from Related’s project, the new section still resembles something of a public/private lovechild in that the private developer is ponying up about a third of the funds needed to develop the public park. “We never wanted High Line to become part of the Hudson Yards opens space,” admitted Friends of the High Line co-founder Robert Hammond. “We wanted it to maintain a separate identity.”
The Hudson Yard site stretches from 30th to 33rd streets and from 10th Avenue to the West Side Highway. Related will build a platform and lease the space above the MTA-owned yard where the LIRR runs. Eleventh Avenue divides the site into the Eastern Rail Yard (EYR) and the Western Rail Yard. The west yard was zoned with the High Line view corridors in mind, but EYR was zoned in pre-High Line 2005. On March 14, City Planning held a public hearing for a text amendment to rezone the EYR, pegging financing and maintenance for the park to Related’s project and integrating their open-space bonus requirements traded for height increases in two towers ranging from 56 to 68 stories.
For the northeast corner of 11th and 30th streets, DS+R are also designing an 800-foot-tall residential tower for Related. The firm is already working on a city-owned performance space called the Culture Shed next door. At the junction where the southern section of the High Line meets Section 3, steps will lead up to a large privately-owned public plaza (one of five large POPS) that will open onto the EYR. Related has yet to announce the plaza’s designer.
The High Line junction casts an offshoot forking a half a block farther to the east. There, the park will cut through the Kohn Pederson Fox–designed Coach building (named for its anchor tenant). A 60-foot-high opening in the building will span the High Line, due to a zoning amendment not available to new construction along the southern section. “It’s a careful act to allow the High Line to run through that building,” Corner said. “We worked quite hard to keep them separate; [the High Line] never bleeds seamlessly into any building.” While different from anything on the southern section, this stretch acts, Corner said, “almost like an edge or a balcony” to the Related project, rather “than a path cutting through fabric.”
The east-running branch dead ends in an oddly shaped platform floating above the intersection of 10th Avenue and 30th Street, called the 10th Avenue Spur. There, the designers have presented three options: a covered pavilion, a theater in the round, or hydraulic platforms/ benches that can flatten to create a maneuverable event space. Likewise, the Coach tower overhang area features wheeled lounges that can be rolled out of the way for parties.
While the deal allows Related to fulfill its open-space obligations, the High Line remains city-owned, to be maintained by Friends of the High Line with financial support from Related. Related’s overall open space commitment to the EYR will be more than 313,000 square feet on the 570,000-square-foot site—with the section along the EYR fulfilling 11 percent of its total requirements. If Related chooses to kick in an additional $7.4 million toward the Spur, its open space percentage coverage bumps up to 14 percent. Related is already committed to paying $27.5 million toward rehabbing and landscaping the EYR section of the High Line.
The Friends of the High Line are seeking to raise $65 million toward Section 3, the Spur, and an interim walkway spanning the self-seeded Western Rail Yard section to be developed later. But raising capital from parties that don’t have a direct stake may prove a challenge (a gift of $20 million from the Diller-Von Furstenberg Foundation notwithstanding). Hammond pointed to the Brookfield’s yet-to-be-realized Manhattan West, the ever-unrealized Moynihan Station, and the limbo-prone Javits Center as potential alliances to explore.
Hudson Yards and the Urban Fabric on the Far West Side
Hudson Yards promises to be a node of unusually complex variability straddling an active rail yard and woven into the urban fabric by subway, the High Line, bike paths, an urban park, and city streets, all flanked by projects that will invite a large influx of diverse visitors to the corridor.
Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KPF) has developed the master plan extending from 33rd Street at the north to 30th Street on the south and between 10th and 12th avenues, sloping up from the northern street level to an elevation over the Long Island Rail Road tracks. FXFOWLE is currently renovating the four blocks holding the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on 34th Street. And Michael Van Valkenburgh and Associates (MVVA) are at work on the Hudson Park and Boulevard, an arm of snaking green space stretching from 36th to 33rd streets that will house the terminal station of the No. 7 subway line. And then there is the final phase of the High Line. The question is, how will commuters, residents, and convention goers navigate these new public spaces as they aim to dynamically activate the area?
The challenge of the Hudson Yards, Marianne Kwok, the project director working with Bill Pedersen at KPF, explained, is to knit the complex into the existing surroundings. “The main thing we tried to do was to make Hudson Yards as seamlessly connected to the rest of the city as possible—to stitch together the surrounding urban fabric: Chelsea to the south, Hell’s Kitchen and the new Hudson Boulevard neighborhood to the north, and midtown to the east,” Kwok said.
Courtesy Related, Brookfield, and Sherwood Equities
Key to achieving this connection will be the ability of the Hudson Park and Boulevard to serve as a pedestrian spine, reducing vehicular traffic by creating landscaped public spaces and providing easy access to public transportation. Station entrances in the northern and southern blocks of the three-block park and boulevard will issue commuters into a landscape that MVVA principal Matthew Urbanski calls, “a machine for lunching,” that then facilitates their flow to the Javits Center, the Hudson Yards, and Related Companies’ future commercial and residential buildings.
“Circulation drove the design, and circulation flows were the most important aspect of the design,” said Urbanski, explaining that “desire lines” to neighboring destinations create diagonal paths through the landscape, linking the station to corners and sidewalks.
For cars, the site may prove even trickier to access. Carefully planned traffic circulation by Hudson Yards Development Corporation is intended to ensure low traffic levels and relative pedestrian safety. Due to the sloping design of Hudson Yards, cars will enter the complex from the north along 11th Avenue and a ramped driveway extending from the newly created Hudson Boulevard to reach 32nd and 31st streets, dead-ending in cul-de-sacs with access to street-level amenities. This will possibly reduce the speed of traffic along those streets, while through traffic to 12th Avenue will continue along 30th and 33rd streets. From the south, 10th avenue will slope up to 33rd Street, while pedestrians arriving along 10th Avenue will climb to the High Line from intermittent street entrances.
Thrown into the transit mélange are the bike paths zipping up Hudson River Park, the bus routes scheduled along 10th and 11th avenues and 34th street, and the snarl of onramps to the Lincoln Tunnel.
Caitlin Blanchfield is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor interested in culture and the built environment.