It was sometime late Wednesday, Nov. 14, that some of New York’s largest developers were told they had little more than 48 hours to prepare a public showing of their plans to transform the West Side rail yards, the largest available development site in Manhattan in decades.
They quickly reproduced compact disks, printed more color pictures, stuffed folders and packed up television sets. On Friday, their representatives got a look at the exhibit space—a little storefront across from Grand Central Terminal that Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials had found after scrambling themselves for a space that West Siders could easily get to. On Saturday morning, the five teams had two hours to set up.
The developers drew lots to see which wall they could use, and Brookfield Properties got a lucky number: the corner directly to the right as visitors walk in. The company’s plan, laid out in two huge architectural models, solves the problem of working with the two superblocks—each stretching from 30th to 33rd streets, on either side of 11th Avenue—by dividing them up somewhat with new streets or pedestrian thoroughfares. In so doing, Brookfield, which owns the World Financial Center in Battery Park City, violates the guidelines that the city and the M.T.A., the owner of the rail yards, set out for development.
But judging from the early reaction among visitors to the exhibit space, Brookfield has also gained a lot of fans, both via online message boards and among visitors to the exhibit, for a plan that they say looks the most like the rest of New York. (Brookfield is also the only bidder that has placed a company official at the showroom full-time to explain its exhibit to the public.)
“I’m looking for as much integration in the street grid as possible,” said Michael D. D. White, a 55-year-old lawyer from Brooklyn Heights who stopped by the storefront Monday evening. “I think people are paying more attention to focus on the experience that Jane Jacobs wrote about. She’s cycling back into fashion. I think we want to have an experience that is intricate and various and accounts for complexity.”
M.T.A.’s chief executive and executive director, Elliot (Lee) Sander, said at the Sunday press unveiling of the exhibit that the developers’ design would be one of three elements on which the agency would base its decision, along with the amount of money the bidder is offering and the feasibility of construction. But the M.T.A. has shied away from suggesting just how much weight each element will receive.
Steve Roth, chairman and chief executive of Vornado Realty Trust, one of the bidders, told The Observer that given what he expected to be a lengthy 10-year build-out, at an estimated construction cost of $10 billion to $15 billion, the M.T.A. can only afford to consider the strongest, most established companies. He would not elaborate, but clearly he thought that Vornado, a publicly traded company with $18 billion in assets, ought to be one of them.
“There are two or three of these that are done by teams that are really competent,” Mr. Roth said, “and in the end I think it’s going to be the financial part of the deal that is going to differentiate them.”
The financial arrangements are still secret. (The M.T.A. hopes to use the money to plug a $1 billion hole in its capital budget.) The tenancies are a little clearer. On that front Brookfield, which has no tenant lined up, stands at a disadvantage to other bidders who can argue that having a client and potential revenue source will force them to stick on budget and in the black.
However, Ric Clark, Brookfield president and chief executive, sought to portray the lack of a tenant as a positive, and an indication that it would be willing to pay more for the site.
“We put no premium on having a tenant at this point in time. We’ve heard that others have landed their tenants by offering cost-minus deals. We think that leaves some of M.T.A.’s money on the table,” Mr. Clark said. “In North America, we have more head office tenants than anybody else. What we do is move people around as their businesses change. They buy somebody or they sell off a decision. We have confidence that we will land a tenant.”
Whether Brookfield’s urbanism, outlined by the architectural firms Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Field Operations, will actually cost more to construct or cause more disruption is difficult to judge: the plan calls for buildings to line either side of 11th Avenue, in keeping with New York’s street walls. But the M.T.A. and the city’s Hudson Yards Development Corporation specifically called for parkland in that area in order to minimize construction over train lines, which run east-west through the center of the superblocks.
Regardless of the weight that the architecture will receive in the decision-making process, West Siders and politicians pushed hard to open the bids up to public view. And while they are realistic that the architecture of the buildings could easily change, they say that much can be learned.
“I expect there will be changes during negotiations with the M.T.A. and the city,” State Senator Tom Duane, a Democrat representing the West Side, said. “I’m assuming that the general vision of the architects and developers and their priorities will remain the same: the orientation of the buildings, the High Line, the commercial versus residential, the open space placement, the impact looking north from Chelsea and south from Clinton. But I am generally pleased that the process and display are open and will continue to be open as the process moves forward.”
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