The West Side Rail Yards and the Ghost of Robert Moses

By almost any measure, Jerry and Rob Speyer’s planned development of the West Side rail yards is on a grand scale.

Its space (26 acres), price tag (perhaps $12 billion to $13 billion, based on the cost for two similar proposals at the site), and size (13 million square feet) all outstrip major development projects such as Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, the World Trade Center, and Sheldon Solow’s seven-tower complex planned for the area just south of the United Nations.

But as the largest development project to grace New York City’s presence in generations, it carries with it great risk—risk that if it were to fail, it could bring down the emerging far West Side with it; risk that if the urban design is poorly planned, the area could be scarred with a large, barren public space for decades. Once eyed to hold an Olympic stadium, the rail yards are intended to be the anchor for the new Midtown West business district—the catalyst that would give the emerging area its critical mass and invite a set of apartment and commercial towers.

The designation of Tishman Speyer last week as the sole developer of the rail yards was a historic one, with officials and others quick to spout comparisons to the creation of Rockefeller Center, a 1930’s-built office hub still viewed today as the gold standard for mixing dense urban development and public space.

And in many ways, the plans do indeed recall the Art Deco midtown complex. Like the West Side yards, Rockefeller Center was built entirely by a private developer; it was constructed over multiple city blocks; and it was a development of unprecedented scale for its time. (And, for that matter, it’s now owned by the Speyers.)

After Rockefeller Center was completed, especially through the 1950’s and 1960’s, large-scale development in the city trod down a different path, emerging at the will of federal, state or city governments. Stuyvesant Town, Lincoln Center, Co-op City, the World Trade Center and numerous large public housing projects all were either publicly subsidized or led (or both), often under master builder Robert Moses.

By and large, in the 1970’s and beyond, the flow of federal money for such projects eventually slowed, Moses was forced from power, and the city and state moved away from major publicly backed residential and commercial developments, with the slow build-out of Battery Park City being one of the few large-scale projects on the books.

But today, a combination of all-time-high property values and new residents pouring into the five boroughs, along with an ambitious mayoral development agenda, has brought back the mega-project, as the city and state enlist private developers to replace New York’s remaining open and underutilized spaces with new buildings and towers.

In this respect, with a single private landlord building the largest single development of the era, the West Side yards and Rockefeller Center are quite similar.

Considered a wild success today with high rents and vibrant street life, Rockefeller Center, planned during high economic times and built during the Great Depression, struggled after it was built.

Comparing Rockefeller Center’s experience to that of Battery Park City, Columbia University historian Kenneth T. Jackson said that large projects often run into trouble in their early years.

“They both suggest that, initially, it’s difficult, both to raise money and to get them built, and that there are hard times for a little while,” he said, noting that he considers both to be successful today.


BUT EVEN COMPARISONS to Battery Park City or Donald Trump’s Riverside South housing development—Manhattan’s two largest notable developments in the 1980’s and 1990’s—are not entirely relevant for the West Side yards. Those two projects, particularly Battery Park City, were incremental in their development, taking many years to see buildings rise on all the parcels, and neither is completed today.

Such an approach seems unlikely for the Speyers given the financial needs of the site.

The West Side Rail Yards and the Ghost of Robert Moses