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 small city within a city they seek to create will rise atop a platform over the tracks below at a cost of more than $2 billion. That investment is an enormous one, and real estate experts say there is likely to be substantial pressure to complete most or all of the development quickly, so as to recoup the investment on the platform and the money being paid to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which owns the yards. (Tishman Speyer has declined to disclose the total projected cost.)
Then there is the economy.
In a time when the credit markets are tight, regardless of how well reputed a developer is, finding billions in needed financing is no certain task. Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards development has been the most high-profile project to fall victim to this climate, with Forest City Ratner delaying construction on much of its development, and numerous smaller projects around the city are facing similar situations.
Rob Speyer, heir apparent to the company run by his father, Jerry, acknowledged the tough economic climate at a press conference last week, though he said the city is resilient and the firm was looking long term. Generally, the selection of Tishman Speyer in a time of economic uncertainty seemed to assuage some officials and others involved in the process, as the firm’s extensive holdings are viewed as a sign of stability.
Tishman’s design for the site, crafted by Murphy/Jahn Architects and Peter Walker and Partners, has seen a fair bit of criticism from many in the design world and the West Side community. Architectural critics have railed on the plans, with The New York Times’ Nicolai Ouroussoff issuing an acerbic review that castigated the planners for their apparent emphasis on financial return over design. Others have criticized the proposal—wherein the layout buildings seen in renderings are mere placeholders as part of the master plan—for creating an enclosed community that fails to blend in with Chelsea and the rest of the West Side, with a long canyon of buildings that taper in height from east to west.
The general layout of the plan, with tall buildings on the east and parkland in the center, was not one of Tishman’s creation but rather came from a set of design guidelines crafted by the city and the state.
Some architects and developers who bid on the yards have been critical of the guidelines, calling them rigid, and saying they threaten the character of the open space at the development, a critical part of making the area successful.
The city had pushed for the design guidelines as important to the formation of the far West Side, imagining a grand boulevard that leads through the area into a tower-lined parkland opening toward the water.
“From an urban-design point of view, where issues of connectivity and making a real urban place are primary issues, the guidelines were not helpful in that way,” said James Corner, principal of field operations and a master planner for Brookfield Properties’ bid for the rail yards. “What makes cities successful is connectivity and lots and lots of opportunities for crisscrossing and accessing all the different corners.”
IN RECENT DECADES, urban planners have generally shunned so-called multi-block “superblocks” as unwanted relics of the 1960’s, hailing the street grid as vital to lively street life. Tishman’s plan, following the guidelines, calls for leaving the superblocks over the yards intact, as the zoning on the eastern half of the site does not allow for a grid, and shifts in elevation could make it difficult to implement one.
Wind, too, is a concern, as gusts from the Hudson River are sure to shoot up through the open space on the site just as they do along the surrounding streets.
“Anything on the extreme West Side you have to worry about the winds—that’s going to be the biggest battle,” said Dan Biederman, cofounder and president of the Bryant Park Corporation, who offered words of support for the Tishman proposal.
Tishman has not yet gotten into specifics about what may change or not change within its master plan, though executives from the company expressed flexibility last week, as they will need to obtain a rezoning to build the western portion of the rail yards. That requires going before the community and gaining approval from the City Council and the City Planning Commission, an action that would finish, at its earliest, in late 2009, though perhaps into 2010, when a new batch of elected officials will fill City Hall.