Developers grapple with Hudson Yards design

By Alec Appelbaum | December 11, 2007 03:24PM

The 26-acre Hudson Yards site that has attracted bids from five big
developers has plenty of design challenges and has stirred expectations
of grand public spaces. To make it even more complicated, there’s a
political live wire — the High Line rail trestle — running through it
at tricky angles.

Whoever buys the site from the M.T.A. in March will have to build a
dense neighborhood with public space over a railyard that climbs a
steep hill north from 30th Street and ends at the West Side Highway.
The M.T.A. asks bidders to close at least one east-west street to
protect the railyards from intrusion and to explain how they would
treat the High Line, which will become a park next year.

“This site should not be planned poorly,” John Raskin, an organizer
with a civic group called Housing Conservation Coordinators that helped
guide the M.T.A. to demand generous amounts of greenery in its guidelines,
said at a public meeting on the project yesterday. “We are largely
already developed and there’s not much open space.”

One bidder, Durst/Vornado, says it’s smarter to replace a piece of the
trestle along 12th Avenue with a new elevated walkway. Most other bids
leave the High Line intact — Tishman Speyer would rebuild a small
portion of it that it says lacks good sunlight — but many insiders say
that the M.T.A. is constantly negotiating over ideas in all the bids,
expecting that each will be fair game when the 20-year build-out
begins.

That means the High Line will be part of the negotiations.

Brookfield Properties, whose bid preserves the High Line and ignores
the M.T.A.’s request for a platform covering the entire rail yard site,
has reassembled many players who helped Friends of the High Line secure
the overhead relic’s future as a park. Self-styled urbanists have
extolled Brookfield’s plan, which replaces a railyard platform with
ramps between buildings to Maintain The Street grid. Field Operations
and Diller & Scofidio & Renfro, the High Line’s chief
architects, show up on the design team here.

Former city council speaker Gifford Miller, a long-time supporter of
Friends of the High Line, is talking up Brookfield’s bid as a paid
consultant. The Brookfield team argues that the plan avoids a wind tunnel at the
southern corner and spaces skyscrapers to reduce wintertime shadows.

“It was important that this be part of the city,” Field Operations
chief James Corner told a group of West Side residents on Dec. 10. He
said the team’s proposal leaves a key corner of the Yards “totally
oriented to neighborhood recreation.”

Meanwhile, the firm of Hamilton, Rabinovich & Alschuler, which
advises many public-private projects and has spent months arguing for
preserving the entire High Line, is now championing Brookfield’s
all-grid idea.

By contrast, the Durst/Vornado bid promises to site buildings for
maximal sunlight and river views, but makes the platform part of the
urban experience with elevated walkways replacing High Line sections
Along 30th Street and Twelfth Avenue. Dan Kaplan, the FXFowle partner
who worked on the bid and the MTA’s land use guidelines, insists this
proposal celebrates the trestle by fortifying its most accessible
sections.

“The High Line is not monolithic on the site,” Kaplan says, so that
replacing sections where it becomes a barricade or feels remote can
make the district more coherent.

Architect Rafael Pelli says the plan aims to “continue the feel of the
city,” but the team proposes an underground tram to hedge against the
uphill walk to Moynihan Station.

Tishman Speyer’s bid, which centers on a new headquarters for its
anchor tenant and key financial backer Morgan Stanley, suggests a more
corporate cast. Rob Speyer, the company’s president, says the staircase
that architects Helmut Jahn and Peter Walker propose for the site’s
center can become a Spanish Steps-style place where workers and
visitors gather. The bid moves most apartments to the western edge
where they cantilever over the High Line, but jettisons an
avenue-block’s worth of it on the southern end, where it would install
a glass windscreen.

And finally, Related’s bid, which many observers call the front-runner,
focuses urban life on entertainment with a concert pavilion and large
screen for the brands of its anchor tenant, News Corporation. It
preserves the High Line but emphasizes at-grade uses like bicycling
with an iconic bridge to the waterside Hudson River Park.

Like Pelli, architect Steven Holl describes his plan for Extell
Development as “porous,” even though it includes walls of towers as
tall as 90 stories. Holl’s design suspends concrete-steel sheets over
the railyard, clustering all buildings on the border streets and
leaving a 19-acre “curved park” in the center, with a creek running to
the West Side Highway. Holl’s client, Gary Barnett, envisions a hotel
and café and a pastoral strategy that makes the High Line part of a
larger green network.