Hudson Yards promised a park. They didn't mention the giant wall

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Hudson Yards promised a park. They didn't mention the giant wall
For phase two of Hudson Yards, the developer is contemplating a 700-foot-long wall that would overshadow the High Line.

by Michael Kimmelman

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- No real estate developer has profited more from the High Line than Related Cos., the global giant.

Under its chairman, Stephen Ross, Related has, in recent years, become the biggest luxury developer in the neighborhood by a wide margin, erecting buildings designed by Zaha Hadid, Thomas Heatherwick and Robert A.M. Stern, among other marquee names, and last year completing the first phase of Hudson Yards, the largest mixed-use private real estate venture in American history.

A blue-glass megadevelopment with a supersized shopping mall and trash-basket-shaped tourist attraction called the Vessel, by Heatherwick, Hudson Yards rose from a massive deck that Related built atop a dozen acres of working rail tracks where the High Line jogs west from 10th Avenue along West 30th Street toward the Hudson River.

Now Related is undertaking the second phase of Hudson Yards, the Western Yard. It is conceived to bring millions more square feet of towering private, high-end office and residential construction to the neighborhood. In return, Related has promised a new public school. The project will deck over the remaining acres of open tracks between 11th and 12th Avenues, from West 30th to West 33rd Street, a vast property bordered on the south and west by the High Line, which turns north from West 30th Street at 12th Avenue.

Related has also promised that the Western Yard will feature attractive green space, beckoning to the public and in sync with the High Line. But lately the developer seems to be reconsidering the layout of the yard, contemplating a giant wall that would overshadow the High Line, accommodate a parking garage and help make the site more like a quasi-gated community.

This is where, during the early years of the Bloomberg administration, city officials contemplated building a stadium. When that plan collapsed and Related entered the picture in partnership with Oxford Properties, neighborhood and city officials agreed to rezone the yard for mixed-use development on the condition that the developers include substantial public lawns with various leafy paths to guarantee “an inviting pedestrian gateway,” as the city’s zoning resolution worded it, linked to “open space networks along the Hudson River,” the High Line among them.

The idea was that the Western Yard contribute to a wider system of new public spaces, stretching east from the riverfront, weaving in and out of the massive developments that were going to spring up. The system was conceived to help democratize and green the historically park-deprived midtown neighborhood, creating crosstown pedestrian-oriented routes, improving community health and welfare and guaranteeing New Yorkers open space in compensation for all the skyscrapers.

Drawings at the time, produced as part of the city’s environmental review process, diagramed the heart of the Western Yard as a greensward with a lawn passing beneath the High Line and spilling to 12th Avenue at West 30th Street. The deck stepped down from east to west, meaning from 11th Avenue toward the river.

This was the image sold to the public: the yard as accessible, hospitable and open to everyone. As recently as Wednesday, when a request from The New York Times to reproduce it was turned down, Hudson Yards’ website featured a rendering by Nelson Byrd Woltz, the landscape architects Related hired for Hudson Yards, showing a green Western Yard spooning with the High Line, the two sharing sunny, wide-open views of each other and the river.

But in private meetings with community officials the developer has recently been talking about elevating the yard’s deck several stories to fit a parking garage underneath.

According to various people who have heard Related executives float the trial balloon, the site would no longer decline toward the river but rise up, as it moved east to west, creating an immense wall, some 700 feet long, just next to the High Line and towering some two stories above it. Related’s skyscrapers at the yard would rise beside and on top of that.

Among other things, the wall would visually and perhaps otherwise obscure public access from the High Line and from the street into the yard, turning Related’s development into a man-made promontory, its occupants gazing down on the High Line’s visitors. It would also make the High Line seem the equivalent of an old city fire escape: a piece of aged infrastructure stuck to a wall.

The plan brings to mind the long history of deals the city has struck with developers to eke public space out of private developments, including the so-called POPS (Privately Owned Public Spaces) of the 1960s and subsequent decades, which, partly through City Hall’s failure to provide oversight, produced many windswept plazas and heavily policed, frequently shuttered office building lobbies — unwelcoming sites that prioritized the privacy developers actually wanted all along.

It’s true that some part of this westernmost stretch of the High Line, where it descends to meet West 34th Street, was always going to have to sit below the yard. And by various accounts the deck that needs to be built over the yard faces yet-to-be resolved design challenges, involving the Long Island Rail Road, ventilation systems and a train tunnel, which may affect its configuration, the disposition of the parking garage aside.

But the garage and wall suggest Related wants, as much as possible, to make the yard seem like a quasi-gated development, in keeping with Ross’ concept and marketing of Hudson Yards as a wealthy, exclusive enclave, separate from the surrounding streetscape except where access seems expedient for Related or is unavoidable.

A spokeswoman for the developer, Kathleen Corless, dismissed these concerns. The closed-door conversations with neighborhood representatives have only been “very, very preliminary,” she said. Nothing is settled, even including the mix of commercial and residential, which will depend on the evolving market.

“We remain committed to building a public school, 50% open space (a zoning requirement), community space, and fulfilling all of our obligations to the city as part of the existing plan,” Corless elaborated in an email. “As with phase one of the project, connectivity to surrounding neighborhoods and the High Line will be critically important.”

The eventual design of the yard and the deck, she added, will depend on “working through the technical constraints.” It’s all “so preliminary,” she said, “that it’s not fair to say we are at odds in any way.”

I canvassed various city and community leaders. They disagreed.

“Related’s proposal to build a 720-foot-long, 20-foot-high concrete wall to cut off the High Line from new open space is an absolute disgrace and violates the original plan approved by the community board,” said Brad Hoylman, Democratic state senator. He had already heard about the new concept. “No company has benefited more from the High Line than Related, which has used the High Line to sell luxury condominiums and populate its mall with customers. Now they want a private garden for their residents? The last thing New Yorkers need is a wall, and from all people, Steve Ross.”

Hoylman was referring to Ross’ recent fundraising for President Donald Trump.

Gale Brewer, borough president of Manhattan, told me she had also heard about the proposal and intends to organize opposition. “Hudson Yards is already considered elitist,” she said. “People wonder, is that for me? Getting people of color to utilize these places is hard enough. This is the worst sort of planning.”

Corey Johnson, speaker of the City Council, who represents the district, called it a breach of public trust. Luxury buildings that have sprouted beside the High Line have increasingly walled off what was the park’s original charm and fascination — the urban adjacencies and “Rear Window” views into and onto old warehouses and tenements.

To wall off the remaining northern- and westernmost stretch of the park, Johnson said, would betray “what public officials negotiated a decade ago.”

When I called Robert Hammond, executive director and co-founder of the High Line, he said, “Related welcomes visitors from the High Line to shop in the mall at Hudson Yards but apparently takes a different view for this space, where they don’t seem to want our visitors. We thought the whole point of the original zoning agreement was to have a visual connection so that you could see the Western Yard’s lawn from the High Line to let people know it was there and built for them.”

It’s not yet clear whether a wall, as Related seems to imagine one, would violate the letter of the city’s original zoning resolution. As Brewer and others point out, City Hall retains the capacity to intervene in any case: Whatever Related decides to build at the Western Yard will require approval by the chair of the City Planning Commission.

So Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has sometimes ignored real estate projects he inherited or doesn’t support, may be asked to play local hero.

“We want a public space that announces itself as public and makes the public feel ownership,” said Burt Lazarin, the former chairman of Community Board 4, which oversees land use issues for the neighborhood, including the Western Yard.

“We don’t want a wall,” he added.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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