In planning Manhattan’s L-bend, the developers attempted to match that stretch of sidewalk with trees, grass, and spray-painted red crosswalks. But the interventions were too disconnected from its real-world context – and ignored the conditions on the ground.
Both Hudson Yards’ designers and the city’s master planners have made lofty promises about how it will transform the district, from bike and pedestrian access to the creation of more public spaces and green spaces. But at an intersection where so many of these promises now risk coming to nothing, the question remains: How will they fulfill them?
The design of this corner also highlights just how difficult it is to create a welcoming new public space in midtown Manhattan. To make sure visitors have access to the space, the building’s designers erected barriers that disconnect it from the courtyard and sidewalks that surround it, creating a compromise between the needs of modern space-design and familiar city streets and sidewalks.
Design challenges such as this were already being debated before L-bend got under way: Early in 2016, protests against the development began to circulate online, with some tenants unionizing to fight for more access to L-bend’s buildings. The union and its backers met with local community board leaders and city leaders to show that these kinds of projects should be long considered, and approved, before becoming functional and functionalized.
“My concern,” says Rebecca Wojcik, spokesperson for District Council 37, which represents the city’s transit workers, “is that once this development is finished, the local community board and other elected officials, will they really be able to look at these proposals as a whole? I think it’s important for the public to have some rights on the floors of these developments.”
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The combination of the L-bend and surrounding buildings was intended to be a departure from midtown’s traditional market-dwelling buildings, with the aim of creating new ways to experience Manhattan’s urban core. The buildings, all a mix of floors above street level, have been designed in such a way that they maximize views from the most-popular areas; 43 units, for example, were designed so that all but the most popular units had windows large enough to see the canal and East River, in addition to Manhattan’s skyline.
“As a collective of designers, our product development tells us that there was no better place than Hudson Yards to have a revolutionary structure,” says Jeff Lawrence, whose firm Levitz is helping to create the construction of Hudson Yards’ largest private project.
But Lawrence explains that while a big design project can take many years to complete, in the meantime, the actual work on the site “is all set. It’s already happening and the platform is 100% completed.”
Given the controversy around it, the question of if and how these conditions will be fulfilled is especially relevant as these giant projects become functional – and all of the promises of more space, better transit, or better public spaces seem to fade in the meantime.
It’s a situation that could be exacerbated by the fact that, with a future shift in the federal tax rate, this construction of Hudson Yards is unlikely to attract major in-state tenants. As a result, these incentives may not provide the level of job growth that these kinds of public projects are supposed to. And as these buildings come into operation, they will continue to require the installation of barriers in the street environment to provide access.
“Those barriers are there so we can lock in the tenants at any cost,” says Lawrence. “We’re going to force people through those gates. I can’t predict what happens, but I don’t think you can say it will be without challenges.”