West Side Rail Yards: Formidable Talent, Cautious Drafts

Reports from the Field by • 12/18

Event: Hudson Yards Designers Forum
Location: Cooper Union Great Hall, 12.03.07
Speakers: Rosalie Genevro (introduction) — Architectural League of New York
Representing Extell Development: Steven Holl, AIA, and Chris McVoy — Steven Holl Architects
Representing Related Companies/Goldman Sachs: Robert A.M. Stern, FAIA — Dean, Yale School of Architecture; Bernardo Fort-Brescia, FAIA — Arquitectonica; A. Eugene Kohn, FAIA, RIBA, JIA — Kohn Pedersen Fox; and Claire Weisz, AIA — weisz + yoes architecture
Representing Durst Organization/Vornado Realty: Daniel Kaplan, AIA — FXFowle Architects; Margie Ruddick, ASLA — Wallace Roberts & Todd
Representing Brookfield Properties: James Corner, ASLA — Field Operations; Gary Haney, AIA — Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
Representing Tishman Speyer: Francisco González Pulido — Murphy/Jahn Architects
Moderator: Rick Bell, FAIA — AIANY Executive Director
Organizers: AIANY; American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA); Architectural League of New York; Design Trust for Public Space; Fine Arts Federation; Friends of the High Line; Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture, Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art; Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance; Municipal Art Society; New York New Visions; Regional Plan Association

West Side Rail Yards

West Side Rail Yards.

Courtesy Design Trust for Public Space

The stakes are high and the pressure is considerable. So said Architectural League of New York Executive Director Rosalie Genevro put the West Side Rail Yards in context: at 26 acres, it’s bigger than Ground Zero or Rockefeller Plaza. If one of the five teams can meet the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s (MTA) straightforward but difficult conditions — maximize revenue and minimize interference with train service — the rail yard will become the fulcrum of a Hudson Yards district spanning 30th to 42nd Streets west of 10th Avenue, Manhattan’s largest new neighborhood since Battery Park City.

A six-block area from 30th to 33rd Streets between 10th and 12th Avenues, the rail yard requires a massive platform above the train storage area. All five plans include park space, a cultural center, a school, some 80/20 affordable rentals, and assorted sustainability features, but only one appeared to dramatically yet economically acknowledge the scope of the structural challenge.

Steven Holl, AIA, defended a departure from the Hudson Yards Development Corporation’s guidelines: his platform will hold substantial green space (19.5 acres to the guidelines’ 12), and a cable suspension system resembling bridge technology will support the platform, obviating disruptive column construction. Holl’s towers, all positioned on terra firma outside the platform, would include a triple skyscraper connected both at ground level and at a high-level “sky lobby,” plus six “sun slice” residential buildings whose profiles maximize daylight year-round; he would also limit a major 33rd Street building to 10 stories, providing an open plain for his sculpture garden. His proposal has the advantages of clear differentiation from the others and an efficient construction plan, but two potential disadvantages: the developer Extell is the consensus dark-horse candidate, and Holl improvises furthest beyond the guidelines. Whether the MTA will view that independence as a recommendation, as other clients have done, is a wild card.

The Brookfield Properties team combines an array of talent — Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Thomas Phifer & Partners, SHoP, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, SANAA, Handel Architects, and Field Operations — with different grounds for departing from the RFP. Fields Ops’ James Corner, ASLA, advocated a four-park plan that preserves the local street grid rather than creating an enclave around a central linear park. It would also overcome the platform’s formidable 26-foot height differential by setting back the SHoP residential towers to allow for a sloping southwestern park (Hudson Green) beginning at grade, connected to a promenade extending along 30th Street beneath the High Line.

If proposals that have already secured a major corporate tenant have a head start, the selection may boil down to which quality deserves strongest emphasis: glamour vs. sustainability vs. restraint. The Kohn Pedersen Fox/Arquitectonica/Robert A.M. Stern Architects/Elkus Manfredi/West 8 Urban Design & Landscape Architecture/weisz + yoes architecture plan for Related and Goldman Sachs includes NewsCorp as the anchor of divergent designs well-suited to high-profile media events. Durst/Vornado’s plan by FXFowle Architects and Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects goes all-out on green technologies and brings in another media tenant already associated with green construction, Condé Nast. This plan clips off the High Line’s eastern spur but adds another aerial walkway, the “Skyline,” wending through ample parkland, plus a subterranean “people-mover” (think mini AirTrain, not conveyor-belt walkways) connecting to the Penn/Moynihan Station rail hub. Tishman Speyer’s relatively classicist plan by Helmut Jahn, FAIA, (major tenant, Morgan Stanley) with PWP Landscape Architecture and master planners Cooper, Robertson & Partners emphasizes a terraced outdoor amphitheater, the “Forum,” over specific building features. Murphy/Jahn Architects’ Francisco González Pulido described the four towers’ relative formlessness: “By the time these buildings are designed, who knows what they’re going to look like?”

The MTA invited public input online and plans to make a choice in early 2008. The media is already picking favorites, estimating the volatile balance among the developers’ financial projections (top-secret), the community’s most pressing needs (particularly affordable housing, addressed here dutifully but not energetically), the political variables, and the business imperatives that one hopes will not preclude the risk-taking ideas that the overflow crowd came to see such renowned talents deliver.

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