NEW YORK — A mere seven years ago, Hudson Yards looked a lot like the no-man’s land that surrounds Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. Bordered by old warehouses, gas stations, garages, and a forlorn convention center, the 28-acre Manhattan site served as an open-air parking lot for train cars passing through Penn Station, a rare empty quarter in a city with a voracious appetite for real estate.
Today when you step out of Penn Station onto Eighth Avenue, you run headlong into a forest of blue glass towers in various stages of completion. Many more are coming.
Tilting this way and that, their taut, swaggering forms dwarf everything around them. This is the architecture of power, familiar from the skylines of insta-cities like Dubai and Singapore and Shanghai. There are seemingly two of everything: shimmering totems sporting sharply angled crowns, immense obelisks softened with rounded edges, asymmetric checkerboards.
Set on a concrete platform over the tracks, Hudson Yards is said to be the largest private, mixed-use development in the United States, costing $25 billion. Never before has anyone built so much in one place, all at once. Trophy office buildings jostle for space with luxury condo towers. While other cities are hemorrhaging retail, Hudson Yards managed to fill a seven-story shopping mall and land New York’s first Neiman Marcus store as its anchor tenant. The project features two public attractions, a cutting-edge arts center called the Shed, and what may be the world’s first purpose-built selfie-magnet, an Escher-esque fantasy known as the Vessel.
Although the project is only half finished, the 14-acre first phase already has visibly shifted Midtown’s center of gravity west, pulling blue-chip corporations, hedge-fund billionaires, fashion titans, and swarms of tourists along with it. The next phase will add another huge platform and acres of new land. When everything is complete, sometime around 2026, the development will be home to 14 high-rises.
Consider Hudson Yards New York’s first insta-neighborhood.
A new neighborhood emerges at 30th Street Station
Hudson Yards sounds like an only-in-New-York story. But Philadelphia also has dreamed of building over its rail yards and filling in the no-man’s land around 30th Street Station with modern high-rises. Such a project would help unite Philadelphia’s traditional Center City business district with University City’s rapidly expanding research hub, forming a single, seamless downtown and a powerful jobs center for the region.
While a development over the tracks at 30th Street Station is likely to remain just a dream for now — at least until Amtrak’s high-speed rail network becomes a reality — a more modest version of Hudson Yards is already taking shape on the terra firma west and south of the rail yards. The project, a collaboration between Brandywine Realty Trust and Drexel University, has been dubbed Schuylkill Yards — and not by accident.
Like the first phase of Hudson Yards, “Schuylkill Yards is also 14 acres,” observed Jerry Sweeney, Brandywine’s chief executive.
That’s hardly the only feature the two projects share. While Schuylkill Yards won’t come close to matching the scale and glitz of its New York counterpart, it, too, is a kind of insta-neighborhood, the product of a single developer’s vision and effort. Along with erecting 10 office towers and apartments, Brandywine intends to establish a network of parks and streets between the train station and Drexel’s campus. Brandywine has already hired consultants to curate Schuylkill Yards’ retail offerings and to program events in the public spaces. It has even engaged a landscape architect, SWA/Balsley, to think up creative uses for the waste ground below CSX’s elevated freight line.
The trick will be to make sure Schuylkill Yards feels like a real part of the city, and not a corporate enclave, a Brandywine-ville.
So far, Brandywine is proceeding in a thoughtful way. Schuylkill Yards’ first project isn’t an eye-popping, super-tall glass building, but a 1.3-acre park, called Drexel Square. That project, which opens in June, will be followed by the renovation of an existing building, the former home of the Evening Bulletin newspaper. Sweeney’s decision to retain that handsome, ‘50s-era, industrial structure, designed by George Howe, the architect of the PSFS Building, also bodes well for Schuylkill Yards. So does his decision to hire architects from KieranTimberlake to oversee the building’s makeover for Spark Therapeutics, a pharmaceutical start-up.
After that, if all goes according to plan, Brandywine expects to break ground late this year on two new skyscrapers, an office building and apartment tower, on a dismal stretch of JFK Boulevard, where the Bolt Bus now picks up passengers. Both towers will be designed by the progressive New York architecture firm PAU Studio. Together the two towers will contain as much space as One Liberty Place.
While Philadelphia doesn’t have New York’s billionaire class or sizzling real estate market, Philadelphia still has much to learn from Hudson Yards about constructing a new neighborhood from scratch.
When urban infrastructure is privatized
Given its proximity to Penn Station and the artsy Chelsea neighborhood, Hudson Yards should have been a natural extension of Manhattan’s street grid. Instead, it has a slick, inward-facing design that makes it feel like a secure island for the one-percent.
Hudson Yards represents a new, and troubling, kind of urbanism. The neighborhood-size development was entirely planned, financed, and built by private interests, and it reflects those origins.
Not so long ago, it was city and state governments that assumed the responsibility — and costs — for laying out streets and constructing infrastructure. They built parks and bridges and water treatment plants, both to improve the quality of life for their residents and attract business. But as federal support for those improvements has dried up, cities have increasingly turned to partnerships with private companies. The shift in control has elevated big developers like the Related Companies and Oxford Property Group, which oversaw Hudson Yards, to the role of city-builders.
While New York planners did establish detailed planning guidelines for Hudson Yards, the developers frequently interpreted them according to their business plan. To offset the expensive infrastructure — including $1.3 billion for the first platform over the rail yards — the developers insisted on filling the site with a huge amount of density. Ultimately, there will be 14 towers on 28 acres, along with several cultural buildings, the shopping mall, and a landscaped plaza. Half that land is supposed to be public open space. It may be public and open, but it is not very usable.
John H. Alschuler, chairman of HR&A Advisors, a real estate and planning consultant who was an adviser to one of the losing bidders for Hudson Yards, blames the cloistered feeling on the way infrastructure is often financed in the U.S. Because cities are now so reliant on developers, government has “lost public control over large portions of the public realm,” Alschuler said.
Contrast the insular arrangement at Hudson Yards with Battery Park City, an earlier New York mega-development in Lower Manhattan. When the city decided in the ’70s to transform that marshy strip along the Hudson River into a middle-class neighborhood, the state floated bonds to pay for turning raw land into buildable real estate.
The bonds financed everything necessary for the neighborhood to evolve, from extending electric and water service, to constructing a magnificent waterfront park. City planners laid out the street grid, which defined where the apartment towers would go. Those building sites were gradually sold to different developers, providing a diversity of styles and approaches. While the architecture in Battery Park City is not especially memorable, today the area has assumed the lived-in look of a neighborhood that came together organically.
With Hudson Yards, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration followed a playbook that has become standard in the U.S. Instead of constructing the platform over the tracks itself, the city decided to auction the site to a developer who would bear the expense. To make the difficult project more appealing, the city offered an array of tax breaks, estimated to be $3 billion.
New York planners also created the zoning that made Hudson Yards’ extreme density possible. Hudson Yards now boasts New York’s third-tallest tower, which rises to 1,268 feet. In exchange for the extra height, Related was expected to incorporate the trinity of good urbanism into the design: interior streets, publicly accessible open space, a cultural venue.
All those things are there, but in name only.
Cut off from the city
The first sign that something is amiss occurs when you approach Hudson Yards from Penn Station, as I did on my first visit. The soaring glass towers served as a guidepost, pulling me along 31st Street toward the new development. But when I arrived at the entrance on Tenth Avenue, I was greeted by a three-block-long, seven-story-high wall, faced in glass and a silvery mesh screen. I had reached a dead end.
The loopy script of the Neiman Marcus sign made it clear that the long, silvery structure was a shopping mall. And yet, not a single store has a door opening onto the street.
Think of Philadelphia’s ’70s-era Gallery Mall, but without anchor stores beckoning at the corners. To enter the Neiman Marcus mall (and the rest of Hudson Yards), you need to take an escalator up to the first floor. Glass office towers stand sentry at each end of the mall, but merely add to the sense you are entering a gated community. No streets pierce the superblock between 30th and 33rd. As a result, the sidewalks on 10th Avenue are deserted. The mall sucks the life off the street.
The real entrance to Hudson Yards, I discovered later, is from the High Line, the elevated park that starts in Greenwich Village and cuts through the Chelsea arts district. Since it opened as a pleasant greenway in 2009, the High Line has evolved into the main street of an increasingly tony neighborhood, hemmed in by designer apartment buildings that hug its railings. This boulevard of privilege now feeds directly into Hudson Yards’ glittering compound. It’s like arriving at the land of Oz, except you are greeted by a two-story display of Coach handbags.
Related’s president, L. Jay Cross, acknowledged some of the problems during a tour but blamed the lack of activity on 10th Avenue on the enormous engineering challenges his company faced in constructing a platform over an active rail yard. Building thousand-foot towers “without stopping trains was like doing open-heart surgery,” Cross said. The slope of the Hudson Yards site made it impossible to have stores facing 10th Avenue and limited the number of city streets going through the site, he argued.
Still, that doesn’t excuse the way the towers are jumbled together, fighting for space and views on the overstuffed, over-programmed plaza.
According to the master plan by Kohn Pederson Fox, the towers are meant to revolve around the public space. But without any streets, the relationship between the structures, designed by different architects, appears almost arbitrary. Ideally, the elliptical-shaped plaza should have forced these individual icons to work as a team, but the space simply sputters out. Everything beyond the Vessel is wasted space. There is no cafe, no demarcated seating areas. Because the public space fails to unify the disparate elements, Hudson Yards ends up feeling like a larger version of the mall: a collection of high-end architectural brands crammed together in no particular order.
There is so little space that the two architectural dazzlers— the Vessel and the Shed — ended up just a few feet apart. As a result, visitors crowd into one corner of the plaza, rather than dispersing throughout. Critics have generally savaged the Vessel, by British designer Thomas Heatherwick, comparing it to a lamb shawarma, a bucket, a StairMaster, but their harsh words seem excessive. Judging by the crowds lining up to climb its switchback staircases, the Vessel is a huge crowd-pleaser. The views are spectacular — and free.
The Shed is also worthy of admiration and hasn’t received its due. A joint effort by Diller Scofidio + Renfro and the Rockwell Group, the design is the physical embodiment of efforts to democratize culture.
Its signature feature is the quilted tea cozy that drapes the main structure. Made of the same plastic used in soda bottles, and inflated to a pillowy softness, the structure is actually a gussied-up airplane hangar that can retract into its shell, creating an outdoor performance plaza. Every room can be used for every kind of art — painting and sculpture exhibitions, concerts, performances — simply by wheeling in or removing tiers of bleacher seats. It makes every concert hall fitted out with red velvet seats and chandeliers look out of date.
The architecture brilliantly captures the way boundaries between cultural forms have blurred. And because its main entrance faces 30th Street, it is feels connected to the city in a way that the rest of Hudson Yards does not.
Can Schuylkill Yards get it right?
Schuylkill Yards starts with two distinct advantages over Hudson Yards: streets and a rich array of existing buildings. Although the grid has been degraded around the train station, there is enough there to give shape to what comes next. Preserving some buildings will keep the neighborhood from feeling artificial and cloistered. These features should also make the area more attractive to the kind of tech companies that Brandywine says it wants to attract.
But like Hudson Yards, the project will have to struggle to integrate itself into the city. It helps that Brandywine is planning extensive amounts of public space. Yet Schuylkill Yards lacks a cultural component along the lines of the Shed, even though Brandywine stands to benefit from several public subsidy programs including Pennsylvania’s Keystone Opportunity Zone and the city’s 10-year property tax abatement. As a private manager of public space, Brandywine will also have to work hard to avoid the kind of tensions over commercialization that Philadelphia has seen at Dilworth Plaza.
Brandywine’s previous experience with its Cira complex demonstrates the difficulties of creating a tabula rasa development surrounded by rail yards and highways. Over the last decade, the company has built three glass towers fronting the Schuylkill waterfront: Cira, Evo, and FMC. While each is an interesting design, they function as individual icons, rather than as a team. The site conditions are largely to blame, just as they are at Hudson Yards.
Things might have been different had Brandywine built a platform over Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor tracks. Such a platform would have allowed FMC and Evo to locate their main entrances on Schuylkill Avenue, and made the row of towers feel like a natural continuation of the Center City’s grid. The platform might have also provided space for a riverfront overlook, or even the beginning of a western version of the Schuylkill River Trail.
Sweeney said he originally hoped to build just such a deck but dropped the idea after talks with Amtrak. Because working over the Northeast Corridor is so difficult, he feared that the extra engineering challenge would add lengthy delays to the project.
For Schuylkill Yards, Brandywine specifically avoided sites that would have required platforms over rail tracks. But that doesn’t mean there still won’t be hard choices — similar to the ones Related faced at Hudson Yards — that determine how this ambitious new development integrates itself into the city. City planners will have to be vigilant to ensure the public realm remains truly public.
The lesson of Hudson Yards is that it takes much more than a collection of shiny glass towers to turn a mega-development into a living, breathing part of the city. Sweeney said he was fully aware of the challenges ahead. His goal is to make the project feel like such a natural part of Philadelphia that people “stop calling the area Schuylkill Yards because it’s been turned into a real neighborhood."
That’s as good a standard as you could ask for. But in an age when private developers are building our cities, there’s no guarantee those promises will be delivered.