More than 1,000 New Yorkers packed cooper Union's great hall on Dec. 3 for the first public evaluation of midtown Manhattan's last development frontier: the West Side railyards. A stageful of leading architects defended five concepts for a new mixed-use district—designs that could make the difference between the same old, same old and a thriving city-within-the-city.
The 26-acre site, bounded by 10th and 12th avenues and 30th and 33rd streets, is currently a below-grade Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) storage facility. A platform above the railyard could support a lucrative and/or publicly useful complex, provided it maximizes revenue and minimizes disruptions of train service to nearby Penn Station. The site will include both residential and commercial towers that extend Midtown's density to the Hudson River. The MTA's RFP also specifies a cultural facility, LEED Silver status, and connections to two new parks, the High Line and the proposed midblock Hudson Boulevard.
Three proposals include anchor tenants, a possible bargaining advantage. The Durst/ Vornado partnership's FXFowle/Pelli Clarke Pelli design, which FXFowle senior principal Dan Kaplan described as strong on sustainability, green space, and aerial walkways, attracted publisher Condé Nast. Tishman Speyer joins Morgan Stanley for a Murphy/Jahn design organized around a circular recessed plaza. The Related Cos. and Goldman Sachs have partnered with News Corp. for a diverse, high-glamour project by Kohn Pedersen Fox, Arquitectonica, and Robert A.M. Stern.
The unanchored projects take more design chances. Brookfield Properties' team—Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Field Operations, Thomas Phifer, SHoP Architects, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Handel Architects, and SANAA—departed from the guidelines by placing landscaping along the southern edge at grade, not centrally on the platform; Field Operations principal James Corner stressed that literal adherence to the RFP would produce an isolated enclave. Steven Holl presented a more radical design for Extell Development, placing all towers on terra firma instead of the platform; suspension-bridge technology, not columns, would economically support 19.5 acres of parkland instead of the specified 12.
After public commentary—which can be made at mta.info/wsy—the MTA will choose a plan early in 2008 and initiate official review. “We're very happy to see that there's such strong interest from the public in the proposals for our railyards,” says MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan. Juliette Michaelson, senior planner at the Regional Plan Association, a research and advocacy group for the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut region, expresses enthusiasm over the plans but notes that critical aspects remain shrouded in mystery. “We really wish the final elements of the plans were public,” she says, “but the MTA is not allowing [the architects] to talk about the fiscal side of things. We've encouraged the MTA to not sell the entire land, but to develop a long-term equity stake in the railyards.”
Whether or not any of the plans gets built—New York's press has been rife with cynicism on that score—they do have the attention of a community acutely aware of opportunities unrealized elsewhere in the city. At the Dec. 3 event, Murphy/Jahn's Francisco Gonzalez-Pulido cautioned colleagues to remain visionary: “If we're short-sighted, we're going to make a big mistake.”