Hudson Yards and Walkability

Since its opening several weeks ago, there have been many critical take-downs of the new Hudson Yards skyscraper complex. The consensus reception holds that the visual composition of the structures lack a unified voice due to the heavy handedness of the individual star-architects who were commissioned to design its various structures.

Most critics write from the lens of art criticism and therefor focus on the aesthetics of structures as though they were sculptures in a museum. For decades, critics from this tradition have failed to understand or assimilate the principles of urban design that make cities vibrant and walkable.

Aesthetics are important first as a marketing tool. Users of buildings are easily impressed by the look and feel of a place when they first move in. But over time, they become numb to the novelty of art, and other considerations exert a far greater influence on their experience of the building: things like who uses the space, when the space is used, how the space forms community and how it integrates the the community that surrounds it.

The urbanist Jeff Speck calls these collective characteristics ‘walkability’, since the ability to comfortably navigate a place by foot is the greatest predictor of its success as an urban space. I’ve written this critique based on that insight, and I’ve attempted to avoid the debate over aesthetics entirely. I also propose a few commonsense changes.

The Mall

The Shops at Hudson Yards concentrate dozens of luxury shops under one roof.

Hudson Yards features a five story luxury shopping mall called ‘The Shops’. Until recently, Manhattan has mostly avoided malls in favor of street-front shopping corridors like Fifth Avenue or Bleecker Street.

Street front retail creates foot traffic in places that might otherwise be desolate and inhospitable during different parts of the day. A diversity of land uses is key in cultivating walkability. For example, New York’s financial district is generally a ghost town after office hours because it lacks residential buildings. Adjacent Battery Park City has the opposite problem; it is so domestic that its streets are empty except during commuting hours.

Malls concentrate retail in a private structure when those shops might otherwise contribute to the fabric of a public realm (as is quite apparent in New York’s Bleecker Street, pictured, which is currently short on tenants).

Because their uses are segregated they miss out on many of the benefits of a city. They are generally unable to support cultural institutions or replicate the rich character that exist in other neighborhoods, despite the fact that they are highly developed, well trafficked, and wealthy. Even the most inviting architecture will seem barren, dangerous, and lonesome when no one else is around.

By concentrating retail inside a mega-complex like the Shops, Hudson Yards taxes the public realm and misses out on an opportunity to cultivate the sense of place that might otherwise emerge.

Tenth Avenue

You don’t have to go far to experience the impact of this missed opportunity; the rear of the Shops face 10th avenue, where pedestrians are greeted by a featureless glass wall more than 25 feet in height. It spans five regular blocks, punctuated only by a loading bay for semi-trucks.

The eastern boundary of Hudson Yards and 10th Avenue (right).

This exterior facade echos that of the nearby Javits Convention Center, whose 60 foot tall concrete enclosure is even more featureless and austere. The Javits Center is often used by urbanists as an example of the perils of inhumane design. The unused and un-policed periphery attracts crime and vagrancy while its one entrance opens upon an eight lane street. This combination means that most conference attendees hire a taxi to ferry them to a more hospitable neighborhood.

The southern facade of the Javits Center, which faces Hudson Yards, is inhospitable to pedestrians and likely impeded development of the surrounding region for decades.

Where the construction of convention centers in other cities frequently spurs nearby developments like hotels, restaurants, and other amenities, the Javits Center’s bunker-like modernist austerity ensured that the region would never enjoy ancillary benefits. In fact, if the Javits Center were not such a blight on the neighborhood, it is likely that Hudson Yards site would have been developed decades ago.

Ideally, Hudson Yards would have integrated itself into the grid of the city, with pedestrian access on 30th, 31st, and 32nd streets. Instead, it is impenetrable to people arriving from the east, who must instead circumvent the massive development to access the Yards’ public spaces and waterfront.

Breaking the grid is a bad mistake. In order for other benefits to flow to the surrounding region (i.e. retail, walkability, development, security) the design needs to be woven into the existing neighborhood. Conversely, once the Yards lose their status as a tourist destination and trophy real estate haven, it too would have benefited from the community resilience the grid provides.

The Park & Public Square

The Hudson Park promotes walkability, and serves as a conduit between Hudson Yards, the Javits Center, future developments, and Hells Kitchen.

A contrast to the abysmal 10th avenue facade can be found on the Yard’s northern boundary. The new Hudson Park, which cuts through several blocks between 10th and 11th avenues, are particularly beneficial. This breaks up Manhattan’s notoriously long avenue blocks into smaller units; it is subjectively more human scaled, but also creates significantly more street frontage which can be used for retail and other pedestrian amenities.

The short term effect of the Hudson Park is that Javits Center visitors will be enticed to walk into the Hudson Yard’s Public Square, eat, shop, explore its as-yet unnamed stairway monument, and perhaps have a stroll down the High Line. Right now, the parcels adjacent to the park are undeveloped lots, primarily used for industrial storage; these blocks are now top candidates for development, finally lifting the curse the Javits Center cast decades ago.

New York’s 5th Avenue is a famous haven of America’s wealthiest and highest status families. Yet its public spaces are broadly enjoyed.

Much has been made over the symbolism of the Public Square’s corporate aesthetic, its ‘gaudy’ stairway monument, and the exclusive luxury of its mall. I believe this is overstated; New York has plenty of examples of luxury developments and amenities which also contribute to the fabric of the city, including Rockefeller Center, the World Trade Center memorial site, and Fifth Avenue. With time, these markers of status will ebb and a new development will claim the hyper-lux mantle.

It is important to distinguish between the exclusivity of the Yard’s amenities and its success as a public space. The former is temporary and symbolic while the later will determine the resilience of the city forever.

The Southern Facade

To Access the Public Square or walk north from 30th Street, one must climb three flights of stairs (left) and turn back, and cross a narrow bridge to the Yards.

While the northern perimeter of the Yards is exemplary in its symbiotic relationship to the uptown region, the southern side leaves much to be desired. The only way to reach the Public Square promenade from the street is to climb three flights of stairs onto the High Line, then cross a fairly narrow bridge connection. The street level features a large cafeteria, but like the 10th avenue perimeter, the sidewalks are so narrow and the road so heavily trafficked with vehicles that it is unlikely the street can thrive as a public space.

It's important to note here that between the posh region of Chelsea and Hudson Yards are seven blocks of unglamorous project style developments and warehouses. The High Line provides a convenient bridge over this region, and the canyon of quirky residential developments that flank it obscures the true nature of the surrounding neighborhood, which is mostly black, latino and poor.

Anyone walking uptown from this district will be confronted with the glass facade on 30th street and be faced with the inconvenient choice of circumventing the Yards by walking up 10th avenue (yuck) or climbing the stairs and switching back to the Public Square. This is exhausting and annoying, and in tourist season, not sustainable. On clear spring and summer days, the High Line is so packed that walking it can feel like waiting on a queue.

In this way, the Yards withholds the benefits of its Public Square from residents of the affordable housing to its south, and creates a an obstacle which prevents mutual benefits of New York’s grid street plan from being realized. It lends credence to the architectural critics who have compared the development to a gated community. If every development was as rebellious to the grid, Manhattan would be thoroughly un-walkable.

Hudson Yards has struck a nerve. Tweed-bound art critics have long been blind to the community sapping perils of un-walkable modern architecture. A combination of reverence for big name star-architects and supplication to the powerful institutions that underwrite real-estate development often result in examples of criticism that read more like infomercials than actual commentary. Yet suddenly, these same critics emerge like locusts to savage this otherwise typical specimen.

I can’t say what in the zeitgeist has inspired this change of heart. It is quite refreshing, even if it sometimes seems they are still reaching for the right framework by which to understand and judge their own objections. Urbanists like Jan Gehl, Janette Sadik-Kahn, Jeff Speck, and others have composed a comprehensive and well codified body of knowledge on humane urban design and walkability, which art critics should assimilate into their practice.

Current plans call for just one crosswalk (circled) to cross the highway to the Hudson waterfront. Building more and better crossings would offset whatever harm ‘breaking the grid’ might have caused.

If Hudson Yards wants to respond to this outpouring, there are a few obvious things they could do. Ground has hardly been broken on phase two of Hudson Yards, a second mega development sandwiched between the waterfront and phase one. The developers ought to ensure a clear path to the river, and work to add safe crossings over the Hudson River Highway (current renderings show only one crosswalk serving all six blocks).

Simple changes, like adding retail and other uses to the bleak 10th avenue facade, changing the roadway configuration, and creating a public atrium connecting the sidewalk to the Public Square through The Shops would go far countering the impression of a gated community.

The developers could also make a powerful show of good faith by retrofitting the mall with an open, public corridor from the terrible 10th avenue facade to the Public Square. This could evoke Brookfield Place’s ‘Winter Garden’, which provides an inviting public passage through a development of forbidding office towers to a promenade facing the Hudson river.

The primary benefit of this would be to make the Hudson River and Public Square park areas more easily accessible to everyone who lives and works east of Hudson Yards. Opening 10th avenue to street facing retail, turning the six lane street two-way, and adding bike lanes would also make it more forgiving.

Brookfield Place’s Winter Garden provides a safe, walkable corridors between the financial district and the waterfront. Without it, FiDi workers and residents would have to circumnavigate the mammoth office towers to get to the river, much as they do now on tenth avenue.

I hope critics bring the same healthy adversarial perspective and thirst for vibrant civic space to their future writings. At the end of the day, there is only so much hand wringing you can do over Hudson Yards considering what it displaced: an inaccessible rail yard surrounded by a sprawling waste site. In other words, even if the Yards could have been better, they were certainly an improvement on the decades old status quo. That makes this development less blameworthy than most.