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Design lessons for developers of new urban neighborhoods

Posting in Architecture

By the end of 2017, if all goes as planned, a desolate train depot on the far west side of Manhattan will be transformed into a glittering, glamorous, yet welcoming extension of the city--replete with spanking new skyscrapers and an open public square.

The site is known as Hudson Yards. Currently a banner hangs in front of it that says "New York's next great neighborhood." The main developer, the Related Companies, has enlisted celebrity designers to fashion the buildings and features of the forthcoming nabe: architecture firms Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Elkus Manfredi, as well as other big names such as David Rockwell of the Rockwell Group, David Childs of architecture juggernaut Skidmore Owings and Merrill, and landscape designer Thomas Woltz. The 26-acre site will be home to 12 million square feet of offices, stores, apartments, and cultural venues. Its first phase of building has a budget of $6 billion. It is New York City's biggest real-estate project, ever.

But this ambitious initiative doesn't just bring to mind challenges for those involved in creating this new--and obviously very promising--development in Manhattan. In a thorough article, "From 0 to 12 Million Square Feet," which appears in the October 15 issue of New York Magazine, architecture critic Justin Davidson offers not only an exclusive preview of Hudson Yards' future, but also points out some general warnings for developers of insta-neighborhoods existing metropolises or cities made from scratch. Just adding billions of dollars and big-name designers may not be enough of a recipe for success.

Some of the warnings Davidson offers:

  • A manufactured high-rise neighborhood runs the risk of seeming inauthentic. Yes, Rockefeller Center in New York worked out. But there is, logically, a danger of an inorganic feel that could prove to be a design turn-off.
  • "If Hudson Yards is to be a truly urban place, it will have to lure people who neither work nor live there but who come because everyone else does," Davidson wrote. In other words, it has to be a dynamic destination to truly be part of its greater metropolitan location, otherwise it may seem like...a suburb.
  • One of the most promising design elements of Hudson Yards is The Culture Shed, designed by Elizabeth Diller of Diller Scofidio + Renfro and David Rockwell; it's a "flexible gallery complex" meant to house concerts and exhibitions and other events to draw people to the neighborhood. Davidson warns that the project could very well get "scaled back or dumbed down, or vanish altogether." The Related Companies went on record saying that they will support The Culture Shed and recognize its importance. The lesson here: culture draws ongoing flows of visitors, and thus keeps a new neighborhood's economy and desirability alive. So developers would be wise to prioritize adding an attractive and unique cultural venue to a city or city-within-a-city made from scratch.
  • Recruiting a wide variety of superstar designers will certainly gain media attention, but could produce "a jumble" of building styles. To be fair, cities by nature are jumbles anyway, and these jumbles are just built up over decades and centuries. But will new buildings, built all at once in a tight location, compete with each other in a more cramped, concentrated, and perhaps jarring way? That's possible. (The advantage Hudson Yards has, Davidson wrote, is that all of the designers recruited tend to share a "taste for complexity," so their work might balance out nicely.)
  • Finally, designing an instant public space has its own precarious challenges. "Done wrong, it could be a windswept tundra populated only by office workers scuttling between the subway and their desks," Davidson observed. The problem with Hudson Yards, he wrote, is that the developers only seem to be dealing with it now--but the fact that they seem very focused on it is encouraging. Lesson: it's great to have ambitions of designing a new public square, but rather than tack it on as an afterthought, it should be considered from the beginning. The goal, after all, is to create an outdoor area that's full of life rather than merely being the empty space between new skyscrapers and shops.

Perhaps all of these challenges will find excellent solutions at Hudson Yards--the list of skillful designers recruited certainly bodes well. And it's important to keep in mind that one of the key concepts of this new neighborhood is its newness itself. While it might not fit previous models of urban development, it just may define a fresh one.

Image: Joe Schlabotnik/Flickr

— By on October 12, 2012, 1:30 AM PST

Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure