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State of the far Westside

by Charles Lauster Architect, P.C. on February 19, 2008

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State of the far Westside

CLAblogby Charles Lauster

Today the state of the far Westside appears in disarray. Five years ago the conventional wisdom was that the area had a coherent plan and it was on the brink of implementation. Today there is no conventional wisdom, only questions. The city, however, may be the better for this thrashing about.

What, exactly, happened to get us to this point? A good place to start is in 2000 when Senator Chuck Schumer led a study of how New York City could add another 30 million square feet of commercial office space over the next 25 years, just as it had in the last 25 years. The Westside was a prime target. With Mayor Bloomberg in 2002 the planning effort became a high priority.

Meanwhile, the Jets football team negotiated with the city to build a new football stadium immediately south of the Javits Convention Center. An expanded and modernized Javits would use the stadium as part of its increased convention space. The new Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, Daniel L. Doctoroff, had been New York’s 2012 Olympic Committee chair and had designated the Jets stadium as the main 2012 Olympic venue.

The City Planning Commission embraced the stadium and the Olympic bid in projecting for development. Instead of the usual east/west orientation for development, the planners elected to develop north/south along a new Hudson Boulevard between 10th and 11th Avenues. This strategy would allow for large commercial buildings in proximity to the convention center and new hotels serving both. The city even reached an understanding with the MTA to expand the #7 subway line to 11th avenue and down to 34th Street to handle the thousands of new workers on Hudson Boulevard. Everything seemed in alignment. Then everything fell apart.

The death of the Olympics and the stadium came in May and June 2005. The International Olympic Committee selected London as the 2012 Olympic city. Part of reason was the controversy over the Jets stadium. The stadium itself was stopped a month later when the three members of the New York State Public Authority Board voted on the use of state property for the stadium. The Board must vote unanimously and one member, Speaker of the Assembly Sheldon Silver, voted no.

The collapse was not over. With the stadium gone, the Convention Center had to recast its expansion. This was made more difficult because of the post 9/11 security screening that has to be done for the trucks marshalling for shows. There is simply not enough room to make the marshalling work efficiently. The Pataki administration, in its last year, tried to keep the big expansion alive but even the talents of architect Richard Rogers could not overcome the mounting costs and the inadequate space. Late last year Governor Spitzer indicated that the expansion will be minimal and most of the work will be to stabilize the leaking building.

Lastly, the #7 expansion is in doubt. Rising costs may necessitate eliminating one of the two stations, the north station at 11th Avenue and 41st Street. The expansion is to be paid for by the city, not the MTA, and the city says it cannot afford the station. This loss would be a severe blow to the many new residents on far West 42nd Street and the eventual workers and residents on the west side.

So, how bad is it? Maybe not so bad at all. The fiasco with the Jets stadium alerted the MTA to the spectacular value of its property. The MTA would have made a fraction from the Jets of what it can command now. In fact, the MTA needs to determine if leasing is a better approach than selling development rights. A growing income stream for ninety-nine years may be far richer than the sales value today.

The stadium itself would have been a nightmare on game days and the Jets got a much cheaper stadium in New Jersey. The fact that the Giants and Jets share the stadium is a welcome efficiency. While Governor Spitzer has not revealed his ultimate plans, there is the hope that a new, more affordable and much larger convention center could be built outside of Manhattan, in Queens or even in New Jersey. In recent years New York has crossed a threshold. The metropolitan area is the critical zone, not the island of Manhattan. Today people do come to New York to visit Queens and Brooklyn. The Boroughs and northwest New Jersey are great assets for those uses that are too big for Manhattan. Better transportation is the key to making the metropolitan area thrive.

With the Javits moved, the five blocks it now occupies could be opened to residential uses and access to the riverfront. This means that the neighborhood of Hells Kitchen South could survive. Commercial development on Hudson Boulevard would have eventually expanded back toward Ninth Avenue squeezing the residential uses out.

In fact, he hoped for commercial development is happening, but not on Hudson Boulevard. Five developers are competing to develop the West and East Hudson Yards. Interestingly, all of the schemes are oriented east/west along 34th Street. Hudson Boulevard is now a remnant of dashed schemes. The development over the yards is the engine pulling development forward, in the classic New York east/west mode. The money saved by abandoning Hudson Boulevard acquisitions could go toward the #7 extension. It could save the station, without which the expansion is useless. In fact, the #7 could extend down to 14th Street, serving the west side of Chelsea and connecting with young workers coming to work on the westside from Williamsburg and east.

After decades during which the city’s planning skills atrophied, New York is entering a new era of exciting, large-scale developments. The Hells Kitchen experience was no Westway. That 1980’s disaster left the city divided and fearful of change. Today community groups, developers and city officials are learning how to work together and get something done. The High Line is a great example. The Jets, Javits and Hudson Boulevard taught the city a great deal. No harm was done. Now it is time to get it right.

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