You can’t be all things to all people. I learned that a long time ago. I also learned that once you learn that, you realize you’re granted some forgiveness and carry on with life knowing that other people will generally, cut you some slack. However, other “people” and other “things” don’t have that luxury, and often face more public scrutiny. Such is the case for Hudson Yards, Manhattan’s renowned development by Oxford Properties and Related Companies, on the Far West side, currently in its first phase.
A colleague forwarded me last month’s Huffington Post article by Alan G Brake, which boldly states some criticism. I had to read it three times. You see, I impulsively fell in love with Hudson Yards at first sight. I recall seeing the progress each time I visited New York and walked the High line Park adjacent to it.
My excitement gained momentum each time I’d see the pieces start to fit together and take shape. What I can consider now, after reading the article repeatedly, is that I may have fallen for the “bait” and into one of the three slim categories they claim it was built for – I fell into the “tourist trap.” The other two were “wealthy residents” and “high income workers.”
Here are some of the phrases in the article that nudged me to second guess my “crush.”
Not for us.
A development, not a neighbourhood.
A billionaire’s fantasy.
Architecture of advanced capitalism.
Designed for Instagram.
Crisis of confidence.
Harsh. While not everyone will agree with the criticisms, there are in fact some points Brake addresses that resonated with me. The timing for me to reconsider “Hudson Yards” couldn’t have been more perfect, as I had a trip planned to Manhattan this past weekend.
As a developer, the fact is that real estate is merely the recycling of property. It has a life cycle and goes through iterations. Each iteration gets better. At least that’s what should happen. Real estate, communities, neighbourhoods, parks, infrastructure, should reflect the world we live in and the values that we live by, in order to be successful.
Some of the opposition to Hudson Yards implies that it doesn’t reflect some of those unnamed values, such as inclusiveness, diversity and transparency.
Alan Brake’s piece in Huffington Post starts its critique by sharing that the space in its entirety is “walled” off to the public, avoiding the street and thus the vitality of one of the “world’s greatest cities.” Agreed. Although I keep an open mind to the fact that some of this may be dictated by regulation and/or legislation.
While Brake finds fault with the aesthetic of Hudson Yards overall, described as “blandly impressive” and having “numbing acreage of blue, reflective glass” and the “dirty bubble wrap” appearance of The Shed, a centre for arts, any alignment I have with it seems to stem from the potential impact that design has on the social and behavioural aspects of a place.
Brake gives a great example of this with the design of the shopping mall being intentionally confusing (which likely correlates to increased time and spend)… an “a-ha” moment for me and lesson in Retail 101. Clever as it may seem, it seems to be a blatant contradiction to the world we live in, where the user experience has soared to the top of the totem pole. (I don’t think it’s just me that has a love of places that are easy to navigate.)
The other contradiction cited was the fact that cars are prioritized, indicating “out-of-date urban thinking.” Agreed. My prediction is that driving will soon fall into the same shunned category as smoking (no different than sitting has, witnessed by the popularity of standing desks). The fact remains that cars are the least effective way to move people in an urban setting.
Brake’s criticism of the Vessel, (the statuesque “Instagram-able” staircase) referred to as “urban costume jewelry” isn’t one that I necessarily agree with. I happen to love public art that you can interact with. And while it’s not completely “open” for all to enjoy at their leisure (given the security guards and limited hours) it is at least, free of charge. Reminder – we live in a world where more and more is monetized, and some people are willing to pay for a beautiful view. In this case, you don’t have to. I also happen to be a mother to three young boys, for whom the “look, don’t touch” philosophy doesn’t fare too well. Despite the stairs not being “open” at the time of our visit, my son did successfully find other things to climb.
The public plaza, which Brake observes is inconveniently arrived at through entering the mall and ascending two storeys, leaves room for improvement and some things to be desired – simple things, such as benches or chairs for people to take five. Its current design, seems to actively “discourage lingering or relaxation.” Agreed. (I happen to be the type of person who gets frustrated when I take my kids out for ice cream and cannot find any public benches to sit on nearby).
The data dilemma is also mentioned, of course – and as expected, promises the capture, protection and use of “it” to allow Hudson Yards to “function better,” according to Related. The message that I’m hearing more often these days however, is that people are increasingly resistant to sharing “it” unless you’re adding value to them in some way. Hudson Yards still has to prove that, from the sound of it. So companies should take note, if you’re holding your customers ransom by the data you’re collecting from them in exchange for a “better customer experience”… you’d better deliver on it.
Finally, the criticism that really spoke to me, is the following. Something that is supposed to be for “all of us” shouldn’t be designed by a few of us. While I’m uncertain as to the accuracy of the statement that the development was wholeheartedly conceived by the administration of Michael Bloomberg and designed by Stephen Ross, the chairman and majority owner of Related Companies, the general rule when creating something of this scale, is “more is less.” Involving other perspectives and voices is a far better way to deliver something that appeals to the greater population, than restricting it to “group think” that represents more than three segments of the city (if in fact that was the process that it went though.)
We all know, that change in general, is difficult. We also know, that there will always be critics. As mentioned, I find some of the criticisms to hold more truth and merit than others. And that’s merely my opinion. Everyone else will have their own. That’s an abundance of opinions. As a developer in our city, we’ve certainly had our share of criticisms of our own communities. Some warranted. Others not so much. It’s impossible to get everything right, but it is important to try. And it’s important to listen.
Hudson Yards is here to stay… at least for the duration of its life span, however long that may prove to be. With this in mind, it’s important to encourage people to look at it through a lens of winning and learning (not losing). It’s important to discuss it productively and to remain optimistic that people generally do better, when they know better. So do companies. I believe Oxford and Related are companies of that caliber that are open to learning how they’re doing. Despite what may be pointed out as shortcoming, it’s these types of companies, and this type of collaboration that will work toward delivering what Brake expresses as “a 21st century city that reflects and serves its citizens.” That’s something we can certainly all agree upon needing.