New York City’s urban landscape is about to experience a new typology that will alter how we live in, take pleasure in, and participate in the city. The physical changes in the city since the 1970s, when gentrification moved through formerly abandoned row house neighborhoods and industrial loft quarters, has been widely chronicled in scores of essays, academic texts, and real estate publications. The residential transformation of the Upper West Side oozing out from attractions created by Lincoln Center, the mall-ification of Soho, and the theming of Times Square are only three of the popular tropes New Yorkers have come to know, debate, and live with. But perhaps because we have been blinded by the well-tended new landscapes of the Bloomberg era—the High Line, dedicated bicycle lanes, creatively configured public spaces—we don’t see the more profound changes taking place in the city. In front of our glazed eyes, huge zones of New York are becoming steel and glass corporate quarters in both elevation and plan. Manhattan, of course, has always been a commercial center (The 1811 Commissioners Grid plan took raw land and created “real estate”). The city at its best had wealthy zones like Fifth and Park avenues a few short blocks from rent controlled tenements along Lexington and even Madison avenues. What is new about the large corporate quarters now under construction is that they are all being planned and designed in a “whole cloth” fashion in a single glass and steel style for a single class of user and resident. The first of these zones—the World Trade Center Complex, Hudson Yards, Cornell’s Roosevelt Island technology campus, Atlantic Yards, and, if the mayor’s planning and real estate gurus have their way, the Sunnyside Yards in Queens—all have precedents in exurban corporate campuses and districts across American.
But in New York these corporate landscapes have a unique profile—except for the Cornell campus—in that they are built on concrete pads above parking and transportation lines that link them to the surrounding city and boost and their values as real estate. Like Battery Park City, which may be considered a precursor and a model for these developing quarters, they are purposely isolated and apart form the surrounding city like a suburban, gated community. The World Trade Center is the first of these places to arise in New York, and though it has the powerful Michael Arad memorial at its center and humanly scaled Snøhetta museum, we won’t really understand this landscape until the scaffolding and chain link fence come down on its perimeter. Though its plan partially inserts the old Manhattan grid into the project, from the look of it, it will be a monstrously scaled landscape of foreboding spaces, underground shopping, and bland skyscrapers landing on bare concrete. The quality of the area is typified by Tower One: the 1,776-foot-tall boring and bland middle finger to the rest of the city. This landscape represents a sad lost opportunity for what could have been a model of a mixed-use quarter that resembles the best parts of this metropolis. But this type of attention was never devoted to that other corporate city on a concrete pad, Hudson Yards, which seems to be planned for a commercial district of Houston rather than New York. The High Line will of course meander through this area and it will have at least one fascinating new urban type, Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Culture Shed, which will roll along tracks just next to the elevated park. But from the looks of the shiny real estate presentation drawing of the area, it will likely be the most corporatized landscape this city has ever seen. Some may consider Hudson Yards a “planned” community but in truth it is the result of a process that only looks at the bottom line (and the Houston streetscape) not what this city has been at its best or might be at its best in the future.