Report Live from Megaprojects Conference

Report Live from Megaprojects Conference

AN was live blogging from the Megaprojects Conference at the McGraw Hill Conference Center on May 11. The conference/symposium, sponsored by Columbia University’s Center for Urban Real Estate, took a close look at a few of New York’s biggest real estate projects. The World Trade Center, Hudson Yards, and Times Square. London’s Docklands was also discussed.


The panel from Hudson Yards was the last up at today’s conference, though Related’s Stephen Ross, who sat on an earlier panel was no longer in the house. Oxford Properties’ Dean Shapiro estimated that the project would be completed over the course of two economic cycles. MTA’s real estate director Jeffrey Rosen once again echoed the Port Authority transit theme with “Our paramount concern is running the rail road.” Rosen said that flexibility needs to be a part of any plan, adding that the High Line was not even on the radar when Hudson Yards planning began. As a result the project’s anchor tenant was a luxury fashion company.“Who would’ve thought that this would become Meatpacking North,” he said.

Vishaan Chakrabarti who opened the conference with the statement, “Cities can cure many of the world’s ills” closed the session by explaining how and why. He said major private investment needed to be paired with greater public flexibility and more investment at the federal level. He added that a more nimble public process (that’s you, ULURP) needed to be figured out. “We’re taking too long to build these kind of projects,” he said. But then he zeroed in on the major plus of the megaprojects. “They can address the alarming rate of suburbanization,” he said. “The only way to mitigate that is far denser urbanization with transportation.”


The panel on the World Trade Center, which followed Foye’s keynote, in many ways reinforced some of the PA director’s major themes, with Rafael Pelli saying that the World Trade Center remains the predominant model for megaprojects worldwide because of the manner in which it integrates transportation. Indeed, when the Londoners took to the stage most of their megaprojects centered around if not literally sitting on top of rails. Canary Wharf features the Foster-designed Jubilee Line. Two projects presented by the British panel were based in the Earls Court residential district, with Capital and Counties Properties’ $12 billion mixed-use project skirting a major rail line. Terry Farrell and Partner’s project is building a park straight over rails, which made for a nice segue into the Hudson Yards panel that will wrap up the conference. Sassen’s comment on London’s “adorably flat” qualities resurfaced  as the panel agreed that while that may be true, for now, projects like Farrell’s will likely bump up the density. With density issues prevalent, all agreed London will grow higher.


In his remarks this afternoon, Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye reiterated the Port’s intention refocus its core mission on transportation and away from real estate. “Multibillion dollar projects by starchitects don’t cut it anymore,” he said, adding later, “Governments don’t have the animal spirits to get real estate done.” Though he praised the efforts at the World Trade Center it remains clear from yesterday’s very public spat with David Childs that architectural flourishes will play second fiddle to infrastructure.

“There is a significant risk of backlash from the public for vanity projects that don’t get their return,” he said.  Though he praised marketable details like floor to ceiling windows at One World Trade, he quickly returned to the transit theme. “One World Trade is the symbol of our resilience,” he said, “but it can and will be more than that because it incorporates transportation.” He noted that the hub is part of the whole, particularly the inclusion of nearly 400,000 square feet of retail from Westfield that will stretch from Fulton Street to  West Street. But the biggest payoff from completing WTC is that the Port will be able to reap what Foye called the Center’s “peace dividend,” when the Port returns to business at hand. Foye discussed a variety of public/private partnerships that will shore up some plans for the future; in particular he focused on the new central terminal at LaGuardia and on Moynihan Station, which may finally be approaching reality—for real this time. He called the destruction of the original Penn Station an act of “civic nihilism.” The $250 million that the Port now has hand in hand should finally put the Farely renovation on track. “This elegant structure will be the centerpiece of the plan and this is exactly where our attention should be.”


New York Building Congress’s Richard Anderson moderated the panel on the redevelopment of Times Square and 42nd Street. He was joined by attorney Gary Rosenberg, NYU’s Carl Weisbrod, and Columbia’s Lynne Sagalyn. The segment examined how Disney and Vogue managed to muscle out the strip clubs and prostitutes. Everyone on the panel concurred that the road to recovery was hardly smooth, but the project had the key support of three mayors and four governors. But in this 30-year public/private alliance, the public had a very different vision of what the aesthetics should be than what the private sector had in mind.  Weisbrod said that the core essence of the plan hardly changed, but the public’s affection for the Times Square flash was not something that could be ignored. “This was a lesson in how important it is for the public and private to be on the same wavelength conceptually,” he said. “When it was first started, there was this Rockefeller Center concept and the public hated it.” It took a while to coax the industry to embrace to the glitz. Rosenberg, whose fingerprints were all over the 4 Times Square deal, concurred, “The key element was that the developers had no choice, they were kicking and screaming.” But as the group gave the Lion King’s share of the credit to big businesses, including 42nd Street tenant Disney, and government support, Sagalyn gave a shout out to a nonprofit for paving the way, the New Victory Children’s Theater. “Putting the children’s theater on bad bawdy 42nd Street turned heads,” she said.


In a panel moderated by Michael Zetlin, EDC’s  Seth Pinsky, Related’s Stephen Ross, Regional Plan Association’s Robert Yaro laid out the themes for the afternoon. With Ross and Pinsky on the panel, discussing the merits of public/private was a given. The addition of Yaro gave the discussion some pull-back perspective, beyond the Manhattan street grid. But with the conference’s full title, “Megaprojects and the New York City Street Grid: Lessons for the Future,” the conversation stayed pretty much bound to Manhattan’s grid. Ross said that from a marketing perspective integrating the street is what New Yorkers have come to expect from megaprojects like his Hudson Yards, which loosely incorporates the grid on a north-south axis. Pinsky said that the city shouldn’t be too rigid, reminding the audience that Lexington and Madison were both punched through to accommodate real estate development. While disrupting the grid may seem like killing a sacred cow, this was a group intent on not succumbing to nostalgia lest the city fall behind London, the oft-cited competition at the conference thus far. “We can’t just sit on our assets here and become a museum,” said Yaro, ushering in the public/private segment of the conversation. Ross noted that on entering any public/private partnership the developer must have the same vision as the city, “If the city does well, I’ll do well,” he said. Yaro agreed that partnering with the city remains important but warned of NIMBY naysayers. “You’re always going to have NIMBY opposition, but the benefits of megaprojects are region wide.”


Sociologist Saskia Sassen’s opening remarks focused on globalization’s building standards and the dangers of homogenization in megaprojects. She observed that cities have the ability to outlive all other formats because their incompleteness fosters durability.  “There is no such thing as the global economy,” she told the crowd. Instead, there are hundreds of thousands of specialized circuits that rely on imbedded knowledge. She used Chicago’s steel industry as an example, where the extraction of such knowledge can then be commodified and sold. “What a city has in its history matters,” she said. “That’s why New York doesn’t have a steel economy.”  She noted that offices are no longer about headquarters: “It’s about a networked economy.” She noted that the office buildings of the 30s and 60s served clerical processes. Though today’s buildings may look similar, today they are about infrastructure. “They announce ‘I have it all,’ but how you’re going to use them, that’s up to you.”