Leonard Quart | Letter From New York: Hudson Square: An island of wealth on a wealthy island

Letter From New York

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NEW YORK — There are few neighborhoods in the city that aren't being transformed. Manhattan's Hudson Square — an area close to Tribeca, SoHo, and Chinatown and west of Sixth Avenue extending to the Hudson River — is one of them. The neighborhood was once known as the Printing District because of the printing companies attracted to the large concrete and steel factory buildings located close to their Wall Street clients. I recall walking on Hudson Square's streets when the magazine I wrote for, Cineaste, shared a large office in one of those well-constructed buildings with their large open spaces. It was the late 1990s — a time when technology and design companies, attracted by the location and affordable rents, had replaced the printing industry

Our meetings were held on Sundays when the streets were desolate — silent and colorless — and one of the few places to have a drink was the landmarked, wooden-floored Ear Inn (so-named in the 1970s), which has been in existence since 1817. At that time one could see a few signs of gentrification, for a few luxury buildings and upscale restaurants had begun to make their appearance. However, in 2013, spearheaded by Trinity Real Estate, the property arm of the Episcopal Church, the largest privately initiated and virtually uncontroversial rezoning passed for Hudson Square. The benefits of the Hudson Square rezoning to Trinity Church were enormous, for the church owned millions of square feet of commercial space and ground leases in the area — due to a royal act of Queen Anne, who granted the church the 215 acres of land in 1705. Clearly serving God paid off for this church.

LITERALLY DISNEYFIED

The neighborhood is now not only growing in height and the number of luxury residences, but a large fund has been set aside to increase the area's commercial mix, greenery, and traffic flow. Among the new luxury buildings going up is Renzo Piano's first New York City residential building (he's the architect of new Whitney Museum and the Times Building) that has a 20-foot private, heated rooftop pool, which contains striking views of the city. Besides Piano's building, rezoning allowed for more than 3,300 units of new residential units (20 percent of which are supposedly affordable ), 140,000 square feet of retail space, 140,000 square feet of office space — a new neighborhood.

There are also boutique hotels and artisanal restaurants opening in the area, as well as an influx of biotechnology and health care companies, including New York University Langone's Bio Labs. In addition, the Walt Disney Company has announced plans to develop a two-block site along Hudson Street that it recently bought for $650 million into the new home for Disney's New York headquarters.

Google also plans to expand to Hudson Square, investing $1 billion into a 1.7 million-square-foot campus for the tech giant without needing subsidies like Amazon does in Long Island City. The new hub, to be called Google Hudson Square, will serve as home for Google's New York global business organization. The largest part of the campus will be housed in the immense St. John's Terminal. The Industrial Age building was once a freight terminal that marked the southern-most terminus of the High Line. It's been mostly vacant in recent decades. The expansion will bring the number of Google employees in New York City to 14,000 and will clearly raise housing rents and prices in Hudson Square.

Close to two miles to the north and currently under construction is Hudson Yards, the largest private real estate development in U.S. history by square footage. The mixed-use development is estimated to cost its developer, Related, $20 billion. It's located in an area roughly bound by 30th Street in the south, 41st Street in the north, 11th Avenue in the west, and Eighth Avenue in the east.

To complete it, about $3 billion in taxpayer money was poured into infrastructure improvements targeted toward Hudson Yards in order to entice investment (including the extension of the Number 7 line to 34th St. and 11th Avenue.) The development is being built on platforms over the West Side Rail Yards, a storage yard for the Long Island Railroad, a site that that has seen many failed redevelopment projects since the Mayor John Lindsay years.

Hudson Yards' master plan aims to expand the midtown business district westward towards the Hudson with residential and office towers, retail outlets in a mall, some high-end restaurants, a new artistic center, a 200-room luxury hotel, and public green space. The second phase will include additional residential buildings and a public school.

Construction began in 2012, and the expectation is that the first phase will be finished by March 15 of this year. The environment surrounding it should only help its success, because when it was finally ready to be built, the High Line had been completed, the new Whitney Museum opened, and the Javits Center was renovated.

DEFINE SUCCESS

We must ask what it means for Hudson Yards to be a success? It is supposed to be socially responsible: as a result one fourth of the residential units are designated for affordable housing. But most of the "affordable" housing means studios and other housing unsuitable for families. The Hudson Yards project is also imagined as a technological marvel that pairs style with sustainability.

Obviously, this new project will basically be another island of wealth. I'm also not sure if it will turn out to be any more distinctive than a sterile grouping of office and residential towers and high-end restaurants and shops where, like many a suburb, all retail has been relegated to a shopping mall/food court. But no one looks to these large projects for humanity and a sense of community, though if it contains some striking architecture it may offer a few moments of aesthetic pleasure.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com

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