The big city

Yard of dreams

This post looks at last week’s trip to New York, focused on midtown and financial district locales. After many years of waiting, the Hudson Yards Redevelopment Project on midtown’s far west side at the Hudson River is underway (above at 10th Avenue and 3oth Street), with developers working on a first phase of mixed-use office, housing, and retail constructed in leased air rights over MTA‘s vast rail yards.  This ambitious plan includes an extension of the “7” subway train, thousands of new housing units, and large amounts of public space. A virtual no-man’s land (perhaps the last such area in Manhattan) promises to be completely transformed. You can see the development proposal here.

All about the brand

A few blocks north the same developer (Related Companies) is already leasing their MiMA building (above on the corner of 10th Avenue looking east along 42nd Street). Their marketing campaign for this high-end building (originally slated for condos before the recent economic downturn) was so clever that many New Yorkers have started referring to this far west section of midtown as “MiMA”–which means “Middle of Manhattan”. Perhaps a bit wishful to think of 10th Avenue as the “middle;” but with the massive Hudson Yards project underway, the center of gravity will shift somewhat, making this moniker more plausible.

A contrast in scale

The more well-known midtown includes 6th Avenue (above, at 49th Street) where massive towers were set back from the street back in the 1960’s as a result of new zoning laws that allowed greater heights if the developer provided “public space” along the street. The famously bleak, wind-swept plazas that resulted were, at least in the location above, a little less bleak due to fountains, benches, and landscaping making the best of a very anti-urban condition.

A little world of its own

Pocket parks are scattered across Midtown–many again a result of zoning compromises that allowed developers certain concessions in return for providing public amenities. The one above provides a passage between 49th and 48th Street a block west of the 6th Avenue plaza shown previously. In many cases, pocket parks can be underused; pedestrian traffic patterns, adjacent uses, and other factors aren’t studied properly before locations are selected. In Manhattan, given the high density and almost constant foot traffic on countless blocks, these spaces have a better chance of success.

Hey, the taxpayer didn’t fund it

Above is the entrance to this pocket park from 48th Street–sort of Chinese garden gateway reinterpreted. You pass under a thick transparent tube inserted through a concrete wall with water rushing down the full length of the wall, splashing the ceiling above you, and falling into a trough below. It’s a wonderful effect–you really feel like you’re passing from one realm into another. The expense of this sort of feature makes one reflect on the “only in New York” budgets these spaces can have.

Welcome back, downtown skyline

All the way downtown in the Financial District, One World Trade Center (above) is finally nearing completion. It’s an understatement to say the downtown skyline has been missing an anchor since the September 11, 2001 tragedy; this new tower is a welcome symbol of New York’s resilience. It comes at a time when lots of other things are happening in this oldest part of Manhattan, whose vibrant, mixed-use streets of 200 years ago became dominated by finance, banking, and law firms (at the expense of shipping, housing, and saloons). In the last 10 years, however, more and more office buildings have been converted to residences, new apartments have been constructed, there are more restaurants, schools, and groceries—and many thousands more people are living here and walking the streets (about 56,000 compared to 15,000 at the time of the attack).

Occupying the park

Partly as a result of the influx of new residents, the area’s parks have been renovated: people from neighborhoods further north flock south with their kids to enjoy the Financial District–an activity that would have been unheard of 10 years ago. Above is City Hall Park, which at 9 AM Thursday was filled with office workers, mothers with strollers (and a few nannies), and tourists.

The proportion of foot to auto traffic is remarkable

Compared to the relatively new (1811) street grid further north, the older street pattern in this neighborhood is full of curves and diagonals, with narrow roadbed widths (above is Fulton Street looking east from Nassau Street). This tends to confine auto traffic to certain widened arteries, with pedestrians often having free reign in the streets retaining original dimensions.

A colorful concession to the public realm

Across from the new One World Trade Center is 200 West Street, the global headquarters for Goldman Sachs. Choosing this location in part to demonstrate strong commitment to the World Trade Center area after the tragedy, the 43-story building opened in 2009 and was designed by Pei Cobb Fried with other design firms handling different portions of the interiors. Huge murals were commissioned for the numerous lobby spaces, designed for the enjoyment of passerby, including “Sunrise, Sunset” by Franz Ackerman above (you can read a New Yorker review of 200 West here).

Serving titans of finance, among others

One of the most interesting features of 200 West is the adjacent Conrad Hotel linked to the office tower by a promenade (above). Goldman acquired the former Embassy Suites, renovated it into a sleek, contemporary hotel more in keeping with their own image and clientele, and created the promenade. The Applebee’s lease was not renewed; several Danny Meyer restaurants were brought in. Both office workers and nearby residents are delighted. It’s an urban amenity win for everyone.

Yes please

Note the new apartment towers directly across from the promenade (and Shake Shack) above. This neighborhood is becoming very interesting. And tastier.


While Goldman Sachs famously has no corporate logos or company signage of any kind on its building–even the security guards wear anonymous black suits–100 Gold street, a bland 1970’s building a few blocks away, had an image problem. The wrapped address signage (above) does a good job announcing the building to the public, without distracting from the lines of the original design. This is a simple, but sophisticated addition.

Is this for real?

Finally, no trip to New York is complete without visiting the High Line park–shown above around 22nd Street looking north. On a picture-perfect Friday lunchtime, families are playing in the grass, locals and tourists are eating sandwiches, an artist is painting at an easel—and new office and apartment towers frame the stunning views. It’s an urban vision that’s so beautiful, it’s hard to believe it was an abandoned, weedy, rusty set of tracks just a few years ago. Railroad Park, anyone?

13 responses to “The big city

  1. Another great report from the field. Having recently revisited New York after a long absence, I was struck by how well this metropolis functions and how vibrant the street life is.

  2. Excellent tour. Had not seen the art at Goldman Sachs. I think that artist did a major piece at the new Cowboys Stadium in Dallas.

    • Thanks. I also was lucky enough to get a complete tour of the interior of that building, but couldn’t take pictures unfortunately. It was fascinating to see the contributions of different design firms to different pieces inside.

  3. magiccitymusings

    Is that last image yours?

  4. magiccitymusings

    Is that last image yours? I sure hope so!

    • Yes–I typically just have my iPhone camera, so I was surprised at how that last image looks–well, so good. Normally my images are OK, but it must be something about the High Line that encourages excellence…Thanks.

  5. That Conrad hotel pic (of the glass-covered plaza/street with tables) is so striking!!!

    • Let’s face it: tight budgets in smaller cities like Birmingham can be used creatively for great results. But sometimes you can’t beat what big city budgets can produce, in terms of quality of materials, retail mix, etc. etc.

  6. Thanks so much for including Shake Shack in this post about downtown development. We love being a part of the Battery Park City community!

    Hope you had a great trip!

    -Brandy Cerne, Shake Shack

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