Manhattan's Newest Green Space Straddles an Active Train Yard

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Most of the new Hudson Yards development on Manhattan's far West Side covers an active rail yard. The remaining western part of the rail yard will be topped with more parks and buildings during the next phase of development. (Photo: Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images)

It's not every day that a new full-fledged, built-from-scratch neighborhood debuts in Manhattan.

The last time it happened was when Battery Park City, a largely residential 92-acre enclave created via the magic of land reclamation, was tacked on to the southwestern end of New York City's smallest but most densely populated borough. Heralded as a "triumph of urban design" by The New York Times after the first wave of major development was completed in 1985, this relatively quiet community with an abundance of public art and open green space has grown and evolved over the years. But as some New Yorkers might point out, it still isn’t the kind of neighborhood you’d go out of your way to visit unless you live or work there.

About three miles north along the western fringes of Midtown Manhattan in an area once qualified as a legitimate no-man's-land, the just-opened first phase of Hudson Yards is drawing comparisons to Battery Park City in this regard. Although Hudson Yards — a self-described "city within a city" — is ultimately a different and glitzier beast that's more akin to Rockefeller Center in size and scope than anything else, the question remains: if you build it, will New Yorkers who don't live or work there come?

That remains to be seen.

Hudson Yards' developer, Related Companies, is confident that a chichi seven-story shopping mall anchored by New York City's first-ever Neiman Marcus, a slew of celebrity chef-helmed restaurants, a snazzy performing arts center, a dizzying observation deck set to open next year and a 150-foot climbable art installation dubbed Vessel (a new moniker is being solicited) will pack everyone in. And this includes New Yorkers who aren't necessarily employed in one of the development's glistening — and very tall — glass office towers by a roster of marquee architects. The same goes for the folks who aren't resting their heads in one of Hudson Yard's amenity-drenched multimillion dollar apartments. (Ten percent of the 4,000 apartment units completed for phase one will be earmarked as affordable.)

A design rendering of the Public Square at Hudson Yards.
A design rendering of the Public Square at Hudson Yards. (Photo: Hudson Yards/Related Properties)

A design rendering of the Public Square at Hudson Yards. (Rendering: Hudson Yards/Related Properties)

Sprawling across 28 acres atop a still-active train storage yard owned by the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the taxpayer-subsidized $20 billion megaproject is the largest private real estate development in American history. It also hasn't been greeted with the same glowing reviews as Battery Park City did when it debuted. Whereas Battery Park City broke the mold, critics argue that Hudson Yards pulls back.

Hudson Yards "may in fact be open to all, but it is certainly not for all," write Ellis Talton and Remington Tonar for Forbes.

Noting its failure to "blend into the city grid," Michael Kimmelman, architecture critic for the Times, observes that although Hudson Yards thrusts high into the Manhattan skyline, it lacks human scale and is "... at heart, a supersized suburban-style office park, with a shopping mall and a quasi-gated condo community targeted at the 0.1 percent."

Noting an "alien separateness" that's incongruent with the joyful mess of a city that surrounds it, Justin Davidson of New York magazine refers to Hudson Yards as "a billionaire's fantasy city" where "everything is too clean, too flat, too art-directed." He writes: "Besides being big, Hudson Yards represents something fundamentally new to New York. It's a one-shot, supersized virtual city-state, plugged into a global metropolis but crafted to the specifications of a single boss: Related's chairman, Stephen Ross."

Other assessments have been along similarly censorious. The word "travesty" has even come into play.

A view of Hudson Yards from the nearby High Line captured in the summer of 2018.
A view of Hudson Yards from the nearby High Line captured in the summer of 2018. (Photo: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

It's not the main event, but open space is part of the package

One of the greatest single attributes of Battery Park City, built atop landfill and dreamt up by a handful of private developers working in partnership with the state-created public-benefit corporation that owns and operates the neighborhood, is its green space.

In total, 36 acres of "quasi-suburban" Battery Park City is set aside for parkland. In the early days of the neighborhood, its lush expansiveness was considered matchless — an expertly plotted masterwork of egalitarian, community-bolstering urban design. Today, Battery Park City's park-heaviness and people-centric design has considerable pull despite what's been said about the neighborhood's non-appeal to those who don't live or work there.

Hudson Yards has a decent amount of open space, too, although far less than Battery Park City considering that the entire development is smaller than the total amount of land dedicated to parkland in the latter neighborhood. But like the aforementioned high-end shopping and dining opportunities that Related Companies think will lure visitors to Hudson Yards, the neighborhood isn't shy about touting its public spaces as being another reason to visit — and in rather superlative terms.

Plants at Hudson Yards
A touch of green in Manhattan's newest and poshest neighborhood, Hudson Yards. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Referred to as "the smartest park ever built," the Public Square and Gardens at Hudson Yards has also been deemed the "West Side's most popular gathering place" on the development website. This seems a wildly premature assessment considering the Public Square was unveiled to the public just days ago at a grand opening ceremony co-hosted by Anderson Cooper and Big Bird. (Some New York denizens, however, have wasted no time making themselves feel at home.)

Comprised of more than 5 acres of open space that will eventually link up to the High Line as well as Hudson River Park located just across 12th Avenue, the neighborhood's Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects-designed perennial gardens and tree-studded public plazas — an "immersive and varied horticulture experience" that lead architect Thomas Woltz describes in greater detail in the below video — promise to be lovely once completed and in full bloom. But perhaps the most awe-inspiring aspect of the firm's work at Hudson Yards is what you can't see.

A feat of engineering and landscape design

As mentioned, the first phase of Hudson Yards is built almost entirely on top of an active rail yard that's now by topped by a 37,000-ton concrete and steel platform supported by a series of underground columns wedged deep into the bedrock. (The western half of the rail yards will also be blanketed/buried in a similar fashion during the next phase of development, which will be predominately residential and also include a school.)

In addition to hoisting (most of) Hudson Yards skyscrapers and street-level infrastructure above the rail yard, this herculean platform supports a greenery-infused landscape complete with 28,000 plants that are "diverse in species and range in size" as well as 200 drought-tolerant trees. Most of the plants selected to populate the Public Square and Gardens are native species chosen for their resilience and ability to attract a range of crucial pollinators and migratory birds.

(The built environment in this particular part of Manhattan, which was rezoned well over a decade ago in the event that New York City won its bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympics, hasn't always been so migratory bird-friendly.)

"Now we have the opportunity for the car to take a backseat," Woltz tells Fast Company. "People can spill out of the buildings into this beautiful civic space."

In a promotional video, Woltz describes Hudson Yards' green spaces, specifically the Public Square, as a "community hub ... maybe even the living room of the West Side. It's sort of the gathering point of all the energy coming in from these different park landscapes. And that's why I usually don't call it a 'park.' It has attributes of a park — it's public space with lots of horticulture and lots of activities. It's well programmed. But the mineral surface and the amount of people we expect to find here is really more akin to [Venice's] Piazza San Marco than it is Central Park."

Graphic explaining engineering behind Hudson Yard's 'elevated' parks and gardens
This illustration explains the advanced engineering required to construct parkland over an active train yard. (Photo: Hudson Yards)

This illustration explains the advanced engineering required to construct parkland over an active train yard. (Image: Hudson Yards)

Like freeway lid parks, creating a natural landscape atop a surface that's at a significant remove from actual terra firma was a fascinating and complex task. Essentially, the neighborhood's green spaces serve as a "ventilating cover" for the 30-track rail yard situated directly below. Thanks to a so-called "soil sandwich," the platforms are engineered to accommodate plant life. This includes mature trees with roots that, in normal circumstances, would spread deep down.

Summarizes Fast Company:

To keep the soil hospitable for trees and to allow them to grow to their full height, despite sitting above a rail yard that can reach 150 degrees, a system powered by 15 fans used in jet engines ventilates the tracks below, and cooling liquids are circulated through a network of tubing to protect roots. Because plants can only grow 18 inches deep, and trees 4 feet deep in the soil bed at Hudson Yards, sand and gravel were sandwiched between concrete to help the roots grow wide and shallow. To minimize the neighborhood's burden on the city's sewers, rainwater is collected in a 60,000-gallon tank and used to irrigate the plants, saving 6.5 megawatt hours of energy and offsetting 5 tons of greenhouse gas a year, according to Related.

Writing for Landscape Architecture Magazine, Alex Ulam takes a fantastic deep dive into the "surgical undertaking" — high-tech soil cooling system that prevents plants from cooking and all — involved with building a planted landscape atop a platform suspended above complex rail infrastructure.

Vessel, Hudson Yards
Visitors climb the Vessel, the 2,500-step strong centerpiece of the Public Square and Gardens at Hudson Yards. (Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

This all being said, most visitors — particularly out-of-towers — to Hudson Yards will likely be unaware of the triumph of engineering tucked away beneath their feet as they unwind on the neighborhood's handmade wooden park benches or traipse through a neatly planted birch grove.

After all, the Public Square and Gardens at Hudson Yards is dominated by spectacle in the form of the Vessel. A soaring, beehive-y (or shawarma-y?) jumble of interlocking staircases and viewing platforms designed by never-boring British designer Thomas Heatherwick, the interactive sculpture is the most prominent feature of Hudson Yards save for the assemblage of cloud-brushing skyscrapers that loom over it. (Kimmelman calls it a "$200 million, latticed, waste-basket-shaped stairway to nowhere, sheathed in a gaudy, copper-cladded steel" that casts "egregious shadows over what passes for public open space.")

The Vessel (or whatever it will ultimately be named) aside, Woltz notes in a 2015 press statement that the design of the Public Square has "prompted unprecedented innovation and deep collaboration across disciplines, including soil science, horticulture and landscape architecture. What has emerged is a project that will serve as a model for 21st century urban spaces."

And he's right. The ensconced technology hidden beneath Hudson Yards that enables this well-heeled mega-neighborhood's natural elements to hum with life is impressive. This approach should be replicated wherever a train yard or a freeway might cry out for capping. But as a chorus of critics have lamented, Hudson Yards' developer has failed to plant the seeds needed for a truly dynamic, diverse and equitable New York City neighborhood to grow — even one that has seemingly appeared out of thin air.