Hudson Yards 'Himalayas' earn public ire at forum
June 18, 2009
By Diane Vacca
“We’re being handed crumbs,” said Marilyn Suroski, speaking at a public forum on the proposed Hudson Yards mega-project on Wed., June 10. “There’s far too little affordable housing.”
Many West Siders agreed with Suroski’s assessment of The Related Companies’ revised plan for the development of the Western Rail Yards. The 13-acre site, bounded by 11th Ave. and the Hudson River from 30th to 33rd Sts., will include one commercial and six residential towers set within five acres of open space.
Local advocates, no doubt encouraged by their success in trouncing plans for a stadium at the same site four years ago, vigorously denounced the “humongous” scale of the buildings and complained that provisions for affordable housing were woefully inadequate.
Attendees of the forum also worried about what they perceived as a lack of planning for essential public facilities and demanded preservation of the northernmost portion of the High Line.
Community Board 4 and the Hudson Yards Community Advisory Committee, chaired by Anna Hayes Levin, had specified the need for permanently affordable housing for middle-income households integrated with the on-site market-rate housing. Instead, 20 percent of the approximately 5,000 residential units will be affordable for low-income households, while the middle-income permanently affordable housing will be built off-site at two locations in Hell’s Kitchen. After 20 years, the low-income, on-site affordable housing will revert to market-rate.
Vishaan Chakrabarti, Related’s executive vice president of design and planning, emphasized the revisions of the original proposal in response to community concerns. The plans for two buildings originally cantilevered over the High Line on the west side of the site were altered, with one building eliminated entirely and the other shifted away from the elevated park. There will now be a five-foot gap between the High Line and all buildings, Chakrabarti explained,
and small open spaces will form a “necklace,” rather than one great space, as requested. The project will be sustainable, with a series of green roofs and the potential to return power to the grid. Board 4 had requested that commercial development be minimized and restricted to 11th Ave. and east, but most of the buildings will be mixed use, with retail on the ground floor.
Though Chakrabarti’s stated intention was to integrate the development into the city, several people pointed out that the combined effects of the high street wall and the absence of economic diversity, owing to the lack of permanently affordable housing, will create an isolated enclave divorced from the surrounding area.
Related has proposed a 750-seat, K-8 school on the site, but Assemblymember Richard Gottfried said in a statement that the school will accommodate only children living the Hudson Yards project area. A larger or second school is needed, he noted, to alleviate the severe classroom shortage in District 2.
Many feared that public services—such as water, electricity and sewage, as well as safety measures like a firehouse and adequate police protection—were being overlooked or inadequately planned for.
“We need these services in place before the people move in, before we need them, before the toilets start backing up,” said Elaine Marlovitch.
Although there will be an on-site firehouse, its location hasn’t been determined. Joe Restuccia, co-chairperson of Board 4’s Housing, Health and Human Services committee, warned that when the land rises in value, the city will find it impossible to compete for space with private interests.
Christine Berthet, co-chairperson of the board’s Transportation Planning Committee, was concerned that the two proposed garages of 800 spaces each would not be limited to accessory parking and would therefore be available to transient drivers. She also lamented the lack of a direct entrance to the subway. David Karnovsky, general counsel for the City Planning Commission, assured Berthet that the parking would be strictly accessory and the site would be connected to the subway “if we can find a way.”
Karnovsky also responded to the many people who wanted assurance regarding the future of the High Line. He denied that the High Line is at risk, because it is a “component of the open space network.” However, “We haven’t really finalized how we’re going to treat the High Line in the eastern yards yet,” he admitted. “We hope to resolve it.”
Although CB 4 had requested primarily residential development at reasonable density—“not monstrous buildings,” as Levin put it—Related is planning to build 5.7 million square feet distributed among seven buildings. These will be arranged in a cascade, with the tallest building—a commercial tower of 50 to 60 stories and 1.5 to 2.2 million square feet—at the northeast corner of the site and the lowest, 45 stories, at the southwest corner. The massive scale of the development—once jokingly referred to as the “Himalayas between Clinton and Chelsea” by Levin—unsurprisingly evoked many comments.
“You’re not listening to us,” said Chelsea resident Marguerite Yaghjian. “We’ve told you and told you time and again that we don’t want high buildings.”
Advocates also want more affordable housing, but not the way the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development and Related have proposed to provide it, at two off-site locations. One site for permanently affordable housing, owned by the Metropolitan Transit Authority, lies on the east side of Ninth Ave. between 54th and 53rd Sts. The area has an 85-foot (nine stories) height restriction and would yield 89 units. In order to provide 19 additional units, HPD is proposing a zoning change that would raise the allowable height to 115 feet (12 stories).
The second site, owned by the city, provides primary access to the city’s third water tunnel, which is now under construction. It lies in the heart of the Special Clinton District, on the west side of 10th Ave. between 48th and 49th Sts. The developable portion sits over the Amtrak rail cut, or half the site. The zoning of the Special District, which has a building-height restriction of 66 feet (seven stories) and a 60-foot rear-yard requirement, would allow construction of two buildings with a total of 119 units. HPD is proposing a zoning change in order to build a single, C-shaped building, 10 to 11 stories (99 feet high), with 204 units.
“We fought for 40 years for the Special District,” said Richard Marans, of the 47-48th St. Block Association. “Now to have the city come along and stick a knife in our back, put a nail in the coffin of the Special District and ruin what makes us special.”
He added that the community doesn’t consider the second affordable housing site on 10th Ave. to be in context with the neighborhood.
“We consider the huge, massive, Soviet-style wall will block out air and light,” Marans said.
Speaking anonymously, an actress added, “I want to live in a city with historical perspective. I don’t want to live in a city that all of a sudden grows higher and higher and higher so we forget our history. Where’s your passion for saving our beautiful, historical spot?”