NYC’s Hudson Yards – An Illusionary Equitable Smart City Within A City

Hudson Yards - A Dream City Of 2020

According to the Kiplinger Survey, Manhattan tops the list as the most expensive neighbourhood in New York City, in 2019. The cost of living here is estimated to be 148% higher than the average cost of other US cities. Amidst this research, that exposes Manhattan’s affordability, we have Hudson Yards in the same neighbourhood claiming to be meant for all – including the underprivileged. 

Hudson Yards was a lofty idea that was conceived over two decades ago. Developers and city agencies envisioned it as the “Manhattan’s Manifest Destiny.” A place where dreams and ambitions are limitless, the land is not.” Soon, this smart city initiative became the biggest mixed-use real estate development in US history. Today, it is touted to be the future role model of a smart city. But to what extent are the promises being kept by this development, is still underway. We have a bit of it explained ahead. 

What Is Hudson Yards All About?

Built on land once occupied by rail yards, Hudson Yards is a 28-acre mixed-use development on Manhattan’s far West Side. It is being constructed by Related Companies in association with Oxford Properties Group. The development is reported to be divided into two parts. The first phase i.e Eastern Yard will have eight new fabrics including residential and commercial skyscrapers, a massive shopping mall, a public garden and a cultural centre. And the second phase in Western Yard will be home to an extra mix of houses, offices, retail space and an elementary school. With such an enormous landscape, it is believed to be a comprehensive live-work-play site for people from almost all walks of life. 

Reportedly, the grand project’s construction costs are priced at over $25 billion. This includes $5.6 billion in taxpayer subsidies. Once completed by 2025, it will start contributing $19 billion annually to NYC’s GDP and produce $500 million in tax revenue. The record is as per the developers. In addition, it is anticipated to host over 55,752 workers daily.

A section of the project, 10 Hudson Yards opened in 2016 with the inauguration of big-names like L’Oreal, VaynerMedia, Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs among others. The same year 15 Hudson Yards began welcoming its first residents. Office tenants began moving into 55 Hudson Yards in 2018. However, it was March 15, 2019, considered as the grand opening for the development with several shops, restaurants, and public plaza officially making their first appearance. 

Although Hudson Yards will be home to thousands of residents, it will also serve visitors with a huge 14-acre public space. On one end is the High Line, a revolutionary cultural space bringing people together through art. And another side is the Public Square and Gardens where visitors can enjoy a smart green space, outdoor shaded seating, dine and shop.  

The Dark Side Opened By Critics 

Hudson Yards - An Architectural Contribution to Smart City

The description of the Hudson Yards given above might lead you to imagine a happy space being created for all. But there are certain facts yet to be unfolded. Critics have mixed reviews for the development. Some have acclaimed the project to be an ambitious experiment in smart city planning, infrastructure and sustainability. Others believe it to be a billionaire’s playground when the development is reported to be the most expensive in US history. Architecture critic Justin Davidson viewed it as “West Side Westworld” in the New York Times. Whereas Andrew Berman, executive director of Village Preservation stated it to be a “pretty ghastly amalgam of some of the most mediocre architecture.” It looks like putting “a premium on bigness while neglecting human aesthetics or thoughtful design.” 

The massive mall constructed in the heart of development seems to be welcoming you for a highly extravagant treat. Luxury is the word for shops and high-end restaurants headed by celebrity chefs like David Chang and Thomas Keller. Nearly a majority of the residential and commercial space is occupied by elite tenants. Some of these include Cartier, Dior, Neiman Marcus and Fendi. Residential apartments offer pricey ownership ranging from a few million to tens of million dollars. 

While New York’s diary has an apparent history and present of wealth inequality, Hudson Yards is being criticised to be another contribution. Addressing such criticism, Stephen Ross, the billionaire founder of the Related states that Hudson Yards is not just for the rich by referring to retail and dining options like Shake Shack and H&M. 

Clearly, Hudson Yards is a mega-development that’s reinventing New York City’s skyline. But the initiative’s claim to be constructing a space for all – seems to be a misnomer. The gardens and the public spaces may attract visitors – from all walks of life – giving an illusion of being treated equally. But it doesn’t give an opportunity for the low to medium income families to improve their quality of life. Allowing citizens access to someplace doesn’t specifically mean that they can be a part of it. Moreover, most of the public space in Hudson Yards is (or will be upon completion) on the west side of the development. This is the place situated away from the city. So, with this, Hudson Yards appears to be dividing the community into wealthy participants and incapacitated spectators. 

Where Is The Money Coming From? 

Recently, NYC Public Advocate Jumanee Williams said that Hudson Yards was “built on the backs” of indigent residents. He added that fresh reports are showing the development received billions in funding from a program intended to support impoverished areas. This comes as a sign that the mega-project isn’t being built to improve the quality of life of the majority of New Yorkers. 

EB-5 visa program enables people to invest a minimum of $500,000 into real estate projects. This is to let people buy visas for their family members to enter the US. Hudson Yards received $1.2 billion in funding through this visa program, as first reported by CityLab. 

The development qualified for the program as it was connected into the same “targeted employment area” as multiple other housing projects in Harlem. A targeted employment area in the US is one that meets the standard of 150% unemployment compared to the national rate. 

To the point that the project will support tourism is beautiful. But it shouldn’t happen on the back of the New Yorkers who are struggling for their survival, added Williams. The project includes a fraction of the affordable units that comprise 10% of the total development that is complete. Besides, many retail shops at the site like Sweetgreen and Citarella are cashless stores. So,  apparently, they are not open for the 12% of New Yorkers that don’t own a bank account and 25% that are under-banked.

Is It A Model For Other Smart Cities Projects?  

With development like Hudson Yards in motion, there is an unseemly rush to develop smart urban ecosystems. The ones that glitter with advanced tech and affluent infrastructure. However, this seems to be happening with silent ignorance towards the needy and vulnerable. Smart city projects that lean towards the elite minority are deemed to be destroying the comprehensive development of the society. 

Projects that promise a change for all – remain a dream for the poor and a reality for the big-names. What Hudson Yards is going to be is still a question until it makes its full debut by 2025. But currently, the feeling that Hudson Yards is evoking is just like its giant Vessel that takes you nowhere.