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Building a city within a city

Hudson Yards and Battery Park City, cities-within-a-city on the western edge of Manhattan, would seem kindred spirits. But they are not

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Construction underway at Hudson Yards in September 2017. New York's newest neighbourhood drew inspiration from Battery Park City, but is filled with 21st-century twists.

New York

LAND where there was none before. A careful ratio of places to live, work, eat and recline on lawns. A sense of being in New York, but not quite of it.

At first blush, Hudson Yards and Battery Park City, cities-within-a-city on the western edge of Manhattan, would seem kindred spirits.

But Hudson Yards, which is to wrap up by 2026, will have taken 18 years to complete - and it remains to be seen how quickly the rest of the neighbourhood will develop. Battery Park City, which lumbered across the finish line in 2011, took 45 years to fully form.

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Why Hudson Yards was able to come together quickly, relatively speaking, has a lot do with how the approach to creating whole-cloth neighbourhoods has changed over the years, as the private sector has stepped in to fill voids left by the government, according to city officials, brokers and developers.

But also, vibes have changed. What was architecturally appealing a few decades ago now seems staid. Planners say that if the past was about fitting in, the present is all about standing out. In the end, they add, Battery Park City and Hudson Yards represent very different theories about development.

"Hudson Yards represents the 21st century, and Battery Park City represents the end of the 20th century," said Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University. "They are just totally different."

Both Hudson Yards and Battery Park City hatched from efforts to remake once-industrial areas that were not living up to their potential.

Dirt unearthed during the construction of the first World Trade Center in the mid-1960s, plus sandier fill, allowed Battery Park City to essentially be sewn onto the edge of Manhattan.

But to make the 37-hectare swath more than just a park required a huge investment: in sea walls, water pipes and electrical lines.

Constructing that infrastructure fell to the state, which had to borrow a lot of money to make it happen. It wasn't until 1982 that the first building, the Gateway apartment complex, with 1,712 units, opened.

Hoping to avoid another dragged-out process, the city took a different tack with Hudson Yards, a 11.3 hectare parcel being developed by the Related Companies and Oxford Properties Group at the heart of the neighbourhood of the same name, where other projects are also underway.

Most of the Hudson Yards site is ribbed with railroad tracks. To create the development site, the tracks had to be covered. But the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which controls the property, wisely avoided building that platform itself, said Tom Wright, president and chief executive of the Regional Plan Association, an urban research group.

By punting to Related and Oxford, which paid US$1 billion for the rights to the site and built the deck, the MTA made sure taxpayers wouldn't be on the hook, said Mr Wright, whose group supports the project. As a private entity, Related, the lead developer, was able to work relatively quickly and avoid being subjected to shifts in public opinion.

If the MTA had been responsible for building the platform over the rail yard, for example, a subway crisis might easily have diverted its attention and stalled the project.

Having fewer people calling the shots may also have helped. Battery Park City was constructed by a parade of companies, including Milstein Properties, LeFrak Organization and Zeckendorf, plus commercial builders.

But Hudson Yards is the result of a single company, which is a huge advantage, said Daniel Doctoroff, the deputy mayor under Michael Bloomberg who pushed hard for the rezoning that created Hudson Yards.

"What's very different is that one developer built the commercial and residential and retail space," said Mr Doctoroff.

Plans for Battery Park City went through multiple iterations. It started with a 1966 "towers in the park" plan for apartment buildings to house World Trade Center employees. The plan estimated about 90,000 residents, a far cry from the 16,000 there today.

By 1969, the authority had scrapped that plan in favour of a more architecturally ambitious one that featured a mix of six-sided towers and smaller buildings with walls that sloped like pyramids.

A third version in the 1970s added more offices, but was revised again in 1979 because corporations had started migrating to the suburbs.

"I think the original designers were people that didn't like the city very much, because they kept giving a cleaned-up view of what the city could be," said Stan Eckstut, the architect who, along with Alexander Cooper, was tapped for that fourth version. Aiming for a traditional extension of Manhattan, Mr Eckstut aligned streets with existing ones in the financial district.

Today, Battery Park City is probably best known for its brick-and-stone buildings, many from the 1980s, after developers finally came around - although there are exceptions, like the parabolic Visionaire, a condo high-rise built in 2008.

"The sentiment seems the same between us and Hudson Yards. It's 'I want to be in a Manhattan that doesn't feel like Manhattan'," said Wesley Stanton, a salesman with Douglas Elliman Real Estate. "But from a sales perspective, it's very different," he said.

While apartments at 15 Hudson Yards, a condo that opened this winter, average US$3,300 a square foot, he noted, prices in Battery Park City are lower, as at the Ritz-Carlton condo, where units average US$2,300 a square foot. The blocks at Hudson Yards, by contrast, don't feel as plugged into the street grid. The view ahead when walking west on West 31st Street, which ends at the development, is of the site's soaring seven-storey mall and the tall logo of its most prominent tenant, Neiman Marcus.

Streets like West 33rd will eventually bisect the site, and there are other ways in. But the site poses an inconvenient hindrance, in the form of that platform, which in places is the equivalent of three storeys in the air, Mr Doctoroff said.

Since 2012, when Related broke ground, buildings have been slow to arrive. But last month, much of the first phase opened to the public.

There was hardly free rein at the site, said Marianne Kwok, a director of architecture firm KPF, which has worked from the get-go on the platform, site plan and buildings. Unlike in Battery Park City, each Hudson Yards building had to have a singular appearance. Every corporate tenant "wants to have brand", Ms Kwok said. "Individuality is now what's desired."

It may be working. A hefty 82 per cent of the office spaces in the eastern half of the site, which is mostly commercial buildings, has been spoken for, even though some of the buildings are not yet open, according to Related.

Assessing the success of the condos is tougher. The first building, 15 Hudson Yards, went on the market 21/2 years ago, and is only 60 per cent sold.

Battery Park City has a ferry stop, but no subway service. But at Hudson Yards, a four-year-old train stop is on site. Brokers remain confident that the subway service will be key to the project's success, even as critics have called the US$2.4 billion transit project, which sits near several Related buildings, a pricey subsidy. NYTIMES