A woman looks out over Manhattan from a glass-walled observation deck in a skyscraper.
A woman looks out over Manhattan from an observation deck at the top of a tower in Hudson Yards. Mark Lennihan/AP

With super-tall glass towers, a luxury mall, and a ’grammable urban spectacle, Hudson Yards is very much a development of its time.

Great, jagged slits of sky separate the skyscrapers that have risen like reflective missile silos at the western edge of Manhattan. Part of the Hudson Yards mega-development, the towers reach up to 1,000 feet, and cast much of a five-acre public plaza at the heart of the development into shadow.

Today, Related Companies and Oxford Properties celebrate the grand opening of Hudson Yards. Nearly 9 million square feet (of an eventual 18 million) is completed or coming on line over the next several months, including a 1 million-square-foot mall, the plaza, and five of six towers.

Hudson Yards in Fall 2018. The mega-project’s developers say it is the largest private real-estate development in the history of the United States. (Courtesy of Related/Oxford)

Back in 2005, a swath of Manhattan’s Far West Side along the Hudson River, characterized by warehouses and rail yards, was rezoned as the Special Hudson Yards District. The 28-acre Related/Oxford parcel—between 10th and 12th avenues and 30th and 34th streets—is the centerpiece of this rezoned area. Much of it sits on new platforms above rail yards with active tracks and tunnels.

Instead of seeing these tabula rasa acres as an opportunity to reimagine the possibilities of the 21st-century city, Related and Oxford have created an assemblage where architecture tries to reconcile the human experience with the herculean scale required to accommodate all those square feet. (An earlier version of the tower 15 Hudson Yards was wasp-waisted, which made its 910-foot height almost relatable.)

The saving grace of the project, which is estimated to cost upwards of $20 billion, was the Department of City Planning’s requirement that half the site be developed as open space. Landscape architect Thomas Woltz, of the firm Nelson Byrd Woltz, contrasts the polished hard-edged sheen of the towers with curving paths lined by trees and smooth stone sitting walls. The extensive planted areas divide the plaza into almost intimate realms.

A master plan of Hudson Yards. The Eastern Yard (above right), which officially opened March 15, includes several skyscrapers; a shopping mall; The Shed, a cultural center; and in the middle, a plaza anchored by Thomas Heatherwick’s “Vessel” of interlocking stairs. (Courtesy of Related/Oxford)

The plaza opens generously west, across 13 as-yet-undeveloped acres, to catch the afternoon sun reflecting off the river. Up to 6.2 million additional square feet will rise here, bringing the number of people working in the area as high as 40,000, according to Related.

“Vessel,” an urn-shaped interactive sculpture of more than 150 flights of stairs with 80 landings, looms over the plaza. London’s Heatherwick Studio calls it “a three-dimensional public space.” Its construction is elegant, suspended effortlessly in air, with its underside clad in copper-tinted polished stainless steel. It frames views and movement in Instagrammable perfection, and will be a crowd-pleaser as long as no one thinks too hard about its kinship to M.C. Escher’s senseless stairs to nowhere.

"Vessel," a 150-foot structure of climbable interlocking staircases, is the photogenic focal point of Hudson Yards. (Courtesy of Michael Moran for Related/Oxford)

Hudson Yards is built at an entirely new scale, even for skyscraper-studded New York. To take in the scale of the towers requires a spine-cracking craning of the neck. Two that form a pair—10 and 30 Hudson Yards, both by the architect Bill Pedersen of KPF—are topped by cockeyed triangular roofs, a conversation in shard-like geometries.

A structurally daring viewing deck projects out of the tallest, at the 100th floor. It offers vistas of new supertalls in Midtown, and the Hudson River meandering among tower clusters in Lower Manhattan and Jersey City: a classic panorama of megacity grandeur.

"The Edge" jutting out of 30 Hudson Yards, 1,100 feet above the ground. It is scheduled to open to the public at the end of 2019. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

This pair of towers bookends the mall, which hangs from a massive truss so that trains can pass unimpeded beneath. The entire project is built atop a sandwich of steel that holds mechanical systems to cool and vent the rail yards as well as systems that serve the buildings and plaza. The developers have leased the air above the yards for 99 years.

The mall displays a fortresslike, three-block-long corrugated-metal wall to 10th Avenue and the side streets coming from Penn Station to the east. Within, a canyon-like atrium accesses five levels and 750,000 square feet of stores. Neiman Marcus and 20-plus restaurants helmed by a pack of celebrity chefs anchor the upper floors. Escalators wrapped in stainless steel hang in the atrium like sculptures.

People attend the opening of the Neiman Marcus department store on the opening night of The Shops & Restaurants at Hudson Yards on March 14. (Mark Lennihan/AP)
The exterior of the Louis Vuitton store in The Shops & Restaurants at Hudson Yards. (Courtesy of Francis Dzikowski for Related/Oxford)

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s 35 Hudson Yards rises 72 stories and 1,000 feet, stacking a complex mix of uses denoted by short setbacks and four lobbies, including a colossal Equinox fitness center (a Related brand), offices, a five-star Equinox-branded hotel, and 40 residential floors. The architects, led by David Childs, added patterned-limestone fins to add some tactility to the acres of glass. Apartments start at $5 million, with the best penthouse aspiring to command a record price, which would put it north of $240 million.

The shear glass shaft of 15 Hudson Yards rounds into two cylinders as it nears its apex, offering a note of sensuality to the ensemble. Its most remarkable feature is found below its almost 400 apartments: The Shed, the adjacent culture venue that resembles a colossal tent, with its skewed trusswork suggesting suspended motion. Wrapping itself around extensive gallery and multipurpose performance spaces, the Shed rolls onto the plaza when a grand enclosed space is needed. Both tower and Shed were designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) working with the Rockwell Group.

Ultimately, The Shed is upstaged by Heatherwick’s Vessel: Although it is scaled to humanize the development from afar, within the plaza, the Vessel is like an overeager party guest, demanding attention, never entirely out of view.

People strolling the High Line pass The Shed. (Brett Beyer)

DS+R were also co-designers of the High Line, which runs past The Shed and 15 Hudson Yards as it takes a three-quarter-mile semicircular jog around the development. A stub that runs underneath 10 Hudson Yards and culminates in a grassy hill and an intimate gathering space will also open soon.

Two more skyscrapers round out the eastern portion of the development: 55 Hudson Yards, a tower with rounded windows framed in dark metal, which is nearing completion, and 50 Hudson Yards, a 985-foot-high tower by Foster & Partners to be completed for BlackRock, the global investment-management firm, in 2022.

***

New Yorkers will no doubt look askance at yet more development aimed at high-end buyers, tenants, and shoppers. The alleged job, economic activity, and tax-collection benefits are extremely hard to assess because of the complexity and opacity of the subsidies and write-offs that apply to the site.

According to a study by the Schwartz Center for Economic Analysis at The New School, the city advertised the development as self-financing, but taxpayers are on the hook for $2.2 billion in direct costs for the Hudson Yards district. The city invested $3.5 billion in infrastructure to spur development of 48 blocks, only 28 acres of which are occupied by the Related/Oxford development.

The billions funded the 7 subway line extension from Times Square to Hudson Yards, and the Hudson Park and Boulevard, a four-acre shaft of greenery extending north from the Related/Oxford plaza that is a balm for a park-starved neighborhood and an armature for massive additional development. These costs are supposed to be repaid over time by what are called Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOTs), but the city had to absorb hundreds of millions of dollars of cost overruns for both. Hudson Park alone is costing a colossal $1.1 billion. (Compare to the 1.3 mile-long, 85-acre Brooklyn Bridge Park, at $350 million.)

Developers were awarded generous tax breaks, including $687 million for the Related/Oxford buildings opening this year. (Part of the subsidy applies to 107 units of below-market housing on site.) The city also contributed $76 million to The Shed.

The study questions the degree to which Hudson Yards creates new jobs. It quotes research by real-estate firm JLL that estimated 90 percent of the office tenants were emptying existing space in Midtown. The total subsidies for the district may add up to as much as $6 billion, according to a March 10 New York Times story, although the components of that figure aren’t described. Since the district can ultimately accommodate as much as 27 million square feet of commercial and residential development, the ultimate costs to the city are far from known.

Rather than a vision of the future, Hudson Yards takes a snapshot of the concentrated-wealth present. It is the physical expression of the tensions between the developer’s focus on moneymaking, the complications of the site, and complex public agendas. Hudson Yards is an untidy collage of all the forces that have acted on it.

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