Schemes for the West Side Rail Yards

The West Side Rail Yards is the largest plot of land remaining for development in Manhattan, so the team chosen to develop the 26.2 acres of land at the end of the High Line and near Penn Station and Port Authority will have a major impact on the skyline and the city as a whole. I think the exhibition and comment period provided by the MTA were much too short for the public to form an opinion, but at least I saw an attempt at garnering input.

All of the schemes propose unique solutions to the site’s challenges, which include spanning the rail yards, incorporating design suitable for PlaNYC, and addressing a mixed-use program appropriate for current and future zoning codes. Durst/Vornado’s proposal is the most green. Designed by FXFowle Architects and Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, the team incorporates strategies that, to my knowledge, have not been implemented at such a large scale (integrating scheme-wide blackwater recycling, for example).

The Related/Goldman Sachs team, consisting of Kohn Pedersen Fox, Arquitectonica, Robert A.M. Stern Architects, Elkus Manfredi, West 8, and weisz + yoes architecture, will develop a “media district” by bringing anchor client NewsCorp to the site (which is across from the Mid-Town Mart Building housing the Daily News, U.S. News & World Report, WNET, and the Associated Press). The idea is that the energy of the information flowing in and out of the area will influence the vibrancy on the street.

Tishman Speyer/Morgan Stanley, with Murphy/Jahn Architects, PWP Landscape Architecture, and Cooper, Robertson & Partners is proposing the most traditional scheme with a central fountain and plaza borrowing from existing successful gathering places including Rockefeller Center, Lincoln Center, Washington Square Park, and even the Spanish Steps in Rome.

My favorite among the five schemes is Brookfield Properties’ proposal, with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Thomas Phifer & Partners, SHoP, Handel Architects, SANAA, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Field Operations. SOM is the master planner and engineer for the site and the architect for two towers (the tallest of all proposals). The plaza between the towers has a structural element above the throat of the rail yards referencing Santiago Calatrava’s World Trade Center Transportation Hub (the buildings are also located near a water wall). Creating this visual reference shows an effort to connect with the urban fabric.

This scheme has the highest density, the most square footage devoted to public and cultural facilities, and considers human scale the most, in my opinion. This is the only scheme that builds on the center of the site. Two hotels, by Handel Architects, flank 11th Avenue dividing the site into two zones and creating two parks — one surrounded by residential and the other by commercial buildings. SHoP is designing a string of residential buildings along the south, set back from the High Line — a move that will make 30th Street accessible rather than creating a barricade with a high, blank wall.

This scheme also maintains the full length of the High Line, which terminates at a residential tower designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. And with Field Operations as the landscape architect, I think this strategy will provide freedom for the firms to complete their High Line the way they see fit.

My least favorite of the finalists is the Extell proposal. The only architect on the project is Steven Holl Architects, which is putting forth a scheme with large towers lining the site’s perimeter, casting “sun slice” shadows across the central lawn. Suspension technology is employed across the rail yards — a unique and innovative solution — but the resulting concave expanse above the structure seems monumental in scale. I can imagine feeling very small at the lowest point at the center of the grass in the shadow of the towers on either side of me. The renderings do not include people on the lawn, either, implying that perhaps people are not welcome, as they might ruin the clean lines cast by the buildings.

Now that the MTA and NYC Department of City Planning’s comment period has ended, we’ll have to wait a couple of months to hear a decision on the selected team. I am looking forward to the decision as I see value in every proposal, and I am pleased that the city will take advantage of the vacant area now occupied by the West Side Rail Yard.

To read more about the proposals, check out the Rail Yards Blog, a comprehensive website including reactions to all of the recent presentations and working sessions held by the MTA, and the AIANY Public Information Exchange (PIE) to read comments by the public about all of the proposals. Also, be sure to read West Side Rail Yards: Formidable Talents, Cautious Drafts, in this issue of e-Oculus.