What does a good megadevelopment look like?

By Karrie Jacobs

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The first of my recent conversations about megadevelopments with Vishaan Chakrabarti, founder of the Practice for Architecture and Urbanism (PAU), took place in early February, when the world was a different place. There was a new coronavirus out there, but for New Yorkers, it was still largely an abstraction; a bad thing happening in some other part of the world. He and I conversed the old-fashioned way, in person, at his office just north of Union Square.

At the time, the project I’d hoped to discuss with him was off-limits. His firm had been hired in 2018 to create the masterplan for Sunnyside Yard, a 180-acre site in Queens that’s currently home to one of the country’s busiest rail yards. A mile and a half long, and owned jointly by Amtrak, the MTA, and General Motors, it sits in the middle of a rapidly changing section of the borough. It is the designated site of New York City’s next monster development, a behemoth of urban density built on decks above the train tracks. Chakrabarti, one of contemporary architecture’s great talkers, had been asked by the city’s Economic Development Corporation not to say a word because the official plan—like all big plans in New York City, a contentious one—was still under wraps.

When that plan was finally unveiled on March 3, it outlined a bountiful project, so idealistic that it was almost unbelievable. Here’s a capsule description from a press release: “12,000 new 100 percent affordable residential units, 60 acres of open public space, a new Sunnyside Station that connects Western Queens to the Greater New York region, 10 schools, 2 libraries, over 30 childcare centers, 5 health care facilities, and 5 million square feet of new commercial and manufacturing space that will enable middle-class job creation.”

About a week later, on the same day that President Donald Trump announced a travel ban in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, Chakrabarti and I had a second conversation, this one on the phone, about the details of the Sunnyside plan and how it might be executed. We also chatted about how the coronavirus was beginning to touch our lives, forcing us to cancel travel plans, but it still mostly felt like an inconvenience.

On April 1, we spoke again. By this time, New York City was largely shut down. Most people were either out of a job or working from home. We’d begun to realize that the city was going to experience the full force of the pandemic, much like Italy, with overloaded hospitals full of dying patients. Someone I knew personally had died from the disease. I wasn’t sure that it still made any sense to write about megadevelopments.

Given the circumstances, what was striking in this conversation was Chakrabarti’s optimism. While others, notably eminent suburbanist Joel Kotkin, were predicting that the virus would bring about “the end of New York,” Chakrabarti argued that the city always “comes roaring back.” His position is that the pandemic could actually be a catalyst for the construction of Sunnyside Yards.

“This is part of why you do master planning,” he said. “You don’t know something like this is going to happen. But it tees things up for the future.”

I began to contemplate the future of New York City at a moment when it wasn’t entirely clear there’d be one. I understand that Chakrabarti’s upbeat assessment is, in a way, as self-serving as Kotkin’s death wish; it’s an integral part of who he is professionally. But optimism, unrealistic as it might seem, is also on my agenda. As we slog through this catastrophic fourth year of the Trump presidency, I’ve become convinced that the best response to a destructive, short-sighted administration is a compelling, nuanced, well-defined vision. Imagining a better future with as much detail as possible is both an exercise in sanity and a necessary political strategy. Being against something is good; being for something is better.

My intention, when I first started working on this story months ago, was to make a case for the good megadevelopment, to locate the exemplary version of what we used to call urban renewal. I had hoped to make the argument that it’s possible to build consensus about what this city should be, and, based on that, create a neighborhood that is well-integrated into the surrounding city, providing homes, workplaces, and shopping for ordinary New Yorkers, not just tourists and billionaires.

Counterintuitively, it was Hudson Yards, with its isolation from Manhattan’s street grid, its glittering shopping mall, and its apartments for the pied-à-terre class—a place that does everything wrong, urbanistically speaking—that made me start thinking that it might be possible to build a megadevelopment that makes New York a better city. For me, Hudson Yards is the lens through which almost every other development in New York City, new or old, looks good—or, at least, better.

Take, for instance, the Domino development on the Williamsburg waterfront: One afternoon, I found myself drawn to One South First, the 45-story CookFox-designed mixed-use tower, which has more pizzazz than the stubbornly generic towers that have sprung up along the East River. I was happily ignorant of the fact that the building’s thick white concrete window frames were supposed to evoke sugar crystals; I only knew that I liked the way they looked: sculpted, with a handmade appearance.

Or look at Essex Crossing, the long overdue buildout of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area. It sits on 20 acres south of Delancey and east of Essex Streets that were condemned, emptied of low-income residents, and bulldozed in the 1960s. The planned urban renewal never came and the depopulated blocks remained parking lots until 2015. Now, Essex Crossing nests comfortably within New York City’s grid; there are no superblocks or barriers that might limit access to the site. But the key distinction for me is that the ground floor of the complex’s flagship building is anchored by the Essex Market, the same public market that had occupied a series of buildings on the opposite side of Delancey Street since 1940. It has a mezzanine level, where tables overlook the streets and long dining counters offer views of the maze of food stalls and shops below. It’s a comfortable, unpretentious, genuinely public gathering place—like a park, but indoors.

I embarked on my series of conversations with Chakrabarti in part because he had been deeply involved with the design of Domino and had a hand in Essex Crossing while a principal at SHoP Architects. More recently, his own firm has been working on several megadevelopments in New York City and elsewhere (Newark, East Palo Alto, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia).