New York plans an out-of-place boulevard
By 2013, New York City is going to have its first new boulevard in years. But it may be the kind of thoroughfare that will make people wonder whatever happened to the art of boulevard design.
Above rail yards on Manhattan’s Far West Side, a gigantic real estate development is in the works — a 26-acre commercial and residential project called Hudson Yards.
Redevelopment of the underutilized industrial area has been “a signature initiative” of Michael Bloomberg’s administration from the day he took office in 2002, says The New York Times. Rezonings in 2005 and 2009 authorized up to 24 million square feet of offices, up to 13,500 apartments, 2 million square feet of hotel space, and a million square feet of retail in the area.
The Related Companies was chosen by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to develop 12 commercial and residential towers, a park, and a cultural center over rail yards between 10th and 12th Avenues, from 30th to 33rd Streets.
But blocks in Manhattan are extremely long from east to west, and the supply of parks on the Far West Side is limited, so a plan was devised that remedies both those problems in a single stroke: Between 11th and 12th Avenues, a combination boulevard/park will be created, running from 33rd Street to 42nd Street.
The design of what are being called Hudson Park and Hudson Boulevard was assigned to a team led by Michael Van Valkenburgh Landscape Architects, in collaboration with the Hudson Yards Development Corporation (HYDC), the city’s Departments of Parks and Recreation, Transportation, and City Planning, and the Economic Development Corporation.
Breaking the block
There’s a lot to be said for breaking up the long blocks, as the HYDC plan does. Ever since Jane Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities 50 years ago, people have been aware that short blocks enliven city life, that they serve pedestrians much better than long blocks. New York architect John Massengale, who has done extensive historical research, says all Manhattan blocks in the Commissioner’s Plan of 1811 measure 200 feet in one dimension. That dimension explains why walking is so satisfying when you’re heading north or south in Manhattan. It takes no time at all to cover a 200-foot block on foot.
The east-west dimension, by contrast, makes for long trudges. The blocks from Sixth to Twelfth Avenue stretch on for 800 feet, Massengale says. (Those between Third and Sixth Avenues are even longer, 920 feet.)
For the developer, the future boulevard corridor, which is to run at a slightly northeastward angle through the middle of the blocks, offers a marketing advantage: more attractive sites for companies that want their buildings to stand out. The buildings will have a certain pride of place, fronting on the boulevard. Fewer buildings will be relegated to inconspicuous mid-block stretches, when compared to what happens on an 800-foot-long block.
From 39th to 42nd Street, the corridor will have a slightly meandering park and an accompanying pedestrian passage — no boulevard. It’s south of 39th Street that the boulevard begins.
Unfortunately, the plans posted on the HYDC website show that this boulevard will be strangely incomplete. From 39th to 35th Street, Hudson Boulevard will have two 30-foot-wide stretches of pavement separated by wide medians — a configuration that’s fairly common in boulevards.
But then, from 35th to 33rd Street, half of the boulevard vanishes. The median, which has been very wide for four blocks, expands and simply eliminates the pavement. The landscaped area — at this point it’s really not a "median" any longer — marches up almost to the facades of the buildings. The buildings look as if they “own” the park. Perhaps that's deliberate—another marketing advantage—but if so, it's a transgression of the boundaries between public and private.
From 33rd to 35th, there is one 30-foot-wide northbound thoroughfare — it really can’t be called a boulevard at that point, since its southbound counterpart is missing in action. The truncating of the boulevard seems an odd thing to do in a city that knows very well the virtues of a continuous grid.
Return of the amoeba
What’s worse, Van Valkenburgh’s landscape plan is full of kidney-shaped and amoeba-shaped green areas. They recall the amoeboid designs popular among modernists in the 1950s — period pieces that I had assumed would never be revived. (Foolish me. I should have known that everything from modernism’s heyday, no matter how goofy, gets a revival.)
The dictionary defines an amoeba as “a single-celled organism found in water and in damp soil on land, and as a parasite of other organisms.” Indeed, the amoeba here is a parasite sucking the life out of the traditional concept of the boulevard — it saps the boulevard’s vitality and makes it look silly.
The curving, blobby forms shown in the site plan are apparently to be mounded up, Douglas Duany at the University of Notre Dame’s architecture school tells me after a quick look at the HYDC website. But if the amoeboid shapes are mounded, does this make them any better than if they were flat? Hardly.
My sense is that what we’re witnessing here is not only the resuscitation of a funny ‘50s form but also a transplanting of the berms that landscape architects have been deployed on suburban office parks and shopping malls for the last 30 years. In those low-density office parks, where everyone needs a car, the berms have a purpose, if not a particularly august one: They help hide the parked cars from people driving past on the roads. In the suburbs, a collection of mounds may be okay. But not in New York, least of all in Manhattan.
I checked with a New York landscape architect who perhaps has more accepting tastes than I do, and she offered that “the overall design is probably to allow the pedestrian circulation to meander stream-like around a variety of verdant islands of lawns and trees.” This, she said, would make a “dramatic contrast to the strict regularity of the surrounding cityscape.”
“The design would represent a dynamic system, each park a fractal, a repeating element slightly differing from each other,” she continued. “Some of this vocabulary came out of the chaos theory involving math, physics, biology, etc.”
All of that may very well be true. But to my eye, a truncated, amoeba-encrusted boulevard looks wholly out of place in a dense urban setting. A city location of the sort being developed on the Far West Side deserves regularity and order. The straight lines of the streets and the buildings call for rows of trees and other elements that make a rhythmic, steady progression. A traditional boulevard has a certain amount of restraint and discipline, which is generally good for the cityscape.
One of the principles that underlies thoughtful urban design is appropriateness. That’s what’s missing in Hudson Park and Boulevard. With so much that’s positive about Hudson Yards, it’s unfortunate that the boulevard seems to have been arbitrarily dropped there, from another time and place.
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