Jay Cross, head of Related Companies' redevelopment of the Hudson Yards in Manhattan, calls himself a west-side Sisyphus – forever pushing the rock up a hill.
Formerly a Canadian Olympic sailor and president of the New York Jets, his first shot at reviving the desolate swathe of industrial land on the Hudson River was in 2000 when he led the unsuccessful bid to build an Olympic Stadium on the same site.
If anything, his current plan is more ambitious. Related, a privately owned U.S. real estate firm, and its Canadian partner, Oxford Properties Group Inc., are building a massive platform over the rail yards to forge a mixed-use development from the least desirable land in the City of New York.
Along with Brookfield Office Properties, another Canadian company building over a smaller section of yards to the east, the developers are trying to turn a cluster of high-rise office and residential towers into a community that will fit seamlessly into the city.
"We take the creation of a neighbourhood as probably the No. 1 challenge," Mr. Cross said. "And neighbourhoods are kind of tricky, ethereal things."
When Mr. Cross took charge of the project in 2008, he called Blake Hutcheson, the CEO of Oxford, in Toronto and asked him to be a partner. Together the companies are developing six million square feet of commercial real estate and an additional six million square feet of residential, all on a 26-acre parcel of land.
"It's one of the most spectacular urban projects ever to be developed," Mr. Hutcheson said. "It's a city growing into the space, and a project growing into the city."
The site has been under construction since December, 2012, when Related and Oxford began building an office tower at 10 Hudson Yards, the only building in the development to be located entirely on terra firma. The companies will break ground on the platform over the eastern rail yard this month. This time next year every building in the eastern section of the development will be under construction. Once the eastern rail yard is completed in 2018, the companies will begin building a second deck over the western rail yard.
Brookfield began working on the platform that will support its 5.4 million-square-foot, mixed-use development in late 2012. The company expects the deck to be completed by the end of 2014, and it plans to begin construction on the residential building in early 2015. The company is waiting to secure an anchor tenant before it begins the office tower.
Brookfield's development is much smaller, but no less ambitious in its aspirations to become an integral part of the patchwork of New York neighbourhoods. Brookfield has been eyeing the opportunity since it bought the original parcel of land from the Canadian property giant Olympia & York Developments when it went bankrupt in the mid-1980s.
Philip Wharton, who oversees the project, said a combination of organic and inorganic growth is working in the area's favour. The city catalyzed Midtown's push west in 2005 when it rezoned the Hudson Yards area, and in 2006 when the city and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority agreed to extend the No. 7 subway line from the north, but equally important to transforming the area is the surging popularity of the High Line Park to the south, which leads from the Meatpacking District to the doorstep of Hudson Yards.
"We're right at the intersection of those two trends," said Mr. Wharton, who learned to anticipate the city's pattern of growth while working on mixed-use developments in downtown Brooklyn and the revitalized area of Long Island City, Queens.
Bill Pederson, the architect who designed the master plan for the Oxford/Related project, calls the High Line, a 2.4-kilometre-long elevated park built on a former railway, an umbilical cord that ties the nascent area to its surroundings. He believes three links – the park, the No. 7 subway, and the Hudson River – will foster a sense of neighbourhood in Hudson Yards by integrating it into the fabric of the city.
When it comes to the residential and office towers themselves, Mr. Pedersen is concerned with the presence they will have on the New York skyline, but he says that is only one component of the design.
"The other side of the equation is how these buildings step down in scale until they address the street in a way where they become intimately connected with the surrounding context," Mr. Pedersen added. "That is something that has been a great preoccupation of mine for the last 40 years."
American architect Louis Sullivan confronted the same challenge while designing the modern skyscraper in the late 19th century. In an essay called "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered," he coined the well-worn phrase, "form ever follows function." Modernist architects adopted the rule more than half a century later, and the concept is undergoing a renaissance. But while modern buildings skewed utilitarian, the idea takes on a more human element when applied to a contemporary mixed-use community.
Mr. Cross explains, "The diversity of uses that we're pursuing requires the architecture to be more layered and textural and that helps create a human dimension to the space."
The development will be made up of a central square bounded by two office towers, two residential towers, a hotel, a large retail complex, a subway, and the terminus of the High Line.
"I don't think it's going to feel pre-packaged," said Peter Wertheim, vice-president of development and finance for the city's Hudson Yards Development Corporation. "There was a tremendous opportunity to create a neighbourhood essentially from scratch, and if it all comes to pass the way it's been envisioned and designed and structured, Hudson Yards should have something to appeal to everybody."
According to Michael Cohen, president of the Tri-State Region with Colliers International, the variety of functions filled by the development is what makes the area palatable to tenants.
However, there are financial incentives for early movers as well. To make the area more attractive while it still looks like an unsightly hole in the ground, Related and Oxford are offering lower prices to the first tenants to occupy the office towers, including Coach Inc., which will have its global headquarters in Hudson Yards.
The companies are breaking even on current leases in the hope that the white-hot market for residential real estate in Manhattan, along with the retail component, will carry the entire project.
As Related and Oxford cover over the industrial wasteland with their 20-acre platform, it will become easier for potential tenants to imagine Hudson Yards as a destination. One of the projects' biggest challenges is that all through construction, and after completion of the development, trains will continue running below ground. However, once Oxford's $1.5-billion platform is finished, the activity in the yards will be out of sight, and the crater on the west side of Manhattan will fade from memory.
"Some day I think this will be a highly prized and desirable location, but today pioneers need to be induced, " Mr. Cohen said. "The only reason this thing works is the breathtaking scope."
No one knows this better than Mr. Cross, who has come back for the second time to transform the far west side of Manhattan into a thriving quarter of the city.
"The project is full of technical challenges and marketing challenges. But they are surmountable as long as you get the neighbourhood concept right."
Laying the foundation
When building from the ground up was not an option, Oxford and Related decided to make it one. The companies have begun this month to build the first of two ten-acre platforms over the Metropolitan Transportation Authority rail yards.
The Eastern Rail Yard Platform:
Estimated construction time: 2.5 years
Estimated cost: $750-million (U.S.)
Number of tracks below deck: 30
Number of tunnels below deck: Three with a fourth under construction
Number of vertical supports (called caissons): 300
Weight of supports (caissons): 4 to 60 tons
Drilled depth of supports (caissons): Up to 80 feet
Steel for platform: 25,000 tons
Concrete for platform: 14,000 cubic yards