by Daniel Sills (Partner content provided courtesy of C-Space)
Curating the city of the future
Walk the High Line far enough north from the Meatpacking District and you’ll end up in New York City’s newest neighborhood: Hudson Yards.
This 28-acre, $25 billion “city within a city,” built atop a storage yard for Long Island Rail Road trains, has been 11 years in the making. At its heart sits Vessel – an Instagrammable, copper colored, beehive-looking, experiential art piece designed by Thomas Heatherwick that would fit right into a Ridley Scott film. Surrounding Vessel is an urban playground of mixed-use milieu: two residential buildings, four office buildings, the first-ever Equinox Fitness branded hotel, public art, greenery, restaurants, one million square feet of retail, and a huge arts and culture center (complete with a moveable, telescoping roof) called The Shed. And that’s only phase one. The second half of Hudson Yards is scheduled to be completed in the next several years.
Building all this real estate simultaneously, while selling a vision for a neighborhood to potential tenants, is ambitious. The key was to create critical mass, according to Jeff Blau, CEO of the Related Companies, the company behind Hudson Yards. “The only way to do that is to build many different types of real estate at the same time. They’re not competitive with each other, so we could build them all at once, as opposed to if we had designed 12 office buildings, which you couldn’t possibly lease or attract people to come here without all the things that make it interesting, like the retail and restaurants.”
And it was through that process that Blau says they had to, in effect, “curate the city of the future.” He spoke with Interbrand Global CEO Charles Trevail on the Outside In podcast to talk about what went into the planning and designing of Hudson Yards and why brick and mortar retail is very much alive ... and evolving.
Q. To what degree did you listen to consumers at any point in this process of planning and designing Hudson Yards?
We tried to talk to as many people as possible: experts, consultants, architects, designers. We asked people on the street, “How would you like to live your life?” I think it’s important to listen to all types of people so you’re not getting one standard input. You really have to think through who your customer is, who your customer will be in five to seven years’ time, and what they will want.
Q. What are you most proud of? Is there anything that you look at and go, “Wow, that turned out even better than I ever thought it would.”
I believe we’ve built the best real estate team in the business. By far I’m most proud of that team. But what was I most happily surprised by? I would say Vessel. We went around the world and talked to great designers and architects and ultimately found Thomas Heatherwick. What was so amazing about Thomas’ vision is that not only is Vessel a great piece of art, but it’s also participatory. We thought if you had just a piece of art, at some point people would get bored. But with Vessel, you’re not getting bored because people are climbing it and walking it. We said that this would become the most Instagrammable moment in all of New York City. Early on, we thought that this could be to New York like the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. People thought that was a crazy statement, but it’s happening, and people are travelling to New York just to see it.
Q. You started 11 years ago and opened in March of this year. In real estate development, there’s a danger that when you complete a project and move on to the next, the one that you previously did goes backwards. How do you keep what you’ve built fresh?
The retail is really where the public intersects with Hudson Yards, along with the plaza and Vessel. Retail has gone through a tremendous change in the five-plus years since we’ve been under construction. We had to think hard about what the future of retail is. People have talked about the “death of brick and mortar retail” for several years, and I don’t think that’s true. I think brick and mortar retail has evolved. People don’t need to go to a retail center or a mall to buy a shirt. You can buy one online in 30 seconds. But people still love experiences. People still love going out and having an event, so we tried very hard to have enough experiences as part of the retail. The idea is that you don’t come out here to buy a shirt; you come here to spend a Saturday having lunch, climbing Vessel, listening to the music that’s playing and checking out the art. All this programming of experiences can never stop. It needs to continue forever. That’s what’s going to bring people here.
In the same vein of being experiential, you’re about to launch the first-ever Equinox hotel. How did that idea come about?
Related owns Equinox, and we’ve been integrating the Equinox concepts into our buildings for over a decade now. Equinox has grown during the past 10 years with us and has become an incredible success in its own right as a fitness club and as a lifestyle center. We talk to our members all the time and found that they were making their hotel-stay decisions in cities based on proximity to an Equinox because people like to work out when they travel. When we built a Mandarin Hotel at the Time Warner Center, there was a spectacular fitness club in the hotel. In that same building, we had an Equinox in the basement. There was no relationship between Equinox and Mandarin. The people at Mandarin quickly found out that the guests at their hotel didn’t want to work out in the super fancy fitness club. The wanted to go to Equinox because that’s where the buzz, excitement and fun was. We thought if we brought these two concepts together – the hotel and fitness club – that would be a game-changer for the hotel industry because no one would be able to copy it. We’re going to roll this out throughout the United States and then the world. We’ve got 10 of them underway right now, with the first one opening at Hudson Yards.
Q. What’s next for Related Companies?
We believe that the single building developments have become much more competitive. We need to do things that are either bigger, more complex and more difficult to execute so that we can differentiate ourselves and create excess returns that we always strive for. So, the focus for us has always been on these large-scale, mixed-use developments. Remember, real estate is still a local business. You don’t try to create what we did here and bring it to any other city. But you try to export your best practices to wherever you’re doing business but keep it local. We’re developing Chicago’s version of a large-scale, mixed-use community. Same with California. Boston just tied up a great site in the Seaport District, and we have another one in London. We think the next step is about putting great people in the right locations and then following up on unique opportunities.