Remaking the Far West Side

Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposal to replace the Javits site with a new urban neighborhood heralds a transformational opportunity for Manhattan's Far West Side.

The area's potential has been undermined for decades by rail yards, empty lots and a hulking convention center that cut off the area from the rest of the city and the Hudson River. With the plan to remove Javits, a decades-long revitalization effort that began with Times Square, continued with the Hudson Waterfront and is under way at Hudson Yards would be fully realized.

The Javits plan was one of a number of major transportation and economic-development investments Gov. Cuomo put forth in his State of the State address last week. Together, they represent a smart, infrastructure-led economic-development strategy for New York State. Although questions remain about where all of the funds will come from for the governor's $15 billion "Build New York Fund," this amounts to the largest set of investment proposals in decades. All of this is good news for New York.

Prominently featured in the governor's address was an endorsement of Regional Plan Association's longstanding proposal to develop new convention facilities on Manhattan's Far West Side and in Queens and then to remove the outmoded Javits facility and redevelop its 18-acre site into a major mixed-use waterfront community. This proposal would provide a range of important economic and other benefits to the city and state, including both short- and long-term job creation. The plan also would:

  • Recapture the estimated $4 billion value of this large development parcel and put these funds to work in rebuilding New York's economy and infrastructure.
  • Allow New York the join the ranks of virtually every other global city in relocating its large convention/trade-show facility from the central business district to a peripheral site that can provide better truck, car and airport access and accommodate the large, single-story structures that these events require.
  • Provide for development of a smaller convention facility for high-value conferences and shows that need to remain in Manhattan. While the governor didn't recommend a specific site for this facility, RPA strongly believes that it should be located in the western half of the landmark Farley Post Office, adjoining the new Moynihan Station. The publicly owned Farley building, with its ample floor space and location adjacent to the country's busiest rail station, would be ideal for this facility.

Gov. Cuomo also endorsed RPA's proposal that redevelopment of the 7-block Javits site be administered in much the same way as the successful Battery Park City project. Under this model, the site would be owned by a public agency, which would restore the Manhattan street grid to the waterfront, construct the infrastructure and then subdivide the site into parcels that would be leased over time to private developers. Lease payments would reflect the increase in rents over time as Midtown West develops into a mature part of the Manhattan Central Business District. Lease payments would be directed to key infrastructure investments, including the capital needs of the MTA, which owns a 50% interest in the site. The precise mix of activities on the site could be adapted to changing economic needs and market conditions as the site develops over a generation or longer. As with Battery Park, this model permits continued public oversight to guide the site's evolution over time.

So far the most controversial aspect of the governor's announcement is his proposal that a large convention facility be developed at the Aqueduct Race Track site near JFK Airport in Queens to accommodate the biggest trade and consumer shows that wouldn't fit in the smaller Manhattan facility. Genting, a Malaysian casino developer and operator with projects in a number of Asian cities, already operates a slot-machine casino at Aqueduct.

The Aqueduct site, at close to 200 acres, is one of only a handful of sites in the city that could accommodate a very large, single-story convention facility. Another is Willets Point in Queens, which New York City has proposed as an alternate site for a convention center. Whichever of these projects moves forward, improved transit and roadway access to the convention center site will be critical to its success.

With the Aqueduct site, the state and Genting have reached a preliminary agreement through which the developer would self-finance, build and operate a 2.6 million square foot convention center as well as 1.2 million square feet in an expanded gambling facility, hotels and related entertainment venues. While some have questioned the size of the facility and the mix of activities at the site, Cuomo has made it clear that the developer will be investing its own, and not state funds on the site. Further, Genting's business model calls for the creation of an entertainment, hotel and gambling destination, and not just a free-standing convention facility.

While the convention industry has had longstanding concerns about Javits's inadequacies, they have also questioned whether a new facility in Queens could draw conferences, trade and consumer shows that are currently held in Manhattan. Some of these events would remain at the proposed in-town convention facility, while the largest, such as the Car Show and Boat Show, would move to the Queens facility. But these large shows, and the hundreds of trucks required to set them up and take them down, are increasingly incompatible with the Midtown West area, which is rapidly becoming the city's newest business and residential district. These events need to go somewhere outside Manhattan.

All of the concerns surrounding this initiative must be debated and addressed. But in so doing, we shouldn't lose sight of the large and compelling economic-development, infrastructure and city-building vision laid out by Gov. Cuomo that would provide enormous benefits to New Yorkers for decades to come.