Behold, Hudson Yards

Deputy Mayor of Economic Development what the first extension of a subway line financed by the city will bring.
  • Transcript


Question: What goals did you have when joining the administration and how have they changed?

Bob Lieber:  When I came into the Bloomberg administration, as I mentioned, it was kind of in year six, so I had years six, seven and eight scheduled to go, and a lot of plans had been created and conceptualized.  And really what I was focusing on doing was trying to make sure we could execute as many of these projects and plans as we possibly could.  So I think a couple of things that I've been perhaps the most proud of or satisfied with so far was being able to work with the community, to work with the elected officials, to work with our colleagues on the city council, and come up with a plan that we could re-develop 62 acres of land that is in a desperate condition out at what we call Willets Point.

Willets Point is in Queens; it's across the street from the new Mets Stadium at City Field.  And it was an incredibly complicated project; again, lots of issues.  Eminent domain was something that was a big issue for people, and trying to come up with a plan that worked and you could get buy-in, again, from so many different constituents.  And it was something that for 50 years people have tried to do this.  Back in the days of Robert Moses, he wanted to clear Willets Point as a part of the development of the 1964 World's Fair.  And a young lawyer cutting his teeth by the name of Mario Cuomo got involved and represented the landowners there at the time and defeated Moses because it was not a plan that really developed a broad base of support from the community; it was kind of what he dictated had to have happen.  So people said this is something you're never going to be able to get done.  We did get it done.  It's not me, but the byproduct of a lot of people and a lot work and a lot of effort and a lot of input from the community.  So that's been very satisfying.

Another project that also recently concluded is kind of the reclamation and redevelopment of one of the most iconic names in the world, and that's Coney Island.  This is a place that some of my old colleagues back in the days of E. F. Hutton we used to go for our summer outing.  We'd go to Coney Island and ride the Cyclone and have hot dogs at Nathan's.  And trying to find a way to recreate the history and the excitement of that incredible brand.  But it's fallen into tremendous disrepair and was on the verge of extinction.  Again we have come up with a plan, broad-based support in the community, but lots of other people trying to say no.  We had landowner issues there as well, and we were able to get that through city council, and we're looking forward to coming up, is to really creating a revitalized Coney Island that kind of treasures the iconic history and nature but also brings it into the 21st century and capitalizes on a lot of the other natural resources or natural assets that exist out there, including the aquarium and the Cyclone Stadium, the Keyspan Park, where the Mets' subsidiary -- not subsidiary -- the Mets' farm team the Cyclones play.

Question: Hudson Yards

Bob Lieber:  We're still working on Hudson Yards.  We've got the train under way there to be able to open up development in that area.  So I think the biggest difference when we think about -- what I think about the public sector versus the private sector and what I used to do as compared to what I do now, it's much more about thinking about the long term.  In the old days, when I was in the finance world, it was a little more short-term.  Long-term for us was six to 12 months.  But now the decisions that we're making today and the changes that we're making today are going to have an impact on decades and decades from now and generations from now, so that one of the hopes is your kids will see things and your grandkids will see things that are still playing out from initiatives that we started during the Bloomberg administration.

So it's important to think about what the long term is and develop a plan that works for the long term, because too many politicians think about, I need to be there for the picture of the groundbreaking or the ribbon cutting, and if I'm not going to get credit I don't want to do it.  What we're trying to do differently is think about what really are the long-term benefits of building and maintaining New York as a place that can be the most competitive and, as I say, the greatest city in the world.

Well, when you think about Hudson Yards, it's approximately 24 acres of contiguous area there on the West Side, what used to be relatively underutilized land.  It was industrial manufacturing.  More recently it had been parking lots and service stations, and you see a lot of maintenance facilities there.  What we see for the build-out of Hudson Yards is 40 million square feet of mixed-use development that is residential, that's affordable housing, it's condos, it's cultural space, it's retail space, it's office space, it's a park.  Grand Boulevard is going to be a part of it, so that again, this is something -- people will often focus and say, well, where are you?  You've started this, you're two years into this.  Are you on time, ahead of time, behind time?  I think the important thing to note here is, we are trying to do things that have a long-term focus, and our job is -- or at least my job is -- to create the conditions that enable this kind of development to take place as the market conditions warrant and justify it.  It's very difficult to build in New York City.  It's expensive, it takes a long time, the process is difficult, and any time people or developers try and build something, oftentimes if you want to change land us you'll start in one economic cycle and end up in a different one.

So what we're trying to do here -- we've rezoned the entire area.  We have a modification of rezoning taking place now for the western rail yards, but we think this is going to be a very exciting long-term growth area for New York City.  In order for us to maintain our competitive position, we need to be able to continue to attract people.  We want to make sure we can keep people here.  We want to make sure we can be a place that can attract more people.  So creating the supply and the capacity for people to be able to live, for people to be able to work, and for people to be able to raise their families is critical to what we're trying to do, and we do take a very long-term perspective on this.

One of the keys to our plan to build for the long term, as I mentioned, is having the transportation, having the mass transit alternative available so that we can aggregate people and get them around.  And what we saw with the rezoning of Hudson Yards was the fact that while we're relatively near Penn Station and we're relatively near Times Square, we're actually relatively far from any real mass transit.  And if you're going to open up 40 million square feet of future development, you need to be able to provide a mass transit alternative for people.

And the brilliance of the Hudson Yards plan is that we are building the extension to the No. 7 subway ourselves.  We're not waiting; we're not relying on the state; we're not relying on federal dollars.  If we're going to position ourselves competitively going forward, we've taken the responsibility to pay for the extension of that train.  So work is under way now, drilling below grade to make the room for the trains to run through.  So when development opportunities take place in Hudson Yards and the market supports that, we'll have the ability to support it with mass transit.  And that's the only way you're going to be able to really accommodate that many people and that much development activity.  So it's another part of how we're thinking about the long term, investing for the long term, and building for future capacity as we go forward.

This is the first extension.  It's never been done that I'm aware of.  This is really the MTA's responsibility, and that's a state agency.  But it's the first extension of, addition to any subway service in New York City since the '60s.  So for 50 years there's been no expansion of the system.  The system has been significantly upgraded to a state of good repair since it was -- back in the '70s when we moved here it was horrible.  I mean, you never wanted to get on the subway.  It was dangerous, it was hot, it was unpredictable -- breakdowns, people -- it was awful.  And all the graffiti.  So those kinds of things have changed already, but in order to plan long-term you have to be able to make these infrastructure investments if you're going to really be successful.

Recorded on November 20, 2009