"The Moment is Now. The Future is Here." read the Feb. 21 email. "Please join us as we celebrate the grand opening of The Shops & Restaurants at Hudson Yards." Having watched this massive project develop practically in my backyard over the past decade (I live in Paramus, N.J., less than 20 miles away), I eagerly looked forward to an up-close look.
Built at an estimated price tag of $25 billion, Hudson Yards is big even by New York standards — the largest development of its kind since Rockefeller Center in the 1930s. And it's not even finished yet. So far, four huge skyscrapers, the seven-story shopping center we were here to inaugurate and other elements are in place, the first of two phases that will ultimately result in 16 new buildings, all built atop a 37,000-ton platform placed over what once were open railroad tracks leading in and out of Penn Station.
Hudson Yards runs from 10th to 12 avenues, and from West 30 to West 34th streets on Manhattan's West Side. Critics of the complex, and there are many, decry all the tax breaks given to developers and the general laissez faire afforded the project by the city and state, resulting in another gilded NYC business center, playground and residential enclave for the wealthy created with little regard for sensible urban design.
But such concerns were for another day. Making my way onto 11th Avenue at twilight on March 14, I craned my neck to admire the gleaming pearlescent-blue glass monoliths giving this city-within-a-city an Oz-like quality. Honking taxis and shared-ride vehicles, watchful security personnel and uniformed NYPD officers surrounded the seven-story mall, the "gateway" to which we were being directed, as spotlights illuminated its facade. As I crossed the threshold, tuxedo-clad waiters held out trays of champagne, while I immediately noticed doubtless costly fragrance wafting through the air (a distinct far cry from when this area was one of railyards and slaughterhouses).
As I strolled through the Shops & Restaurants at Hudson Yards, I couldn't help but compare it to the Dubai Mall, a repost of extravaganza in one of the world's other wealthiest countries. Here was entrepreneur star Dylan Lauren, wearing gold pumps and a top hat, welcoming candy lovers into her whimsical new shop, while Katie Holmes, Whoopi Goldberg and Liza Minnelli helped open New York City's first Neiman Marcus next door. Gisele and Tom Brady made a quick appearance at the new Estiatorio Milos, already recognized as one of the world's finest Mediterranean seafood restaurants.
At times the festivities were chaotic, with 13,000 guests milling about enjoying the many open bars and passed food. Haiku artists armed with portable typewriters asked guests questions, and with a few taps of the keys presented each with their very own 17-syllable verse. Michael Breach, a Brooklyn-based artist who creates latte art, made customized portraits using espresso and steamed milk. Bright blues, yellows and reds covered the canvases that Oscar Medina, a "visual expressionist," painted as guests looked. The works will be hung in Mercado Little Spain, an on-site José Andrés food hall reminiscent of a market in Spain.
Eateries like the above will make great dine-arounds, concurred the meeting professionals I spoke to at the opening. We also noted how for so long, the nearby Jacob K. Javits Convention Center was "in the middle of nowhere," and now it was most decidedly somewhere.
A female tap-dance band, an a cappella group, a percussion troupe, a drumline performance and A-list deejays performed throughout the mall all evening long. Live mannequins moving from "Downward-Facing Dog" to "Warrior One" positions in the windows of sports-apparel purveyor Athleta caught my attention. I entered the store and an enthusiastic employee handed me a $50 gift card. Not one to pass up a deal, I landed a $118 jacket for a mere $68.
As I stepped out of the mall, my prize purchase in hand, I caught a glimpse of the Vessel, a unique public art installation by Thomas Heatherwick that you can climb all over, comprised of 154 intricately interconnecting flights of stairs and comprising 2,500 individual steps and 80 landings. I knew I'd be back to explore that, as well as the observation deck on top of 30 Hudson Yards, the tallest tower in the complex, which hovers 1,100 feet above the ground with a clear-bottomed platform extending out 65 feet. Even Oz doesn't have that.