2014 Dec 13th

Hoboken Terminal and Rail Yard Development Update

There was a City Council meeting the other night about the proposed development by NJ Transit of the southern edge of Hoboken. Much has been written about the proposal, which can be found on the Hoboken City website, more here on the NJ Transit and, their partner LCOR site and here in a detailed history of transit hubs, intelligently authored by Stewart Mader.  The meeting itself was broadcast live over the internet and was rather interesting to watch.

Members of the public spoke at the meeting voicing concerns mainly about traffic, flooding and the proposed economics of the project.  Some emphasized the need to preserve historic sites.  Others mentioned and questioned how the development would impact the wallets of Hoboken residents with regard to property taxes.  Still others pointed out the lack of housing and care facilities for the Hoboken’s aging.  Many valuable points were made and a variety of views were presented.  Most of the speakers seem to think that smaller towers are better than tall ones.   Yes, these are all issues that ought to be considered.  Yes, if NJ Transit is going to benefit financially, there should be some financial benefit for the City of Hoboken as well.

Coincidently, Justin Davidson, the Architecture critic for New York Magazine, recently wrote a piece about the proliferation of 1,000-foot towers in Manhattan.  I found it very informative and relevant to this issue.  Davidson quoted Louis Sullivan, who back in 1896 wrote a piece called The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered, and noted that there are challenges to designing a tall building.  Sullivan’s conclusion, however, might be surprising to many.  He said:  “It must be tall, every inch of it tall.”

All of which has made me realize that while there are valid concerns about any large development proposal, my issue was not with the building height.  Yes, traffic problems need to be addressed and tax burdens should be examined and flood waters must abated.  But traffic and flooding should be addressed regardless of whether or in what form this project goes forward.  Perhaps if the traffic and flooding problems were solved, new development wouldn’t make them worse.  Maybe if the development were done in such a way as to improve access to mass transit, encourage biking and make pedestrians feel safer, fewer people would commute to and from Hoboken (or cut through Hoboken) by car and traffic might actually improve.

My real concern about this proposal is that when they build (and they will build, oh yes) they build something exceptional and beautiful.  Forcing NJ Transit to keep their structures below a maximum height just for the sake of height limits will result in an uninterrupted wall of boring, massive boxes built out to the maximum lot lines.  Picture 333 River Street ad nauseam, or the Trump buildings along the West Side Highway.  Yet, I walk around downtown Toronto or Chicago and look up at their new towers in awe of the beautiful skyscrapers popping up everywhere.  Sleek, sexy, sinuous buildings that add to the skyline’s interest and appeal.  If only we could have something truly spectacular instead of mundane.  I, personally, have no objection to development or tall buildings – just to mediocrity.  Why is there not a competition for the design of this project?  The chance to have great buildings along Observer “Boulevard”, as it is supposed to be renamed, would be so important to creating an identity for Hoboken and a beautiful point of entry into the City.

One final point I find important to make.  If the proposal calls for 30% of the buildings to be residential and only 20% of that to be 3-bedroom size apartments, that is simply inadequate to satisfy Hoboken’s demand for larger living spaces.  If any developer were truly committed to creating and encouraging lasting community, they would build more large units and they would be condos, not rentals.

Every week, I see new listings posted the our MLS where some realtor uses a photo of the ugly, green train trestle with “Hoboken” painted on it.  What else are they going to use?  The Empire State Building clearly says “New York City” but there is no real, iconic building that says “Hoboken”.  Hoboken may not be New York City but it is a great little city and deserves meaningful architecture.

Just my two cents.



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