New Patches Fix the Urban Fabric

23 February 2017

As published in 'Connected Cities'

Regeneration projects in Montreal, New York and Shanghai share the aim of reviving neglected districts via development that is well-connected to the rest of the city, but prioritises people and public space, not roads and cars.

Large urban regeneration projects as diverse as Hudson Yards in New York, Xintiandi in Shanghai and Royalmount in Montreal all share one common aspect. “The common thread is that they are very large pieces of cities that were in some ways abandoned for years,” Ken Wong, chief operating officer and director of international development at US developer Related Companies, says.

Wong sees the fact that these projects took under-utilised city-centre areas and created vibrant new destinations as a connecting factor in the best urban developments.

But they also share something else: they go beyond the modern template of transit-orientated development (TOD) to create something new, demonstrating how TOD can go beyond simply building a mixed-use development around a railway station.

They show how new developments can be integrated into the wider urban, social and historical fabric of the cities they are in. While all these projects utilise the tenets of TOD - the aversion to cars, the need for good public transport connections, the focus on walkability - all have applied and adapted these principles in new ways and very complex circumstances.

Hudson Yards is and isn’t a TOD - although it has been built above a rail yard comprising 30 active tracks in west New York, there was no transport interchange there. An extension to subway line 7 was put in place as part of New York’s bid for the 2012 Olympics, and this ultimately made the 28-acre site viable for development.

One element of complexity came from the need to build two platforms above the rail lines able to support the development above. On these platforms have been, or will be built 17.56m sq ft of offices, residential, retail, restaurants and hotels. It is the largest private development in US history.

In terms of placemaking, once the wider superstructure had been created, the complexity came in the form of making a completely new area containing multiple high-rise office towers fit in with the city.

“Previously, most New Yorkers wouldn’t even have known this site existed -it was at the edge of the world,” Wong says. “That was a challenge, but it was also good news for us in that it gave us a site in an area that had been on a growth path for some years."

Connectivity a fundamental issue

“The fundamental issues for the site were connectivity, permeability and continuity. In terms of connectivity, the station exits from  the extended 7 subway line come out right in the centre of the scheme, in a public garden, so right away there is a sense of space.”

In this sense, Related has made a virtue of necessity. Because the pre-existing rail lines needed to keep operating, it was only possible to build on 38% of the platform created. For this reason, 50% of the site is open to the sky in the form of public gardens and a central public plaza and garden larger than Trafalgar Square.

“It is not just open to the sky, it is open to the public,” says Wong. “That’s really important - by having public space and putting the transport front and centre, you draw people into your scheme and you’re not just trying to get them to come there and spend money. There are not many places in a city like New York where you can sit outside under a tree and listen to the birds.”

In terms of continuity, Wong flags up the fact that while the station exits at the north side of the development are at sidewalk level, the ground gently slopes up, so that at the south edge they are on the level of the famous High Line gardens that partly borders Hudson Yards.

He also says Related has attempted to mitigate the skyscrapers’ imposing nature by having a mix of uses and tenants and using different design teams for each building.

“We collaborate with different designers and it is important to make sure it doesn’t look like it was all built at the same time. The aim is that if someone comes here in 10, 20 or 30 years’ time and they don’t know the history, they’ll just think it has always been here.”

Adapting the existing urban fabric

In Shanghai, Shui On Land took an area that had also been somewhat neglected, but rather than deciding to knock it down and start afresh, as was the prevailing trend in China at that point, it adapted the original fabric of the area in a way that changed attitudes to development and created a fantastically successful scheme.

Shanghai Xintiandi is a 52ha project comprising 23 city blocks on which Shui On has built, or is building, 13.46m sq ft of offices, retail, residential and hotels. The development comprises four metro stations serving three metro lines and has a central area that is car-free. The scheme’s apartments are the most expensive in Shanghai.

“In 1996, the district government was looking for a developer for a parcel of land in the centre of the city,” says Albert Chan, director of development planning and design at Shui On Land. “We created a masterplan that was approved in 1997 and started on the scheme in 1998.

“We knew Shanghai was going to become a more international city, so we designed a scheme that would appeal to the expat and international community; somewhere they would want to come and live, work and play.

“When we took over the site it was quite  dilapidated, with many of the buildings 80 or 100 years old, and we wanted to create a vibrant, modern, mixed-use community.”

While much of the site was dilapidated, Shui On decided to maintain some of the streetscapes and buildings, to ensure that there was continuity between the development and its surroundings.

“We came up with the concept of ‘adaptive use’ for Xintiandi and preserved many of the original alleyways and lanes, particularly in one area of the scheme. It means it retains a lot of the charm of the original area. But we removed less interesting buildings, to create more public space.

“In China between 1998 and 2002, people didn’t really do this - it was the first time it had been done with a major scheme. At that time, development really meant something completely new. Now there is a growing movement from people and government to preserve beautiful and historic buildings.”

A key concept within the best modern developments is walkability - the idea that to be truly successful, schemes and cities need to leave behind cars as far as possible. On a wider scale, cities such as London have introduced congestion charges to discourage car use and New York has considered bringing in a similar scheme.

Beyond this, there is a growing movement to pedestrianise entire areas of cities to create new public realms.

Trevor Vivian, global director at architect Benoy, is part of the Walk Des Voeux Road movement in Hong Kong, which is seeking to pedestrianise a 1.5km section of the well-known thoroughfare.

“Walkable cities are the way forward for the future, especially as we urbanise at the rate which we are seeing,” he says. “It’s an approach that makes cities more liveable and will help to attract and retain the younger generations and millennials moving forward.

“Take Sydney, for example; they have taken the traffic out of George Street and Pitt Street and now it’s a thriving hub for the city, a place for people to meet, socialise and dine. Cities need these hearts and not all have them yet.

“Hong Kong, for example, is a beautiful global city, but needs more public realm. A pedestrianised section of Des Voeux Road could be that; there is so much potential to humanise the streetscape and transform this busy thoroughfare into a real place for the people of Hong Kong. Its strategic transport connections and position in the CBD also make it a great model for the walkable cities debate. There are complications of course, but other cities have shown it can be done.”

One new development that puts walkability at its heart is Royalmount in Montreal, Canada. The $1.7bn scheme will comprise 925,704 sq ft of mixed-use development within a wider 4m sq ft site, all of which will be pedestrianised. The site is at a crossroads between two highways to the west of the city and will also feature a covered bridge from a nearby metro station, which will provide visitors with direct access to the site.

A new district for Montreal

“There’s a fantastic vision to create a new district for the city and a great mixed-use scheme that will capture Montreal’s unique joie de vivre,” says Jacqueline Beckingham, global creative director at Benoy, which is developing the emerging concept for the scheme.

“The focus is very much on the outdoor space. Plaza and pedestrianised street areas will allow space for a variety of activities, including culturally led ones. The weather can be a challenge, so we are looking at including some flexible roof-level space which can be heated in winter and the rooftop retracted when appropriate. Particularly in summer, landscape as well as the architectural treatment of the buildings will create pleasantly shaded areas at street level.

“There’s also the challenge to make sure the scale is human and in line with the existing character of the city.

“If you look at the best examples from around the world, many of the most beloved areas in cities are pedestrianised. For example, Lincoln Road in Miami has been popular for decades and fits well with the character of South Beach. We want Royalmount to feel like it’s always been part of the city.”

Images: Royalmount, Montreal, Canada by Benoy

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