Even by New York standards, these are extraordinary times in the city. There’s an explosion of growth in everything from technology and education to dining and real estate, keeping the metro area’s $1.4 trillion economy in constant overdrive. People are moving into New York in record numbers to take advantage of the jobs bonanza across all five boroughs, or just dropping by to gawk at the place—a record 58 million visitors came through last year, on the way to a projected 67 million annually in five years.
Formerly overlooked outer-borough neighborhoods, from the South Bronx to Red Hook, are erupting with activity. Once-dormant Roosevelt Island is being remade thanks to Cornell University’s $2 billion mega-campus for technology. Downtown Brooklyn is getting a building—maybe two—nearly as tall as the Empire State Building. And Staten Island, of all places, is the site of a harbor-front destination development featuring the world’s largest Ferris wheel. Meanwhile, in Lower Manhattan, Santiago Calatrava’s controversial, bird-wing-like Oculus has finally opened above the World Trade Center Transit Hub, symbolizing a rebirth in a neighborhood that also includes new luxury hotels such as the Four Seasons and the upscale shopping complex Brookfield Place. And in Midtown, 2016 is nothing less than a watershed, a year that will see the skyline dramatically altered by a new generation of super-tall buildings. The city streetscape will be transformed, too, as pay phones are replaced by gleaming information kiosks linking the five boroughs in the world’s largest and fastest public WiFi network.
The city’s population has increased steadily for five years in a row, and now the U.S. Census Bureau estimates it to be at an all-time high of 8.5 million, with all boroughs having added thousands of new residents last year.
If it ever crossed your mind that New York was done—that it had somehow reached its economic and cultural zenith—all this serves to show that your judgment was premature. New York has always engineered and implemented solutions for its expanding population. It’s a city of innovation where creativity isn’t restricted to the arts. It manifests in the way city planners have shaped its infrastructure, knocked it down and reinvented it; how the business community responds to challenges from other markets; and how ultimately the solutions New York applies to remain excellent serve as models for other cities in America and around the world.
Take, for example, New York’s $125 billion tech sector. While many cities claim to be the next capital of tech, only Silicon Valley is seeing more early-stage capital being raised for startups than New York. Here, emerging companies include everything from Casper, a direct-order mattress company, to publishing platform RebelMouse, to Artsy, for art lovers and collectors, all looking to follow in the footsteps of such New York innovators as Bloomberg LP, Tumblr, BuzzFeed, Warby Parker, Seamless and Mashable. The city’s tech industry has been successful in large part because it is homegrown, says Julie Samuels, executive director of Tech:NYC, an industry association created this year. “New York is a legacy center for so many other industries, from finance to media,” she notes. “And in each of those verticals you’re seeing innovation and technology driving old-line companies. It’s an experience level and diversity of industries that is unique to New York.”
Maria Torres-Springer, president and CEO of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, agrees. “What we’re creating here in New York is a ‘hyphen-tech’ economy: financial-tech, fashion-tech, real estate-tech, ad-tech, bio-tech,” she says. “We are trying to harness the role technology is playing in each one so that legacy sectors are evolving and becoming more resilient and emerging sectors are continuing to grow.”
All this momentum is thanks in part to prescient moves by the city. Former mayor Michael Bloomberg courted universities to establish a science and technology school in New York to attract and retain the best minds, in the hope of overtaking Silicon Valley and Boston. New York ultimately granted Cornell 12 acres on Roosevelt Island, the residential enclave on the East River beneath the Queensboro Bridge, to build a campus for the future—a model of sustainability that will include one of the largest net-zero buildings in the U.S. Planners expect Cornell Tech to help generate 48,000 new jobs and have $33 billion in economic impact.
If high tech is going gangbusters, so is its opposite. The quiet explosion in low-tech, high-touch artisanship is preserving old craftsmanship and creating new kinds: Atelier de France resurrects centuries-old upholstery techniques; Anarchy in a Jar makes jams and chutneys; Alive Structures designs green walls and green rooftops. And those are only a few of the listings under “A.” In a world whose downtown shopping streets are all assuming a sameness, there is a countercurrent of the local and particular in New York these days, hundreds of passion projects that haven’t yet scaled to Starbucks proportions. Brooklyn in particular—a place that produces, for example, at least five competing small-batch whisky brands—has become a global byword for such personal-scale enterprises. It seems the old adage was right: “The little dreams stay at home, the big dreams come to New York.”
A variant of this creative movement has found its way into urban planning and historic preservation. Behind some warehouse doors off scruffy Essex Street on New York’s Lower East Side sit two young people in black logo T-shirts, beaming the familiar, switched-on smiles of missionaries: “Welcome to the Lowline, the world’s first underground park! May we suggest a donation?” Behind them in the cavernous gloom are impressive display panels explaining how by 2020 the audacious proposed park—to be housed deep below the streets in an abandoned trolley station—will use “remote skylight” technology to harvest the sun with above-ground mirror-collectors, condense the life-giving rays and direct them to distributor dishes on the ceilings underground. Voilà! An all-season, subterranean urban sanctuary.
The Lowline—initially funded through Kickstarter, itself a visionary New York company—still faces daunting hurdles, including approval by city planners and the need for significant private investment. The park’s cost is estimated at up to $70 million. Nevertheless, “It’s been met with almost universal enthusiasm,” says Daniel Barasch, its cofounder and executive director. Though he does admit, “Every once in a while we’ll run into somebody who can’t really picture it, who thinks that what we’re doing is kind of insane and unlikely. But a lot of innovative urban projects seemed crazy at the time.”
The park’s name, Lowline, is of course a play on the High Line, another New York project that had the ability to “make the crazy credible,” as one of its creators, Robert Hammond, has put it. The High Line is a park constructed, or rather, planted, on a one-and-a-half-mile-long, elevated spur of the old New York Central Railroad running above far-west Chelsea. The abandoned tracks had long been slated for demolition: Local landowners hoped that clearing out the derelict structure might breathe life into their moribund real estate, and 1990s mayor Rudy Giuliani lusted to tear them down.
Then, around 1999, Hammond and his Friends of the High Line cofounder Joshua David began appearing at charity auctions and community board meetings, touting a seemingly whimsical idea to transform the rusty tracks into a skyborne city park, the High Line. Once you bent your mind around such a curious idea, you realized that it was at heart a sensible, very New York notion: to re-accommodate a structure that was itself born out of an earlier accommodation to urban life.
The tracks had been elevated in the first place, back in 1934, because the old street-level railroad caused so many accidents with crossing traffic that 10th became known as “Death Avenue.” The High Line idea began to gain traction—especially after the cause was taken up by designer Diane von Fürstenberg and her husband, IAC’s Barry Diller—until what had seemed quixotic became inevitable. Its backers raised $150 million, and the landscaped-but-not-too-manicured rail-to-trail park opened in sections beginning in 2009, immediately becoming one of New York’s most visited sites. Today the High Line claims nearly 5 million visitors a year, and it is the model for similar projects in Chicago, St. Louis and Philadelphia.
But what happened after the High Line’s opening, not even its most ardent supporters could have fully envisioned. The High Line’s once-drab industrial zone has become a kind of architectural all-star game, with competing real estate projects by global architecture luminaries such as Thomas Juul-Hansen, the late Zaha Hadid, Norman Foster, Peter Marino, Rem Koolhaas, Jeanne Gang and Soo Chan jostling in cheek by jowl. The neighborhood now has a high-rise residential building with car elevators for individual “sky garages,” and one— Soori High Line—where 16 apartments come equipped with private swimming pools. Hotelier André Balazs and Ennead Architects contributed the attention-riveting centerpiece, the Standard High Line hotel, which straddles the tracks, and Renzo Piano’s new Whitney Museum has put a high-culture stamp on the sweeping urban transformation.
As big a deal as it is, the High Line is not even the neighborhood’s most radical makeover. That would be the $20 billion Hudson Yards project that anchors the High Line’s north end. At 17 million square feet, it is the largest private urban real estate development in the history of the United States. Opening in phases, the 28-acre, mixed-use development will be a city-within-the-city, drawing a projected 125,000 people a day with office towers, residences and 100 shops.
But as big a deal as it is, Hudson Yards is not even New York real estate’s most visible game-changer. That would be the sudden rise of the super-tall towers. There is essentially a whole new skyline on the horizon: Six 984-foot-plus skyscrapers are under construction in the city this year, nearly doubling the current number.
Setting the template was One57, a 90-story building catering to international buyers on what has come to be known as Billionaires’ Row. Never mind that critics dubbed the glass-sheathed tower “clumsily gaudy,” “clunky” and “cartoonish.” Six months after its sales office opened in late 2011—employing drone-borne cameras to approximate the views from every floor—reported sales had broken the $1 billion mark. Among the eager buyers: the prime minister of Qatar, who allegedly plunked down $100 million for a penthouse. The race to build was on.
One57 and its successors represent a break with the past, and not just because they’ve emptied whole quarries of Italian marble to cater to a newly emerging global clientele. Traditionally in New York, the tallest buildings were commercial, like the Empire State Building or the General Motors Building. These new skyscrapers are overwhelmingly residential.
Not all New Yorkers are craning their necks in awe. The writer Pete Hamill wrote of the slender 432 Park Avenue, nearly 1,400 feet tall (about 250 feet taller than the Empire State Building), that “it lords over its neighbors, looking for all the world as if it’s giving the finger to my city.” That finger would be reminding many New Yorkers that the city is expensive and only getting more so; that the public schools are severely underresourced; and that public transportation is buckling under the strain of high demand—all as many New Yorkers are less confident about the management skills of mayor Bill DeBlasio than they were of predecessor Michael Bloomberg’s.
And many New Yorkers remain concerned about future construction. The Municipal Art Society’s watchdog Accidental Skyline project is tracking 60 projects of 600 feet or taller now underway in the city. Says the project’s director of planning, Mike Ernst, “This is a perfect storm of engineering advances that allow the height, market conditions that justify the cost per square foot and the zoning having no height restrictions.” What bothers Ernst and others is that thanks to antiquated regulations— New York’s zoning code is celebrating its 100th birthday this year—developers can buy the air rights to neighboring buildings, pile them on top of their own and build up and up without a public review process or environmental analysis. As Ernst says, “These buildings represent a huge change to the public skyline, to the fabric of the city and the public needs a stronger voice in it.”
New York’s strong real estate market has helped send another of its most prominent industries off in a new direction. “The restaurant business is in flux,” says Danny Meyer, CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group (Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke, among others), “and the primary driver of that is real estate. It is harder and harder within the thin margins of full-service fine dining restaurants to pay rent in a city where the cost of living is so high. And yet, because of the number of restaurants, there’s always downward pressure on pricing.”
The result is that even as the city’s food scene is exploding, it is also undergoing a transformation. Call it the deconstruction of fine dining: Restaurateurs are finding ways to deliver top-quality food to demanding New York patrons with fewer pricey trimmings. “People won’t compromise on food quality,” Meyer says, “but they are willing to give up some things, like maître d’s and reservations.”
To be sure, the expense-account standards like Daniel, Jean-Georges and Le Bernardin are thriving. But, says New York magazine’s influential restaurant critic Adam Platt, “Nobody is opening those restaurants anymore. Somehow in the past 15 years the whole gourmet, French-based system has been blown to smithereens. It’s a much more democratic dining scene.”
At least among a certain set, chefs with followings have replaced decor and plush surroundings as the lure for dining experiences in the city. The back of the house has come out from behind the stoves and taken center stage. In a city where every other millenial seems to be a food blogger, seemingly unlikely places—a new Chinese hole-in-the-wall in Flushing, a one-night pop-up restaurant of foraged food, or beer halls like Brooklyn’s Berg’n—suddenly become the locus for surges of passionate pilgrims.
But de-emphasizing haute cuisine hasn’t diminished New York’s attraction for the most talented. “It’s really irrational for someone to spend a ton of money for cooking school, then pay New York rents to work for a line cook’s wages,” says Meyer. “But the top culinary talent, the top hospitality talent—they want to be in New York.” Fortunately for New York, it’s not just cooks who feel that way.
This article originally appeared in the 2016 June/July issue of Worth.