Concrete and steel foundations are beginning to shape Midtown’s newest tower. Many New Yorkers are aware of the dramatic, new addition coming to our city’s skyline, but less apparent are the bold urban initiatives that One Vanderbilt represents and its tribute to the site’s influential past.1 One Vanderbilt continues a legacy of “superior design,” Transit Oriented Development (TOD), and a relationship between the public and private sectors.2
Upon opening in 1913, New York introduced Grand Central Terminal, a marvel of engineering and a revolutionary approach to urban development and design. The terminal we know and love today was the third structure to occupy the site in only 42 years, replacing two iterations that had been unable to keep pace with the city’s explosive growth, increasing density, and changing demands. While the terminal’s Beaux-Arts-inspired design was the result of a combined effort of two esteemed architectural firms, it was the chief engineer, William Wilgus, who pushed New York into a new paradigm.3
Wilgus championed a design that challenged contemporary notions of engineering and dramatically improved city life. He proposed to stack multiple train lines vertically, tucking the lines below the terminal and burgeoning city – an idea made possible by the recent transition from steam and coal powered locomotives, which required open air for exhaust, to electric. With the tracks fully enclosed underground, the city experienced less pollution, direct access to transit, and more space and opportunities for development.
The vision of a “Terminal City” had begun to take shape. Spurred by its accessibility to transit, the new terminal sparked unprecedented growth, mixed-use development that included plans for housing, offices and hotels. It facilitated the construction of more than a few of New York’s celebrated landmarks, including Park Avenue, and the Biltmore, Commodore, and Roosevelt Hotels.
Note 3The railroad selected two firms following a design competition: Reed & Stem and Warren & Wetmore. A collaboration ensued, notoriously rocky at best, that culminated in a design that continues to capture the imagination of hundreds of millions of people after more than a century.
Wilgus fostered a symbiotic relationship between transit and development, forever sealing a relationship between the private sector and public interests.
Wilgus’ economic strategy for the project was even more daring. The chief engineer introduced a practice well known to developers and city planners today – the concept of selling air rights, which financed much of the project cost. Buildings could now make direct connections into the terminal and the city’s subway system with below-grade lobbies, protected circulation routes, and other public amenities. As the terminal acted as an urban engine, driving New York’s economic growth, people’s expectations of urban life would never be the same.4
Note 4Wilgus’ vision for the future was thorough. Anticipating even more growth and density for New York City, he intentionally over-engineered the columns of the Main Concourse with enough steel to support a future tower overhead.
Grand Central had become the epicenter of an elaborate network of urbanism – the metaphorical “heart” of New York.
Underscoring Grand Central Terminal’s success is the value of public/private partnerships in development. In 2017, the private sector continues to contribute to the public realm, easing costs that may prohibit construction, growth, and maintenance of public infrastructure.
SL Green preserves a tradition deeply embedded within One Vanderbilt’s history, committing more than $220 million to improving city infrastructure. Upgrades for the community include a pedestrian plaza on Vanderbilt Avenue, improved subway entrances, corridors and stairwells, and design interventions that will increase natural light and elevate passenger experience.
Urban transformation in New York is historically rooted in commercial enterprise. As Grand Central once opened a door for unparalleled economic stimulation, the city is facing a new challenge – the need to adapt to an increasingly global marketplace with vastly changing expectations. A focus on resiliency, an interconnected built environment, and an updated building stock with the latest technologies are increasingly expected. Strategies like the East Midtown Rezoning Plan will incentivize development and support a list of growing demands.5
Cities around the world will look to New York and the blocks surrounding Grand Central as a profound example of contemporary urban growth. Sharing Wilgus’ determination and drive, a precedent has been set that begins with One Vanderbilt.