The developers of Hudson Yards, a multi-towered mega-project sprouting upward from the far west side of Manhattan, would like us to believe that its phase-one opening on Friday will be a milestone in New York City history. Many supportive city planners would agree. Perhaps they are right, but not for reasons worth celebrating.

Developers call Hudson Yards “the largest private development in the history of the United States, and boast that it includes the city’s most expensive office building as well as 14 other high-rises. Calling Hudson Yards a private development, however, is a half-truth.

Hudson Yards is being built by two firms, Related and Oxford Property Group; while Related is a standard developer, Oxford is the real estate arm of the Ontario municipal workers’ pension fund. The developers say the project costs $15bn, but that doesn’t seem to take into account the $5.6bn in public expenditures already spent or committed to the project. It is financed through a Tax Increment Finance-like scheme that relies on public bonding, it was enabled by a Bloomberg-era rezoning, and it has been in city planners’ sights since at least the 1960s. The entire complex is being built atop public infrastructure – the rail yards – and the elaborate platforms that enable its construction are owned by the Metropolitan Transit Agency.

It’s certainly not a public development, though. There are no public buildings, and there is definitely no public housing. The main “public space” – a gigantic circular staircase to nowhere the developers like to call “The Social Climber” – sits on private property.

Hudson Yards is the city’s massive monument to private accumulation, and the ultimate example of real estate-driven urban planning. No one looked across the Manhattan landscape and said, “You know what this place needs? Eighteen million sq ft of high-rent office space luxury housing.” Instead, its planners looked at this stretch of active infrastructure and thought: “Someone could be making a lot more money here.”

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This is not just the opinion of one leftwing critic; it was the very terms on which the Bloomberg administration promoted the project. Hudson Yards was meant to demonstrate that city planning can create new opportunities for real estate investment, which were then supposed to enrich the city through good jobs, high taxes and smart design. A closer look at those three elements shows that someone is certainly being enriched, but it’s hard to say that it’s the people of New York.

Let’s take the design first. The aesthetic is all-glass everything, which, when I last visited in the late afternoon, was pretty rough on the eyes as the sun reflected back at me. But those reflections are telling. From the outside looking in, Hudson Yards reflects the city we know and love, but in grotesque distortion. From the inside, it reflects itself indefinitely, forming an apt metaphor for its designers’ self-satisfaction: a spatial selfie.

To New Yorkers first experiencing Hudson Yards today, the site – still under construction – will likely feel like a simulacrum of a neighborhood, rather than the real thing. That feeling is intensified by the ubiquitous architectural renderings of finished buildings and fancy bystanders. They are placed strategically throughout the site to instantiate visitors with the sense that this mess will someday be complete – but it may not be meant for them.

Then there are the taxes. Allowing developers to build a whole new luxury landscape in the middle of Manhattan will certainly generate revenue for the city. This is not, however, a self-financing development, as some of its supporters claim. If researchers were recently able to uncover an additional $1bn in unreported Hudson Yards subsidies, it’s likely there’s more hiding out there. And as Robert Fitch demonstrated in his 1993 book The Assassination of New York, real estate-friendly planners and politicians have channeled subsidies of various kinds to west side commercial developers for decades, only to bail them out when the market softens. While Hudson Yards may soon be a net revenue generator, there’s no guarantee that it will be into the future.

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Finally, there are the jobs, perhaps the most maddening aspect of this project. Without a doubt, the complex construction of Hudson Yards has employed thousands of workers. If you go there now, most of the people you see are building trades workers. The first phase of the project was built by union workers, with all the associated wages, benefits and safety protections. For the next phase, however, the developers tried to go “open shop”, or hire a combination of union and non-union contractors to break the solidarity between locals.

For decades, that would have been unthinkable: a massive, heavily financed, technically complex project in the heart of Manhattan would always be built by union workers. The building trades’ union density has since declined, however, and Hudson Yards’ developers decided that their project might be big enough to break the unions. For a while, the various building trades locals held out and refused to make individual deals with the developer. Then one broke: the carpenters split off and signed their own contract. There may have been more to this deal than a desire for jobs. It turns out Ontario municipal workers weren’t the only union whose collective capital (in the form of pension funds) was sunk into Hudson Yards; the national carpenters union was an investor, too, and they sided with the project’s developers over the city’s labor movement.

Several unions have tried to hold the line against union busting, but national leaders challenged local solidarity. One of the strongest unions, the Ironworkers Local 46, refused to cross picket lines and work on the next phase of the project, but the union’s DC-based leadership recently stepped in, removed the local president, Terry Moore, and told the members to work the job. Many workers are refusing to break ranks, but the site’s developers – one of which, it’s worth repeating, is essentially a union pension fund – are waging an all-out attack on union density in New York City. Now a labor peace agreement has been signed, but it is clearly on the developer’s terms as it continues to allow non-union contractors on the site. Jobs are being created, but in the process the primary vehicle for economic security is being threatened.

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The modernist architect Le Corbusier called buildings “machines for living in”. Hudson Yards will be that for some, but for many more it will be a machine for investing in. Given the particulars of its funding and construction, this machine ingests labor’s capital, chews up unions and spits out profits. Some will herald its opening this month as the next great chapter for New York City. Let us work instead to ensure that it is something else: the final page of New York’s long, sad chapter of planning for endless real estate accumulation.



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