Helping Hudson: Ellen Baer on Transforming Hudson Square

Ellen Baer of the Hudson Square Connection (Photo: Mike Nagle)
Ellen Baer of the Hudson Square Connection (Photo: Mike Nagle)

Last month, the Hudson Square Connection, the Hudson Square neighborhood’s business improvement district, announced it was teaming up with the New York City Economic Development Corporation and the New York City Council on a $27 million streetscape improvement plan. The move is the latest step in transforming the once industrial hub of the city’s printing industry into a vibrant 24/7 community. The neighborhood, home to a daytime population of approximately 60,000, slows down dramatically once the lights go off at night. But that’s set to change. Recently rezoned, Hudson Square will soon be redeveloped to capture Downtown Manhattan’s booming residential growth. With the likes of Trinity Real Estate, Edward Minskoff, Beacon Capital and Jack Resnick & Sons already involved in developments in the neighborhood, it’s all happening in Hudson Square. Ellen Baer, president of Hudson Square Connection, spoke with The Commercial Observer last week about how the streetscape improvement plan and rezoning fit together and the vision for Hudson Square’s future. 

Hudson Square Connection recently announced a $27 million investment in streetscape improvement around the Hudson Square neighborhood. What is planned?

The overall theme is creating a sustainable neighborhood out of a formerly industrial area. This neighborhood used to be printing presses, and there hasn’t been any significant infrastructure work done here for 80 years. Today, there is daytime population of 60,000—the young digerati, I call them—and the outdoor space didn’t match that community.

We’re trying to take a place meant for trucks and make it a place for people. The people here—the young, innovative types—have sustainability in their DNA, and we’re very conscious of making the neighborhood match that. Specifically, we are planning to add 300 trees, permeable pavement and new open space. We want to make Spring Street our Main Street.

What’s the timeline?

The first 30 trees are in the ground, and some of the street furniture is out there. New lights around Spring Street will be out this year, and we’re starting an open-space design on Spring Street this year. We’re starting now and hope to have a significant amount completed within five years.

You mentioned a desire to make Spring Street Hudson Square’s Main Street. Could you elaborate?

Spring Street extends to the river, but when you think about Spring, in most people’s consciousness, it starts east of Sixth Avenue, and we want to extend that energy to the Hudson. We envision it as a place where people will walk and shop and become the place that weaves Hudson Square together. We want it to be the center of activity, because we need better connectivity. Despite being among the most famous neighborhoods in the world—Soho, Tribeca—Hudson Square hasn’t been connected, and Spring Street will be the spine.

How important was it to get the involvement from the EDC and city?

One hundred percent of what the BID is doing is on city property, so it is essential the city be our partner. This is a true public-private partnership.

Hudson Square was recently rezoned to increase residential development. How does the improvement play into that?

All of this is of apiece. When I talk about sustainability, it’s not just environmental—it’s economic, it’s social. 

Before the rezoning, Hudson Square was so predominantly commercial it almost wasn’t like a Manhattan neighborhood. You need to have a 24/7 presence, so having the residential component is part of bringing the neighborhood into that zone. It’s all of apiece—the rezoning, the streetscape improvement.

Ellen Baer stands in front of a map of Hudson Square (Photo: Mike Nagle)

Ellen Baer stands in front of a map of Hudson Square (Photo: Mike Nagle)

There was some push-back from preservationists about the rezoning of Hudson Square. How difficult is it to balance the historic nature of the area’s building stock with the requirements of creating a modern 24/7 community?

Our 1920’s massive Art Deco industrial buildings are the essence of who we are. What’s particularly impressive is the way that these buildings can be adaptively reused to meet the needs of today’s creative sector. Once the buildings are retrofitted—as most of them have been—to meet today’s energy efficiency standards, the properties are basically in walk-in condition for the open-floor-plan, sun-lit, loft spaces that are in demand today.  

Our vision for the neighborhood isn’t so much one that is modern—the definition of “modern” changes every day—but one that is adaptable to changing environments.  Hudson Square has been able to adapt for the past 300 years, and we have every expectation it will continue to do so for the next 300. That’s why we call our plan Hudson Square is Now, because now is, you know, always now.

Hudson Square is well known for its creative working community. Do you think the area can harness that population for residential growth?

I think whoever is going to live here is going to live here. We’re trying to capture the spirit of creativity here in everything we do. We don’t want to change the neighborhood—we want to make it more livable. We’re not trying to make it something it isn’t. It has become a magnet for creative people very organically.

You’d always rather be lucky than good, and I think the building stock here lends itself so well to how people work today—the loft-like spaces. I expect you’ll see that vibe reflected in the residential development as well. 

This neighborhood has always been able to adapt. That’s happening again. We’re just nudging it along.

What else needs to be done in order to make Hudson Square a viable 24/7 community?

We are trying to create a pedestrian environment here, making the streets and sidewalks a place for people. That is coupled with creating demand on a 24/7 basis for things like a supermarket. Once you make those changes, the rest will take care of itself.

What other projects and priorities is the Hudson Square Connection working on?

We’re doing the basics now. When I first got here—we started in 2009—it was difficult to get across the street as a pedestrian. The signal timings weren’t meant for pedestrians, there were no trees, and there wasn’t a single bench. We’ve been putting in place the basics of a pedestrian environment. We’d love to build on that and see more sustainable elements. We have a bunch of temporary open space, but we’d love to see more permanent open space. We’d like to see more public art. We’d love to continue that sense of community that we’ve begun here.

As much as creative types and tech types spend time in their offices, they want community, and we think Hudson Square has the potential to be a creative campus in the sense that people can commune with one another in ways that will help imaginations be stimulated. That’s what makes this a special neighborhood, and we want to foster that.

Trinity Real Estate and a number of other prominent developers have a significant role in the community. How closely does the Hudson Square Connection work with them?

It’s interesting: Trinity does own about 40 percent of the property down here, but they only have one vote on the board. You have some of the great real estate companies down here. The Resnicks, Tishman Speyer, Newmark. There are a lot of terrific owners. and it has a small town feel.

I’ll give you an example: Beacon Capital is completing a building at 330 Hudson, and Minskoff is finishing a renovation at 101 Avenue of the Americas, and we’re working hand in glove to create a sustainable neighborhood. Our owners have drunk the Kool-Aid. I can’t say enough about our owners.

Given the development plans and the rezoning, do you expect more interest from developers?

I can’t speak to other neighborhoods, but this is a pretty hot product down here, and I don’t know of a developer that isn’t looking around in Hudson Square. We hope and expect everyone that comes here will come because of what it is: a bunch of owners, tenants and community people working together to make this a better place.

Going forward, what is your priority?

You see a lot of neighborhoods where there is a lot of change going on, bringing in tourists and big-box retail. I don’t think that’s what going to happen here. This is an authentic New York neighborhood, and keeping that authenticity is important. I’m a native New Yorker, so I can tell the difference. 

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