Stephen Ross presents lecture on Hudson Yards

The largest private real estate development project in the history of the United States, Hudson Yards aims to transform Midtown Manhattan’s far West Side, one of the last undeveloped areas in New York City. Construction is already underway on the megaproject, which will include offices, retail space, luxury and affordable residences, a public school, a cultural center, and 14 acres of open space. Related Companies, which is developing the site with Oxford Properties Group, estimates that Hudson Yards will serve 125,000 people a day when all elements are completed in 2025.

The Harvard Graduate School of Design welcomed Stephen M. Ross, chairman of Related and one of New York’s most prominent real estate developers, to speak about the project as part of the School’s Fall 2016 public lecture series. Watch the full lecture.

Photo of Stephen Ross, “Hudson Yards” event
Stephen Ross lectures at the Harvard Graduate School of Design on November 2, 2016.

“We really saw this as the perfect storm,” Ross told a packed Piper Auditorium of Related’s decision to invest in the neighborhood. “If New York was going to grow…this was a place that we really thought it had the potential to do something major, impactful. And it just wasn’t one building.”

Invited to speak at Harvard by Roger Ferris (LF ’92, MDes ’93), Ross gave an overview of the two-phase project to an audience of students, faculty, and the public. His presentation included some of the development’s staggering statistics: one million square feet of retail and mixed-use space, 4,000 residences, 100 shops, and three public parks. While the scale alone makes Hudson Yards one of the most ambitious New York real estate projects in a generation, the site comes with its own unique challenges. Most notably, the Hudson Yards skyscrapers will rest not on Manhattan schist, but on two man-made platforms that sit over one of the busiest rail yards in the country. (The eastern portion of the platform, which weighs more than 35,000 tons, was completed in 2015.)

Ross focused his lecture on the first phase of the project, Eastern Yards, which includes mixed-use, residential, and office buildings, as well as a performing arts center—the Culture Shed—designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. “We are really creating today what is a live, work, play environment,” said Ross, “which I think is the future of how development will take place in cities throughout the world.”

Ross cited significant government investment in the area as an impetus for his firm’s decision to develop. This included the extension of the No. 7 subway line, a $2.4 billion project that brought the train’s western terminus from Times Square-42nd Street to a new station at West 34th Street and 11th Avenue. Thanks to the new station, an area that was once virtually inaccessible by mass transit (a deal breaker for any major New York real estate project) is now just 10 minutes away from Grand Central Terminal and 15 minutes from Queens. “That was probably the one major component that really led to this development,” said Ross of the extension.

In his presentation, Ross emphasized his desire for architecture that was unique not only in design, but in material as well. “Today when people look at new major developments where you see a number of high-rises they [think they are] just going to be these glass, monolithic buildings,” said Ross. “I thought it was very important here to have different architects, but also to use different materials.” As one example, he showed slides of a skyscraper designed by David M. Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill for 35 Hudson Yards that features a limestone facade.

Ross and his partners have been involved in every step of the business development and design process, from bringing in high-profile tenants like HBO and Neiman Marcus to determining what species of trees should be planted in the site’s parks. Ross selected British designer Thomas Heatherwick to design a 150-foot interactive sculpture known as “Vessel” to anchor one of the site’s parks.

“We were looking for what we called a 365-day Christmas tree,” said Ross, referencing Rockefeller Plaza’s iconic holiday display that attracts millions of visitors each year. After a series of talks between Ross and Heatherwick, the design was ready. “I saw it. I fell in love with it,” said Ross, “because it was something totally participatory, totally iconic, and something, I thought, would be to New York what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris.”

After his presentation, Ross participated in a Q&A with the audience, answering a range of questions on topics from Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills to the recent economic recession. Asked about concerns that affordable housing in New York is disappearing, Ross spoke about Related’s early days in the development of affordable housing. He also discussed the 80/20 residences that are included in Hudson Yards. “You have to look out and see how you can make a city a greater place, because you have a responsibility and you leave a legacy,” said Ross.

As the only school at Harvard to offer degree programs with a concentration in real estate, the GSD was an ideal place for Ross to discuss his visionary project. “It is an incredible opportunity for us to find a collaborator of such significance and such imagination for us to engage,” Mostafavi said when introducing Ross. “Architects and planners can learn from real estate professionals just as real estate people can learn from architects,” said Larry Curtis (MAUD ’83), president and managing partner of Boston-based WinnDevelopment, after the lecture. “Ross is a visionary in the affordable housing and luxury commercial real estate field, and students need interaction with these types of professionals.”

In addition to Ross’s lecture, the GSD hosted a number of real estate-focused events this fall. Highlights include the Harvard Real Estate Conference 2016, which brought leaders from the field to the GSD for a series of lectures on the future of the industry, and the GSD alumni reception in Dallas during the Urban Land Institute’s Fall Meeting, which was hosted by GSD Alumni Council member Reggie Graham (MArch ’78) of Maharger Development Company. The New Towns Initiative at Harvard University hosted a conference in September that convened preeminent new town scholars, new town development managers, and other key figures from major new towns around the world.

In November, students from the Real Estate Development (RED) Club, an organization that provides students with the resources to further their knowledge and careers in the real estate industry, traveled to New York to join GSD alums for a tour of 7 Bryant Park. Tommy Craig, Senior Managing Director of Hines, and Yvonne Szeto (MArch ’79), partner at Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, spoke to the group about the relationship between design and development.

Stephen M. Ross’s lecture was part of the GSD’s Fall 2016 events program. You can watch the full lecture, and browse other GSD event recordings, on the GSD’s YouTube channel. For more information on real estate programs at the GSD and upcoming real estate events, please visit