New York's next big neighborhood is its smartest

"It was always going to be tomorrow's city today. A new heart of New York City; Midtown expanding west." -- Thad Sheely, SVP operations for Related Companies

Tourists come to stop and stare, and sometimes throw pennies. This isn't a long-standing tradition. There are no wishes to make here. It's just a construction site they're filling with change; "the largest development in New York City since Rockefeller Center." Its 28 acres span west from 10th Avenue to 12th Avenue and the Hudson River, and north from 30th Street to 34th Street. The site is home to the final piece of the High Line park; an extension of the number 7 subway line; five office towers and nearly 5,000 residences; 14 acres of public space; a public school; and an active rail yard, from which it gets its name. This is Hudson Yards: New York City's first truly smart neighborhood. Or, it will be when New York University's Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP), a partner for the development, finishes outfitting it with sensors.

Timeline showing the initial phase of construction on the Eastern yards through the project's completion in 2018

Timeline showing the initial phase of construction on the Eastern yards through the project's completion in 2018.

This "quantified community" is a real-life urban laboratory for connected living, and its future, deep-pocketed residents will be its well-kept lab rats. CUSP, a 2-year-old NYU program born of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Applied Sciences initiative, is the brains behind this real estate operation from developers Related Companies and Oxford Properties. They're the ones outlining which aspects of life will be measured when the first building, 10 Hudson Yards, opens in 2015; what sensors to install and the equipment used to make them. For CUSP, the opportunity at Hudson Yards is twofold: The site presents a unique look at the impact urban development has on a city vis-à-vis pollution and waste, as well as a chance for the center to model and analyze scientific assumptions regarding energy and water usage.

Constantine Kontokosta, department director for CUSP, said his team's just beginning to refine exactly what to prioritize for phase one of the construction. Air quality, noise levels, energy and water usage: These are all things Kontokosta believes can be tracked and meaningfully analyzed to not only help make life better for residents of Hudson Yards, but also make New York and other cities "more resilient."

This "quantified community" is a real-life urban laboratory for connected living, and its future, deep-pocketed residents will be its well-kept lab rats.

It's an especially weighty concern after the devastation that wracked much of the city in late 2012 during Hurricane Sandy. That frankenstorm caused rampant flooding in much of lower Manhattan that led to evacuations for the city's residents and the shutdown of subway stations, tunnels and streets. It even forced Con Edison to preemptively cut off power in parts of the financial district to avoid damage to its underground electrical systems. Thad Sheely, SVP of operations at Related Companies, pointed to the fallout from that natural disaster when describing the Yard's multipronged energy-management system.

"We're trying to think about it both from a sustainability perspective and efficiency ... but also from a redundancy side of things," Sheely said. "So if a Sandy event happens, we would still have power and be able to turn our buildings on."

Resiliency, redundancy, future-proofing: These are the big-picture buzzwords that get thrown around about Hudson Yards. The idea is that you can build a neighborhood that won't go down when disaster strikes; a haven of self-sustainability powered by Con Edison, diesel and an on-site cogen (natural gas/heat) power plant. "We have all these different energy sources and we want to make sure we're managing them effectively," Sheely said. "And why that's important is that in some ways, we're creating almost a micro-grid."

That micro-grid is the lynchpin of the Yards. But like the site's other high-concept, high-tech aspects, Related Companies hasn't yet nailed down specifics for this energy platform's creation. Though, discussions with "tech providers and vendors to create a master building-management system" are ongoing. When the grid is eventually completed, Sheely said the idea is to have an open-source protocol that can connect and manage the various, intelligent moving parts of the Yards -- the waste-management system, the energy grid, the sensor data -- while delivering insights based on all of that incoming data. The end goal, he admits, is cost savings.

"When we think about combining that data with some of the sensor data and the opt-in individual data about people flows and traffic ... to be able to have some predictive analytics about that we think will be really interesting," Sheely said. "It could determine your energy buy."

A view of the extension for the No. 7 subway line

A view of the extension for the No. 7 subway line.

A lower energy bill may not strike you as a cutting-edge use of connected tech, but it's just one of the many practical perks of Hudson Yards' measured world. Since much of the info in CUSP's Big Data pool comes from its partnership with the city, things like GPS data from the Taxi and Limousine Commission, the MTA or bike-sharing initiative can be analyzed to make the life of a resident incredibly convenient.

"We could add that data to other things that we know about the way people come in our buildings and the way they enter and exit, and start directing them to where the best place to get a taxi cab is," Sheely said.

Resiliency, redundancy, future-proofing: These are the big-picture buzzwords that get thrown around about Hudson Yards.

The approach Related Companies and CUSP are taking to connected life in the Yards is more additive than intrusive. "We don't necessarily want to recreate someone's digital world; we want to just plug into it," Sheely told me. Neither he, nor Kontokosta envision tracking residents and visitors in a way that treads on their privacy. "Everything we do there is going to be an opt-in, voluntary scenario," Kontokosta said. That's on the individual level, however, and doesn't take into account the thermographic (heat) mapping planned to monitor pollution, energy usage and crowds visiting the area -- a number projected to be around 24 million per year.

There is, of course, also the question of security. A smart neighborhood like Hudson Yards harbors a great potential for nefarious data mining and cyber attacks. But again, since much of the planning for the site is still in progress, neither party was ready to speak in-depth about methods to secure the data harvested from residents and the Yards-at-large.

The "internet of things" is a nebulous term that somehow seems apt here. It's the sort of digital-era jargon imbued with such a multitude of meanings as to render it indefinable. And yet, it perfectly describes Hudson Yards, a 21st century neighborhood designed to digitally assist better living. This is a smart neighborhood that "lives" so long as it's persistently connected to the internet. Related Companies is aware that this crucial digital infrastructure is the lifeblood and major hook of Hudson Yards, and Sheely said the developer is "spending a significant amount of money to bring in a fiber loop that connects all the buildings." This future-proofed wired connection is set to offer access points for "almost half a dozen different fiber carriers."

Michael Samuelian, VP at Related Companies, looks out over the site from atop 10 Hudson Yards.

Beyond laying just fiber in the ground, Related Companies is also outfitting its buildings at Hudson Yards with digital antenna systems, or DAS, to ensure strong and consistent mobile phone service. Think of these as repeaters that relay WiFi and cellular service signals, thus avoiding dead service areas common in heavily developed urban areas. It's a way for Related Companies to attract even more investment from wireless carriers since the system helps offload a carrier's network congestion to a wired system.

The "internet of things" is a nebulous term that somehow seems apt here.

In other words, carriers are going to have to pay to deliver quality service to the big-name corporate clients like Coach, Time Warner and L'Oréal residing at Hudson Yards. "We're gonna put in the upfront investment to put this core in and then you go and you cut your deals with Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint ... to basically pay you for access to that service," Sheely said. It's a model that has obvious potential for commercial buildings on-site, but Sheely admits implementing it on the residential side is a bit trickier due to the number of users relying on different service contracts.

That's the resident-end benefit. As the estimated visitor data and inclusion of public space prove, tourists are a large part of the plan at Hudson Yards and Sheely wants to help shape their visit (and credit card purchases) with a dedicated app. "We're going to have a really interesting target market to go after and deliver information to them. And a lot of them are tourists. So it's that digital tour guide for someone ... How can we help program someone's trip when they come to Hudson Yards?"

Retail therapy isn't the only perk Sheely hopes the Yards can provide for the 80,000 to 100,000 visitors that could drop in daily. There's also talk of modeling building security on airports. Not in the intrusive, TSA pat down kind of way, but more along the lines of electronic boarding passes for visitors that want to bypass security. "We could basically ... forward you your boarding pass and it would go right to your phone," Sheely said. "You would be pre-qualified and you could come right in without having to check in at the door."

There's just one problem with Hudson Yards' vision of the smart neighborhood: all tech-based futures are eventually rendered obsolete. Sheely's aware of how quickly the modern infrastructure built into the site could become antiquated. "With technology, you want to put those [decisions] off as long as possible," he said, adding that the developer has about a year or more before it needs "to start making end products that are hardware solutions." Which is to say, the current promise of Hudson Yards could change as technology advances. Kontokosta said CUSP could even add or subtract from its grandiose, sensor-laden plans with a "plug-and-play" approach, swapping things out as the project progresses toward its 2024 completion date.

Like the tech powering its modernity, Sheely also anticipates a progressive shift in attitudes toward privacy and the Big Data-reliant environment of assisted life at Hudson Yards. "Over time, it obviously evolves. The comfort level that people have with that obviously changes."