The Rise of the Mega-Development

Everything you need to know about mega-developments and how they're changing the way people live in cities.

By: Emily Nonko
Hudson Yards

Hudson Yards

Photo by: Related Oxford

Related Oxford

As more and more people flock to live in cities, developers have taken it one step further… and decided to go ahead and build their own. You could call them mini-cities or mega-developments, but these large-scale projects include everything from residential apartments to retail to restaurants to office space. Some span acres, others take up a few city blocks. It’s all part of a trend in which developers across the country have gotten ambitious by re-imagining what new residential developments should look like and what perks they should offer to the people living there.

What Are Mega-Developments?

The title pretty much explains it all: these are new developments that are bigger than all the rest. But the process requires the right site, careful planning and a significant investment from any developer who attempts to take one on. Developers must accumulate multiple parcels of land, or come across one massive unused site, to make it happen. Then they’ve got to secure permits and city approvals, not to mention the right team of designers to come up with a master-plan linking each facet of the development as a single whole. Of course, it needs to be funded, and some of the most ambitious mega-developments cost into the billions of dollars. Finally, a complicated construction process moves forward, from laying down parks and playgrounds to building skyscrapers that will hold up to thousands of apartments and offices. Anchored by housing, the office, retail, restaurant and green space are built within walking distance – a self-sustaining neighborhood envisioned by a small group of people. “These are landmark types of projects for developers,” says Laurie Lustig-Bower, an executive vice president with the brokerage firm CBRE. “It’s a branding opportunity for them to put their name with a project that goes on to change the skyline.”

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Why Are They Appealing?

It’s no secret that young people increasingly want to live in cities, with amenities that are accessible by walking, public transportation or an Uber ride. Developers have capitalized on this shift toward urbanization by building projects that resemble mixed-use cities on a smaller scale. Mega-developments tend to be located near public transit, so the people who live there can easily access the rest of the city. But once they step inside, there’s everything they need within a few blocks. Building amenities, programming and park space also help residents feel like they’re living in a friendly neighborhood, rather than some anonymous building in the middle of a city. That whole “live/work/play” trend? You’ll find it right inside the mega-development.

How Are They Designed?

So how do you go about designing a self-sustaining neighborhood, all at once? Developers often bring on different high-profile architects to create each unique facet of the development, but they’re thinking far beyond cool buildings. They want to create a space that distinguishes itself from the rest of the city, and also gives visitors a unique reason to be there. “There’s no cookie cutter approach,” says Kieran Bowers, a developer behind mega-developments from China to Miami. But he emphasizes that one goal of the design is to connect people to each other, and the various spaces, within the development. “We are very social creatures,” he says. “So we design an environment where we can mix, we want to be seen, and we like the ambiance that’s been created. Design is an integral piece of creating a unique feeling when you’re within the center that distinguishes it from anywhere else,” he says.

Now Under Construction

Check out any major city around the country, and they’ve got their own mega-development groove. Perhaps it’s no more apparent than in New York, where developers don’t shy away from ambitious, neighborhood-defining projects. Hudson Yards is under construction over the Hudson Railyards along the west side of Manhattan, a $20 billion undertaking by developer Related Companies. Over 28 acres, 16 skyscrapers will rise and hold millions of square feet of residential, office and retail space. All that development will be connected by park space and anchored by a 50-foot-tall “staircase to nowhere” sculpture by artist Thomas Heatherwick.

Hudson Yards

Hudson Yards

Photo by: Related Oxford

Related Oxford

Hop downtown to the Lower East Side to find yet another, known as Essex Crossing. Now under construction are 1,000 new residences – many of which are priced affordably – 400,000 square feet of office space and 450,000 square feet of retail. The whole shebang will be connected by a new park and bike paths above ground, and a new and shiny marketplace below ground.

Essex Crossing

Essex Crossing

Photo by: MOSO Studio

MOSO Studio

In Downtown Miami, developer Kieran Bowers is overseeing the $1 billion Brickell City Centre project. Occupying 4.9 million square feet are two residential towers, two office buildings and a hotel above “a supercharged fashion and culinary experience,” as the development team puts it. “The project has its own center of gravity, its own micro economy,” Bowers says.

Brickell City Centre

Brickell City Centre

Photo by: Swire Properties Inc

Swire Properties Inc

Out west in San Francisco, there are several billion-dollar megaprojects set to transform the city. One of the largest in the works – and set to kick of construction next year – is Mission Rock, owned by the San Francisco Giants. It’s proposed to span 28 acres and include 1,500 rentals, 1.4 million square feet of office and commercial space, a brewery and eight acres of park space with shops and cafés. The reported cost is a cool $1.6 billion.

And in Downtown Los Angeles, The Reef has attracted artistic types with two full city blocks of 1,400 rentals and condos, creative office space, an events venue and a hotel. A key to the development, Laurie Lustig-Bower, says, is the density of amenities and proximity to public transit. “People like the synergy of having everything there,” she says. “This used to be a neighborhood where people would come for their job, and leave at night. Now, these amenities give people a reason to stay.”

The Reef

The Reef

Photo by: Leslie Nakashima

Leslie Nakashima

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