Brainstorming a New Vision for Midtown’s East River Waterfront

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The Municipal Art Society of New York, City Council member Dan Garodnick, and Manhattan’s Community Board 6 ran an intensive day-long workshop last Wednesday to develop a new vision for Midtown’s inaccessible East River waterfront. On Sunday, MAS unveiled some of the results. From the MAS press release:

"By realigning and lowering the 42nd Street exit ramp off FDR Drive, the architects hit upon the concept of elevating the people, not the traffic," said Frank E. Sanchis, III, MAS senior vice president. "They proposed a grand urban terrace above the FDR overlooking the river from 38th Street to 42nd Street. They also proposed a ‘forested hill’ surrounding a existing ventilation shaft at 42nd Street and proposed creating a glowing six-story ‘pylon’ which would anchor a ferry terminal, restaurant and vertical public space, and provide a means to descend to the river."

The charrette was organized because Manhattan has a rare opportunity to open up public access to Midtown’s East River waterfront, create a new park and complete a greenway connecting the Battery to Harlem. The state is planning to rebuild the midtown section of FDR Drive, the former Con Ed power plant site is being redeveloped, and the city is planning to facilitate the expansion of the United Nations campus and create an adjacent waterfront esplanade. The charrette explored how the projects could be planned together and result in an open waterfront from 34th Street to 63rd Street.

  • I would say that the “quintessential Moses” is the Cross-Bronx Expressway.

  • Karen

    Well, Moses built parks and parkways by the waterfront, because that was what the WPA money allowed. We should be thankful for his thoughtfulness or we would have had the East River alternative on the West Side — private home and apartments overlooking the water. It is not whether there is a place for cars or bikes, but rather how to increase public access to the waterfronts. Decking is a step in the right direction and is, the quintessential Moses I have imagined he was.

  • greg

    i like it
    would love to see more of this around the city
    waterfront shouldn’t be for roadways
    reclaim it and undo the damage of robert moses

  • Actually, this is quintessential Moses — at his best, that is: use transportation infrastructure to create waterfront parks. It was Moses who covered the railroad trench with a beautiful terraced park esplanade with trails and tunnels that doubled the Riverside Park of Olmsted and extended it to the Hudson River. It is a mistake to confuse the original design integrity of the city’s parkways and waterfront parks with what they have become under the shattered jurisdiction of of the myriad city and state transportation agencies that subsequently overbuilt the roads and neglected the parks.

  • Dan

    Hilary,

    While Moses did seek to create parks by the water he gave preference to cars. It is the cars that have the easiest access to the best views on the west side. Instead of putting vehicles towards the street grid he placed between them between the water and a park thus making sure that the park would be encumbered by vehicles and that pedestrian access to the actual waterfront would be impaired.

    He didn’t do this because he hated pedestrians or had some grudge, he did it because when he built his great parkways he though of the car as a leisurely vehicle and the ability of drivers to see the water and the park as goal number one. And at the time driving wasn’t an entirely functional thing and a nice drive could actually be a nice drive if it was surrounded by parks and water.

    As much as his parks were great, his ideas were not. Even on the west side, he eliminated the railroad tracks at grade all along the west side except in Harlem where the poor people didn’t merit expense of burying them. Indeed access to waterfront parks all around Manhattan is limited in some way by the existence of moses’ highways.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Okay, so we’ve got the ferry access and the waterfront greenway, but I don’t see much thought given to how the people living in these proposed towers might access Midtown Manhattan. Was that outside the scope of the charrette? If so, it probably wasn’t out of scope to think about how people would get to the esplanade and ferry dock from Midtown or other parts of Manhattan.

    As we’ve seen in the past, if sustainable transportation advocates don’t take the initiative, all too often architects and planners seem to lose all imagination and build huge garages, or else leave the new residents and visitors to walk or rely on insufficient bus service.

    The Second Avenue Subway is not expected to start serving the area until 2017. In the meantime it’s a long walk to Park Avenue. Will BRT (only north-south) really be sufficient? Maybe the 42nd Street Light Rail plan can be promoted in this context.

  • Much of the city’s waterfronts were cut off by roadways, trains, and nefarious uses before Moses. His parkways often created parkland where it didn’t exist, and linked the existing parks in a network of unbroken open space. They created access for the first time to many waterfronts in the form of graceful tunnels and pedestrian overpasses. While we can agree that it would have been even better if Moses had created beaches and parks without roads (and their funding), it is shortsighted not to appreciate the value of the network of open space and public waterfronts that we now have to build on. We need a massive effort to reclaim the park features — and the east river project is a great example.

  • Jean Bonnes

    Waterfront access was not an contentious issue in the century before Robert Moses. With few exceptions nobody wanted to be on the waterfront for the sake of pleasure. Piers on the Hudson or the East River gave shelter to mammals called wharf rats, which were actually poor human beings living in families or perhaps groups of orphaned children. In this era before antibiotics, these homeless people carried deadly contagious diseases and spread it via sputum, and excrement.

    On the Lower East Side to construct the FDR Moses razed an entire neighborhood. This neighborhood was known as Lung Alley, for the high rates of death from tuberculosis.

    Keeping people away from the waterfront was progressive thinking when Moses took the helm of the Parks Department. Moses’ approach to urban waterfront improvement were so successful that today only historians are familiar with the problems he solved. The improvements worked so well that people began to seek out the waterfront for recreation and pleasure.

    Jean Bonnes

    In Washington Heights which offers gor
    Waterfront:
    A Journey Around Manhattan
    urban meditation
    2004

  • Jean is right. The first motor parkway – the Bronx River Parkway – was a water reclamation project, designed to clean up the filthy Bronx River. While it did dislocate businesses and residents, it resulted in a clean waterway and extensive linear park and trails on either side. The parkway in Westchester is protected fiercely by the Bronx River Parkway Conservancy, and is a model for its city counterpart.

    The benefits of using the natural eco-services of waterfront parkland to clean waterbodies (making the park suitable for recreation) was analyzed by the Gaia Institute in its study “Stormwater Capture Parks along the Henry Hudson Parkway.” Preserving landscape along the waterfronts should be a central feature of the mayor’s plan for the city’s longterm sustainability. One criticism of the East River plan is the apparent absence of water-capturing landscape. They could address the challenges of both access and environmental remediation in one fell swoop by GREEN ROOFING the highway. This is what the Harlem River Brownfield Opportunity Area Study recommends for that transportation-dominated waterfront.

    And while this last suggestion will undoubtedly strike readers of this blog as mad, I venture it anyway: open up some views of the river to the motorists. Moses did this for train riders along the Hudson by cutting windows out of the stone encasement. The covered sections of the FDR now provide motorists with energy-saving light and gorgeous views. Don’t begrudge motorists scenic views — it slows them down and makes them more willing to pay for the privilege of driving through the heart of this metropolis. The best plan will integrate the most solutions – park, transportation, air/water/noise quality.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Jean, thanks for giving us some perspective on how people like Moses and his supporters viewed the waterfront. However, given the benefit of hindsight, Moses’ “solution” was almost as bad as the problem. Was it really necessary to permanently displace thousands of people in order to control a TB epidemic? As you put it, “this era before antibiotics” ended at about the same time as the slums were cleared; penicillin was widely available by the end of the second world war. And I’m sure you realize how racist and dehumanizing the whole idea of “wharf rats” was.

    Hilary, I’m not convinced that motorists will show any appreciation for the view, since they’d just assume that it was their right. I’ll also point out that in this town waterfront parkways are so inviolate that when the gap in the Hudson River Greenway betwen 83rd and 91st Streets started getting public attention a few years ago, nobody mentioned the obvious solution: take a couple lanes from the parkway.

  • Hilary

    Angus,

    You say “nobody mentioned the obvious solution: take a couple of lanes from the parkway.” In fact the communities of the Henry Hudson Parkway have fought fiercely for years to protect the parks that the road runs through – and none more successfully than those in the upper west side that you mention. Don’t underestimate what it takes for a community to take on city and state agencies and their sponsors to reveal, let alone modify, each project that tilts the parkway toward expressway. The next battle for the parks is to keep it from being opened to trucks – a recommendation by DOT that was supported by TA in the misguided notion that this might reduce trucks on local streets (a different conclusion about induced demand in their studies of traffic through other parks). We understand that allowing trucks changes the design standards – everything from road geometry to guardrails to landscape. The Brooklyn shore parkway is being prepared for these changes now. Please get over Robert Moses. We are fighting now for our waterfront and our parks. The more we can strengthen the PARKS in the parkways, the better our chances of reclaiming a lane — not only to widen the greenway, but maybe for light rail! The parks will never be a priority in the parkways unless the public recognizes that that’s what they are.

    Of course it’s hard to defend displacements of people for public projects. We can comfort ourselves that Moses also opened up the best beaches and open space in Long Island and the Hudson Valley to the public by condemning private land of the some of the richest and most powerful estate owners..

  • Jean Bonnes

    Angus, you are correct to focus on the dehumanizing effects of the term “wharf rats” but at the time it was used to describe homeless on the waterfront; on the Lower East Side those known as wharf rats were European immigrants.

    The debate about usage of waterfront for roadways is a debate about externalities. Externalities can be dehumanizing to those who do not receive the benefit. “Externality” is the most obscene word in economics jargon since it sanitizes irresponsible, immoral, unethical and illegal economically motivated behavior in which one party(ies) usually makes a profit and another party(ies) pays a penalty.

    The drivers along the riverfront driveways benefit from the view and ease of commute while the residents are deprived of unobstructed views, and parkland and suffer health problems from increased air pollution and noise.

    One imperfect solution to externalities is to tax those who profit and/or benefit to pay for solutions to mitigate the problems created.

    Isn’t the proposed stretch of greenway on the East River part of the solution?

    Wouldn’t improvements along the Hudson River be part of the solution to create happier drivers and almost happy residents who can enjoy their parks?

  • Gelston

    “I’m not convinced that motorists will show any appreciation for the view, since they’d just assume that it was their right”

    Exactly right! That’s why we want to let them know what a privilege they are enjoying by designating the parkway a Scenic Byway! When the Pasadena Freeway was designated a National Scenic Byway and restored as the historic Arroyo Seco Parkway, the motorists SLOWED DOWN. The park infrastructure reaped federal mega$ improvements in the landscape and greenway.

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