Public Tells Planning Commission They Want a Walkable Riverside Center

Image: Extell Development.
The drawings released by Extell Development don't draw attention to the blank walls and curb cuts that would disrupt the sidewalk at Riverside Center.

A hearing on the Riverside Center mega-development yesterday revealed a popular hunger for a more walkable West Side and perhaps some interest from the City Planning Commission in the same. Extell Development is looking to build a housing and retail complex, including 1,800 parking spaces, on this waterfront site equivalent in size to two Manhattan blocks. Public testimony called for a slew of urban design improvements to their plan, including reducing the amount of off-street parking, integrating the site with the surrounding streetscape, and working towards burying the elevated Miller Highway.

As chair Amanda Burden and the other commissioners now deliberate over the approvals the project needs, they have the power to determine whether this block on Manhattan’s West Side will be dominated by the automobile or develop into a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood, in line with the goals of PlaNYC.

Efforts to better integrate Riverside Center with the surrounding neighborhood and streetscape got the most play yesterday. In Extell’s plans for the project, retail faces the inside of the development and passersby would see largely blank walls rising from the sidewalk, with the streets sloping down to the waterfront and the buildings stationed on an elevated platform. That wall would be interrupted by a slew of curb cuts to enter Extell’s proposed 1,800-space parking garage and auto showroom and service center.

“The development turns its back on the street,” said Brian Cook, the land use director for Borough President Scott Stringer. “It systematically ignores the rich context of the area,” explained Community Board 7 chair Mel Wymore.

The City Planning Commission appeared receptive to this critique. “Does one see an auto showroom as something that enlivens the edge of the project?” Burden asked Extell president Gary Barnett after he testified. “What is going to energize the sidewalk and the street life at the front of this project?”

Other commissioners pressed the developers and architects about the effect of driveways, retail, stairways, and platforms on the pedestrian environment. The developer, in turn, outlined a few minor steps to address the issue, such as changing a staircase to 59th Street into a slope.

But one underlying cause of the streetlife-deadening platform is the excessive amount of parking that Extell is seeking to build, according to Ethel Sheffer, a CB 7 member and former president of the New York American Planning Association chapter. The platform “is there in large part because it satisfies an extensive request of 1,800 parking spaces on two levels,” she said.

The second level of Extells proposed 1,800 space garage covers the entire four-block site. Image: Extell Development.
The second level of Extell's proposed 1,800 space garage covers the entire four-block site. Image: Extell Development

Those 1,800 spaces, which require special permits from the commission, would create a development dominated by the automobile, perhaps to a degree unmatched by any project in the Clean Air Act zone below 60th Street. The community board and borough president each recommended against allowing 1,800 spaces at Riverside Center.

Parking received some attention from the commission at the very start of yesterday’s hearing. Commissioner Richard Eaddy cited the community board’s request for a smaller lot and asked Barnett why he didn’t agree with the board.

“We’re actually cutting out parking from the area,” said Barnett, arriving at that claim by adding the surface parking currently on the site to the number of spaces he thinks his tenants will demand. “We’re going to be down 800 or 1,000 spaces,” said Barnett.

CB 7 member Ken Coughlin laid out just how inflated Extell’s demands are. If the commission simply used the same calculations in effect at the nearby Hudson Yards project, he said, only 768 spaces would be built. “Should we be creating additional incentives to drive in an already congested and polluted urban environment?” he asked.

The commission has written that one of its goals for Hudson Yards was to “limit the amount of off-street parking… consistent with the objective of creating an area with a transit- and pedestrian-oriented neighborhood character.” Riverside Center could be the first large-scale development near Hudson Yards where the commission proves it is truly committed to that goal.

The elevated Miller Highway running in front of Riverside South. Photo: Riverside South Planning Corp.
The elevated Miller Highway running in front of Riverside South. Photo: Riverside South Planning Corp.

Other testimony focused on ensuring that the project furthers efforts to bury the elevated Miller Highway between 59th and 72nd Streets. According to architect Daniel Gutman, who helped design the original plan for the Riverside South complex, the 1991 agreement required that the developer build the northbound tube for a tunnel while the state would build the southbound tube. Some of that construction has already taken place. Actually burying the road, however, would require additional funding that isn’t available yet — the highway was renovated only 15 years ago.

Even so, many urged the commission to do what it takes to move the plan forward, whether by extracting more funds from Extell or simply not obstructing the current slow progress toward a tunnel. “The space is still marred and made dangerous and oppressed by the highway,” said former Municipal Art Society president Kent Barwick.

“The vision that drove that compromise was the relocation of the overhead road,” said Barbara Fife, a former Deputy Mayor for Policy and Planning under David Dinkins. She urged that the Commission require the developer to complete part of the southbound tunnel in order to gain approval.

Burden showed some attention to the potential of a buried Miller Highway, at one point asking Extell’s landscape architect how her plans would change if the highway were moved underground.

In addition to requests for design and planning improvements, testifiers made strong demands yesterday for Extell to build a new school and provide more affordable housing. To the extent that negotiations pit competing priorities against each other, the commission will need to fight that much harder to make Riverside Center a walkable place and not let sustainability fall by the wayside.

  • Ian Turner

    This is a great piece of journalism. Thanks for the investigative reporting.

  • Those walls will be really unfriendly for pedestrians, especially when the wind kicks up.

  • 1800 parking spaces is completely absurd and unnecessary.

  • Scoop

    Couldn’t we have buildings that come to the sidewalk, with stores on the bottom and other stuff on top — like you tend to see in actual cities? We don’t need the idiotic unusable “green space” caused by tower-in-the-park crap. Le Corbusier is dead. Why won’t his terrible ideas die too? How is it possible that anyone thinks we need a very long urine trow where 60th street is supposed to be? I don’t want to live in an office park. I want to live in a city.

  • I’ll have what he’s having.

  • Kaja

    Not strictly topical, but can’t help myself; Regarding curb cuts: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kgeis/4996784805/

  • ChrisCo

    >>The drawings released by Extell Development don’t draw attention to the blank walls and curb cuts that would disrupt the sidewalk at Riverside Center.<<

    I don't understand why NYC can't do what Vancouver did many years ago and ban things like blank walls. And also require either retail or townhouses (ie., residential units with direct entrances from the sidewalk along all building frontages).

    Blank walls can kill a streetscape, but so can any wall that doesn't interact with the sidewalk. If a building frontage is not lined with retail spaces, it should be lined with residential units.

  • ChrisCo

    Does anyone know where I can see these plans online – the detailed plans with the blank walls et al.

    Urban planning is really not that hard. You line the main streets with ground floor retail, and the minor streets with townhome units at the base. You put all the parking underground and don’t have any blank walls.

    This is not rocket science. Why can’t Extell get this? I thought they were developers.

  • ChrisCoo

    I don’t understand why NYC can’t do what Vancouver did many years ago and ban things like blank walls. And also require either retail or townhouses (ie., residential units with direct entrances from the sidewalk along all building frontages).

    Blank walls can kill a streetscape, but so can any wall that doesn’t interact with the sidewalk. If a building frontage is not lined with retail spaces, it should be lined with residential units.

  • JK

    The City Planning Commission has to stop rolling over to developers who want to suburbanize the city. A few simple rules to make sure new developments add to the walkable city.

    1. Short, straight, blocks connected to grid.
    2. No blank walls:stores, professional offices or residences at street level.
    3. Street entry for all residences and stores. No mall type entry.
    4. Minimal number of curb cuts — no port cochere, cul de sacs.
    5. Reasonable scale and more middle density.

  • Jason A

    Nice, Scoop…

    What’s mystifying is how many pockets of the city have been absolutely destroyed by this way of planning. It’s painful how many dozens and dozens of blocks of NYC have been rendered useless by this brain dead approach to building.

    I can forgive the mistakes of the 60s… but 50 years later (blank walls to the street? oodles of parking?), are you kidding me? Amidst the country’s most sought-after real estate, how dumb can we be?

  • If you browse through the developer’s web site it looks pretty nice and lively. West End Avenue and West 60th St is hardly a thriving nexus of street life today. Where are the blank walls and curb cuts being located in the plan?

    Obviously Extell believes they can sell enough of the apartments to the Europeans who buy expensive Manhattan real estate to have a New World pied-à-terre. The request for “reasonable scale” is a non-starter. People like living on high stories with expansive views, and I expect that the revenue from the sale of the higher-up units will make up for the affordable-housing units on the lower levels.

  • Scoop

    @JK

    Why do you assume the city is “rolling over” for developers rather than assuming that both developers and the city think (absurdly) that this architecture works? Is there some sort of financial incentive for developers to suburbanize the city in this way? Is it cheaper than building rectangular structures that reach the sidewalks and don’t screw up the grid? I’m seriously asking because I really cannot see how any of this strikes either the city or the developers as a good idea.

    Also, I’ll have to disagree with you on middle density. The thing that makes Manhattan great is high density — at least 50k people per square mile (which is equal to Paris) but generally 100k or more. Aside from the Lex. Ave. line in the morning, I don’t understand why so many people who choose to live in Manhattan complain about overcrowding. And efforts to prevent this perceived overcrowding, because they limit the supply of housing and office space, do much to account for the annoyingly high prices here.

  • Woody

    Yeah, what’s supposed to be good about “middle density”? Or even “mid-height” buildings? Most of us who live in the high-rise Mitchell-Lama middle-income apartment buildings along Columbus and Amsterdam from 87th to 97th St truly love them.

    When the developer first revealed plans to add new buildings to Park West Village, from 97th to 100th Streets along Columbus and Amsterdam Aves, one local leader decried plans for a tower — a “spike” they called it — on a corner lot. (The spike building would have been about as tall as the building where I live, just two blocks to the south.) After great agitation, and a down-zoning iirc, the plans for the spike were killed. In its place, the developer put in massive new mid-height buildings that blocked off all views from the existing mid-height buildings, walling them off from the Columbus streetfront. Ha ha ha ha ha. Be careful what you ask for.

    I still don’t understand if the opposition to building really tall residential buildings comes from simple ignorance or pure jealousy or what. Maybe it’s due to crude racism. In the ‘burbs, many bigots equate all high-rise buildings with public housing projects filled with undesirables of various non-white shades of skin.

    What we need in Manhattan is more really tall apartment buildings, with very few added parking spaces to keep costs down. We have the infrastructure of public transit to handle the extra population, and if the new residents don’t like the density in the city they can move to Long Island.

  • ChrisCoo

    >>If you browse through the developer’s web site it looks pretty nice and lively. West End Avenue and West 60th St is hardly a thriving nexus of street life today. Where are the blank walls and curb cuts being located in the plan?<<

    I don't know, but I can't find any renderings clearly showing what the ground floor facing the exterior (existing) streets will look like. None of the site plans seem to show the retail spaces or where their entrances will be either.

  • Doug

    @Jonathan: of course it looks lively, it’s propaganda. I agree with other posters who observe that enormous open expanses are OK in mild weather, but downright harmful in bad weather (or, rather, anytime it falls below 50 degrees, rains, is cloudy or it is late at night). They do nothing to make people feel safe and welcome on their doorsteps, because any street activity is so diffuse.

    I’m living in NY: if I need a quart of milk during a blizzard, I don’t want to walk across wind-swept prairies for a quarter mile just to get to a deli.

  • Doug, perhaps you and I, with our immanent desire for quarts of milk (skim, 1% or whole) at any hour, are not the target market for the apartments being planned in these buildings. One of the things the internet has taught me is that most Americans buy milk in gallons. I would assume that the well-off denizens of Riverside Center would have their groceries (and gallons of milk) delivered from Food Emporium or Fresh Direct.

    If there weren’t people anxious to find this kind of living space in Manhattan near midtown, Extell wouldn’t be planning to build it.

    RC is not my cup of tea, and I’m not particularly happy about the 1800 parking spaces, but I would prefer not to see the entire island of Manhattan consecrated into some version of Jane Jacobs’ Greenwich Village because that’s what late-20th-century urban planning schools suggested was the best possible plan. Children grow up in Stuyvesant Town and in Peter Cooper Village without suffering permanent damage; this seems like the same kind of idea as those developments, but on the West Side, and with an annoying water scrim.

  • Doug

    Jonathan, fair enough about stasis of development. I don’t put 100% stock in the power of the market to get everything right, every time. That’s just not how it works. Nor do I put stock in the power of the market to do what is socially beneficial. That’s not even part of the equation.

    For those reasons, we can easily agree on the excess parking. Creating “streets as parks” in some strange suburban campus fantasy, though, could just be bad planning on the part of the developer. For that, you should look at other mega-projects and consider whether such parks strike the right balance of providing green space where it is needed versus deadening the neighborhood.

    What do you think of the interior park in northern Battery Park City (west of west street, south of Chambers, north of the world financial center)? (I’ve never looked at it critically.)

    Stuy Town, as you point out.

    Numerous public housing projects.

    The classic large housing development on the east side in the upper 30s (I am drawing a blank on the name…)

    My list is a little lacking, but if the debate comes down to “why not parks as plazas?” I would suggest we look at the data to compare and contrast.

  • ChrisCoo

    I really could care less about how much parking there is. As long as the parking is all underground and there are minimal entrances/exits (hopefully no more than 2), it doesn’t matter much to me if there are 3000 parking spaces.

    I also don’t mind the park/open space/water scrim, as it appears to be more within the development itself.

    What matters is that the frontage along the exterior streets (59th, 61st, West End Avenue) properly address the street. The retail (is it still to include a movie theatre?) should all open up to the exterior streets. Otherwise you end up with something awful like Seattle’s 2200 Westlake. And why would the developer NOT have the retail entrances on the exterior streets? If they face the interior of the development, they will be much less visible to passersby, thus less attractive for retail tenants.

  • How can I add a PDF?
    Batya

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