Designing a new water’s edge for the Upper East Side and Harlem

CIVITAS "Reimagining the Waterfront" competition, First Prize: Joseph Wood, designer (via CIVITAS)

Reimag­in­ing the Water­front” com­pe­ti­tion, First Prize: Joseph Wood, design­er. Click to expand (via CIVITAS)

The East River Esplanade, a 2-mile-long city-owned pub­lic park that runs from 63rd to 125th Street, was already being crit­i­cized by res­i­dents as being a bleak and poor­ly main­tained pub­lic space when Hur­ri­cane Sandy hit, expos­ing the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of the entire water­front. Swol­len har­bor waters swamped the upper sec­tion of the park and washed into East Harlem; now, atten­tion turns to a com­plete reimag­in­ing of the shore­line along this neglect­ed stretch of Man­hat­tan.

Pre­lim­i­nary plans for ren­o­vat­ing the Esplanade were actu­al­ly in the works before the storm; the Depart­ment of City Plan­ning drew up a pro­pos­al for rede­vel­op­ment of the East River Esplanade as a part of Vision 2020, which aims to improve access, enhance pedes­tri­an con­nec­tiv­i­ty, and cre­ate water­front ameni­ties for pub­lic enjoy­ment and recre­ation, while bol­ster­ing the city’s resilience in the face of extreme weath­er events.

panel discussion

CIVITAS pan­elists, from left to right: Gregg Pas­querel­li, Charles Birn­baum, Michael Mar­rel­la, Cecil­ia Ale­mani, and Al Apple­ton; (Pho­to: Jason Diaz)

To add momen­tum to the pub­lic dri­ve for a new park, CIVITAS, a com­mu­ni­ty-led orga­ni­za­tion focused on neigh­bor­hood qual­i­ty of life in the Upper East Side and East Harlem, recent­ly held an exten­sive pan­el dis­cus­sion on the future of the East River Esplanade; the talk was pre­sent­ed at the Nation­al Acad­e­my on Fifth Avenue.

CIVITAS has long been an advo­cate for a bet­ter water­front park, host­ing sev­er­al com­mu­ni­ty vision­ing events and, dur­ing 2012, a notable design com­pe­ti­tion, for which the win­ning entries were exhib­it­ed at the Muse­um of the City of New York. (Detail from the first place con­cept, by Joseph Wood, is shown at top of this page.)

The group on stage at the Octo­ber pan­el includ­ed archi­tects, plan­ners, design­ers, artists, and envi­ron­men­tal­ists, who shared some­times com­pet­ing ideas for ways a new pub­lic space can serve the city and the nat­u­ral envi­ron­ment.

pier 15 (2)

Con­tem­po­rary bar-stool seat­ing look­ing out over the East River at Pier 15 (SHoP Archi­tects)

The CIVITAS pan­el dis­cus­sion began with a pre­sen­ta­tion by SHoP Archi­tects found­ing part­ner, Gregg Pas­querel­li. SHoP has water­front projects in two loca­tions—Mitchell Park and its Cam­era Obscu­ra sculp­tural instal­la­tion (in Green­port, NY), and the East River Esplanade South and East River Waterfront/Pier 15 (South Street Sea­port in Man­hat­tan)— which were shown as exam­ples of how a water­front site can provide social and recre­ation­al space and be adven­tur­ous at the same time.

pier 15 (1)

Pier 15 dou­ble-deck­er green space. (SHoP Archi­tects)

SHoP’s work shows clev­er space uti­liza­tion in the dou­ble-deck­er green-roof piers at Pier 15, as well as attrac­tive light­ing strate­gies and seat­ing arrangements—red ceil­ing light­ing which help to cre­ate a more roman­tic space at night, and water­front bar-stools that appeal to patrons who may wish to read, eat and drink, or sim­ply con­verse with friends over a stun­ning view of Brook­lyn and down­town Man­hat­tan.

In Green­port, NY, a new town park encour­aged com­mu­ni­ty inter­ac­tion and par­tic­i­pa­tion, added res­i­den­tial appeal, and fos­tered a real-estate boom. SHoP’s work relies on mixed-use design strate­gies to help attract a wider audi­ence, fit­ting the recre­ation­al needs of a more diverse pop­u­la­tion. The exam­ples also showed smart fund­ing strate­gies, specif­i­cal­ly in the East River Esplanade South project, where air rights locat­ed under the FDR Dri­ve are being sold in order to help pay for project devel­op­ment.

Pan­elists praised exper­i­men­ta­tion, and cul­tur­al aware­ness

Charles Birn­baum, Founder and Pres­i­dent of The Cul­tur­al Land­scape Foun­da­tion, fol­lowed SHoP’s pre­sen­ta­tion by ask­ing: how do we mea­sure suc­cess in a post-Sandy sit­u­a­tion? There is always an empha­sis on envi­ron­men­tal­ism and aes­thet­ics, but Birn­baum argued that cul­ture should have an equal­ly impor­tant place in the con­ver­sa­tion; that peo­ple should be look­ing at devel­op­ment with the goal of turn­ing a project into a “new ‘World Her­itage site”; and that atten­tion to cul­ture in devel­op­ment is the dif­fer­ence between a suc­cess­ful project and just an aver­age project.

planter boxes

Homoge­nous design becomes dull; shown on the East River

Birn­baum warns us of the homo­gene­ity of land­scapes and devel­op­ment, but also prais­es the lev­el of exper­i­men­ta­tion that seems to be occur­ring in the last decade where devel­op­ers, design­ers, and archi­tects are increas­ing­ly mov­ing away from homo­ge­neous designs and con­cepts. He asks design­ers, archi­tects and plan­ners to incor­po­rate cul­ture and his­to­ry into their projects, as to teach peo­ple “how to see and val­ue land­scape and land­scape archi­tec­ture in a way that they are hard­wired to look at archi­tec­ture in the built envi­ron­ment.”

Birn­baum end­ed his com­ments with the “Four — C’s”—Collections, or the liv­ing and non-liv­ing in a given area; Com­mu­ni­ty, or the con­text in which the­se col­lec­tions work and play with each oth­er; Con­tain­ers, the build­ings in the­se spaces; and Con­text, the phys­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal setting—the ele­ments he believes are impor­tant for suc­cess­ful land­scape devel­op­ments.

vision 2020Com­mu­ni­ty involve­ment and par­tic­i­pa­tion became the next area of focus as the Direc­tor of Water­front and Open Space of New York City’s Depart­ment of City Plan­ning, Michael Mar­rel­la, took the floor.

Do we have the water­front that we want going for­ward?”  In order to get the right answer to this ques­tion, accord­ing to Mar­rel­la, com­mu­ni­ty par­tic­i­pa­tion is com­plete­ly nec­es­sary. And as a result, the Depart­ment of City Planning’s Vision 2020: New York City Com­pre­hen­sive Water­front Plan was cre­at­ed from a year-long pub­lic plan­ning process that entailed going out to each com­mu­ni­ty in prox­im­i­ty to a NYC water­front and invit­ing them to par­tic­i­pate in orga­nized work­shops, where the com­mu­ni­ties were not only asked what they want out of the water­front, but also what it would take to get there.

Why does it take so long to build a park in NYC? Mul­ti­ple agen­cies, but also pub­lic review.

Mar­rel­la empha­sized that pub­lic out­reach works to chal­lenge the plan­ning process to serve the com­mu­ni­ty best, rather than assem­bling the pub­lic for the pur­pose of cre­at­ing lengthy, impos­si­ble wish lists. Mar­rel­la also brought up the thick­et of envi­ron­men­tal and water­front reg­u­la­tions and the “hor­ror sto­ries” that come with them, where 6-mon­th projects on paper turn into 8-year projects in real­i­ty due to per­mit wait times and oth­er delays, and how there needs to be a more pre­dictable, reli­able, and effi­cient process that avoids the­se unwant­ed set­backs while mak­ing sure not to low­er our envi­ron­men­tal stan­dards.

Vision 2020 plan

An exam­ple of the Vision 2020’s plan for the NYC water­front; (NYC Depart­ment of City Plan­ning)

As in all well-round­ed pan­el dis­cus­sions, Al Apple­ton, for­mer Com­mis­sion­er of the New York City Depart­ment of Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion and Direc­tor of New York City Water and Sew­er sys­tem, pre­sent­ed con­trast­ing view­points on how to man­age the East River Esplanade. Instead of focus­ing on build­ing and devel­op­ment, land­scape archi­tec­ture and hous­ing (part of the City’s mas­ter plan for the water­fronts also includes water­front hous­ing), Apple­ton urges that we reclaim the water­front; but that we reclaim it not to serve real-estate pur­pos­es or improved apart­ment views, but rather to rein­tro­duce nature to the water­front.

A call for rein­tro­duc­ing nature to the water­front along the Upper East Side.

Apple­ton believes that, if resilien­cy is a pri­or­i­ty, plan­ners will rec­og­nize that reestab­lish­ing nature at the water’s edge is the most effec­tive method avail­able. Apple­ton sub­mits three man­dates on how to deal with the East River Esplanade (and the rest of the city’s water­front, for that mat­ter): 1) there should be absolute­ly no new high-rise devel­op­ment on the water­front, 2) nat­u­ral areas on the water­front should be repro­duced and restored, such as Jamaica Bay and the Rock­aways, and 3) the FDR Dri­ve should be trans­formed and retro­fitted in order to make way for a more nat­u­ral coastline—he even sug­gests get­ting rid of it all togeth­er, which is a remark­able sug­ges­tion as most plans take the Robert Moses-era road­way as a given.

Apple­ton also cri­tiques Marrella’s ref­er­ence to the “hor­ror sto­ries” of the reg­u­la­to­ry process, where 6-mon­th projects turn into 8-year projects. Apple­ton argues that the polit­i­cal process is nec­es­sary; added wait times usu­al­ly include more com­mu­ni­ty par­tic­i­pa­tion and involve­ment, and that com­mu­ni­ties should be wary and skep­ti­cal of fast, steam-rolled devel­op­ment projects, as they tend to ignore civic con­sen­sus.

As the last pre­sen­ter, Cecil­ia Ale­mani, Cura­tor at High Line Art, spoke of the impor­tance of art in pub­lic spaces. She updat­ed the audi­ence on the mul­ti­ple types of media that are cur­rent­ly cir­cu­lat­ing in the High Line Park, as well as how the High Line is cre­at­ing new con­cepts for parks and rein­vent­ing the art space. Along with com­mis­sioned work, the High Line has intro­duced a num­ber of per­for­mance works, as well as inter­ac­tive and engag­ing video pro­jec­tions — all of which, Ale­mani sug­gests, should be tak­en into con­sid­er­a­tion in the new East River Esplanade. And with the incor­po­ra­tion of art into the park, the esplanade can bet­ter address the cul­tur­al needs that Birn­baum men­tioned ear­lier in what tru­ly makes a suc­cess­ful water­front space.

To wrap up the entire pan­el dis­cus­sion into one coher­ent mes­sage, it might sound some­thing like this: In order for the East River Esplanade that runs from 63rd to 125th Street to become a tru­ly suc­cess­ful pub­lic space that serves the needs of the com­mu­ni­ty, it must have a dar­ing yet smart design that inte­grates art and cul­ture, and meets the con­cerns of the com­mu­ni­ty and the envi­ron­ment. Given the new real­i­ties of cli­mate change, this space must play a role in coastal pro­tec­tion, but also should simul­ta­ne­ous­ly attract and appeal to all peo­ple in a social and recre­ation­al con­text.

The vital­i­ty of the dis­cus­sion and the depth of the ideas on the table show how New York con­tin­ues to enjoy a renais­sance in the con­fi­dent and inven­tive design of pub­lic space.

If the­se weights and mea­sures are tak­en dur­ing the rede­vel­op­ment of the East River Esplanade, it seems that the Upper East Side and East Harlem will have a new, vision­ary way to get to the water’s edge in their neigh­bor­hoods, with a pub­lic ameni­ty that will stretch for miles up the East Side, per­haps even restor­ing a glimpse of the nat­u­ral land­scape, and habi­tat, that graced the island once upon a time.