Battery Park City creators reminisce about neighborhood’s past

Stanton Eckstut, creator of the master plan for Battery Park City in the late 1970s, leading a walk along the B.P.C. esplanade during an all-day conference called "Battery Park City: Coming of Age." Downtown Express photo by Terese Loeb Kreuzer

 

BY TERESE LOEB KREUZER  |  Battery Park City was merely a sandbox during the first 15 years of its existence, according to John Zuccotti, one of the neighborhood’s many prominent creators who appeared at 4 World Financial Center on May 31 to recount its storied history. The discussions were part of an all-day conference, “Battery Park City: Coming of Age,” that was convened by the Stephen L. Newman Real Estate Institute of the City University of New York’s Baruch College.

Were New York State Governor Nelson Rockefeller still alive, he might well have been there. But Charles J. Urstadt, whom Rockefeller appointed on July 24, 1968 to serve as the Battery Park City Authority’s first chairman, was the conference’s keynote speaker. Urstadt, a real estate investor, served as the B.P.C.A.’s chief executive officer from 1973 until 1978. He returned in 1996 as B.P.C.A. vice chairman, a post that he filled until 2010.

Urstadt debunked the popular theory that Battery Park City rests on a landfill made up of the excavation remnants of the former World Trade Center, claiming that only about one-fifth of the neighborhood’s 92 acres actually stem from the W.T.C. and that some of the remaining landfill comprised sand and earth from underneath the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. By 1978, the last of the landfill was put into place, Urstadt said.

The first idea for B.P.C., which was to erect residential buildings above a container shipping port, was quickly discarded, Urstadt recalled. Another short-lived proposal was to put a convention center in the northern part of B.P.C.

The neighborhood’s development early on was hampered by animosity between Gov. Rockeller and then New York Mayor John Lindsay, he explained. Though both were Republicans, it took a year for the warring politicians to agree on a proposal.

“The original [letter of] intent was to provide funds for the city to be used for affordable housing,” he said.

But the money was to go toward Mitchell-Lama developments and low-income housing elsewhere in the city, not to B.P.C. That is still how the neighborhood’s revenues are used when they’re not plugging city and state budget gaps.

Some of Urstadt’s recommendations for B.P.C. remain controversial.

“I would have torn down Pier A,” he said, referring to the late-19th century pier on the neighborhood’s southern flank. “It doesn’t have any historical significance.”

The B.P.C.A. is currently spending more than $36 million to renovate that pier, which will house a restaurant and visitors’ center once it opens in 2013.

Urstadt would also have filled in South Cove and erect a money-generating building there. He concluded his remarks by saying, “I recommend strongly that the City of New York exercise its option to buy Battery Park City for $1.” B.P.C., he said, is currently worth $30 billion.

Following Urstadt at the conference was an all-star parade of panelists who reminisced about how B.P.C. has evolved into an international prototype for “green” development.

“I believe that Battery Park City is the greatest urban development project of the latter part of the 20th century,” according to Zuccotti, the U.S. Chairman of Brookfield Office Properties, which has owned the World Financial Center since 1996.

Zuccotti said that B.P.C.’s planning and development was dictated by politics, economics and personnel. In the 1970s, the city’s economy collapsed and a real estate meltdown ensued.

In the mid-1970s, he said, “there was no promise of Battery Park City ever being built.”

At the time, Zuccotti served as the city’s deputy mayor under Mayor Abraham Beame. Subsequently, he served as chairman of Gov. Hugh L. Carey’s World Trade Center task force. Zuccotti referred to Carey as “the single most important element in the success of Battery Park City” along with Gov. Rockefeller.

Under Carey’s governance in 1978, the city and state reached an “understanding” that B.P.C. was to become a project dominated by the state while the city focused on redeveloping Times Square, according to Zuccotti.

The firm Cooper, Eckstut Associates was then hired to develop a master plan for B.P.C. Stanton Eckstut, now principal and director of another firm called Perkins Eastman, followed Zuccotti to the podium and proceeded to describe the daunting task that confronted him and his team.

“After 15 years, there was nothing there,” said Eckstut of B.P.C. “We had 12 weeks to develop a plan.”

A guiding principal was to extend existing Lower Manhattan streets into the B.P.C. landfill, he said, adding, “We did everything we could possibly do to be part of New York City.” Also of paramount importance was to get something built in a relatively short period of time so that people would believe that the project was more than just a pipe dream.

Amanda Burden, chair of the city’s Planning Commission and former vice president of planning and design for the Battery Park City Authority, praised Eckstut’s plan as one that “saved Battery Park City.”

Burden also spoke to the design and construction of the neighborhood’s waterfront esplanade, which she said is a hallmark of the community.

What would she have changed? “I think we should have exploded the architecture and made it more adventurous,” Burden said. Allocating B.P.C. funds toward affordable housing elsewhere in the city, she added, was a “terrible mistake.”

Subsequent panelists also spoke to the greening of the neighborhood. Former B.P.C.A. president Timothy S. Carey, whose administration brought about the area’s first green initiatives, said that B.P.C. Conservancy executive director Tessa Huxley’s pioneering work in the B.P.C. gardens inspired some of the thought about energy efficiency tactics for area buildings.

While this was a novel idea at the time, “It’s tough now to build a building that doesn’t meet green building standards,” said Carey.

“What was done in Battery Park City had a major influence across the country and across the globe,” according to Russell C. Albanese, chairman of the Albanese Organization, which erected three green buildings in B.P.C.

The question of what’s ahead for Battery Park City weighed on the minds of the next panel.

“All of the components of a functioning city are here,” said Martha Gallo, a B.P.C. resident for almost 30 years who was recently appointed to the B.P.C.A.’s board of directors.

Gallo expressed concern about the neighborhood’s commercial future, saying she wanted to “preserve our sense of community.”

“I’m a little worried about the sophistication of the retail coming to us,” she said. “We breathe a sigh of relief at 8 p.m. when the commuters are gone and we’re left with our sunsets and our spaces.”

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