Volume 19 Issue 44 | March 16 - 22, 2007

Seaport residents say Peck plan won’t sail

By Skye H. McFarlane

The Parks Department’s new plan for a “ghost ship” piazza at Peck Slip was torpedoed Tuesday night by several Community Board 1 members, who criticized the design as unwelcoming and lacking in greenery.

“This is an outrage,” said Seaport Committee chairperson John Fratta, halting the Parks representatives partway through their presentation. “We’re seeing a piazza with a few trees and you’re calling it green space.”

Although many members of the committee and the public praised the design for its good architectural quality and use of historic materials, only two people at the meeting said they would like the design to go forward. The committee voted unanimously to reject the plans and asked Parks to come back with a design that balances historic character with landscaped park space, as the board had asked for in its October 2006 resolution on the matter.

Somewhat baffled by the rebuff, Lawrence Mauro of the Parks Department said that the design team “might have misinterpreted” what the community wanted in the space. For several months last year, the community board wrestled over whether to ask for a park or a piazza at Peck Slip, eventually requesting a combination of the two. Mauro described the benches, trees and sunken center of the design as concessions to the park proponents, since many piazza backers had wanted a flat, unencumbered space.

“We want to work with you. I absolutely heard what you said at previous meetings,” Mauro said, sounding genuinely hurt by the community’s reaction.

The design, intended to evoke a ship with its bow pointed inland toward the narrow end of the triangular-shaped park, includes 12 trees — four in a line to the east of Front St. and eight more in a cluster to the west of Front St., which bisects the park geographically but would not be open to thru traffic under the current plan. The eastern, wider portion of the site would be sunken below street level, giving park users some separation from the traffic around them.

The bottom of the sunken area would be paved with the same granite cobblestone blocks that currently cover the slip, but the blocks would be rearranged in an undulating pattern and mixed with flecks of glass to resemble a “rushing stream.” Underneath the streamlike pattern of stones, a current of actual water would flow, emptying into a small 4-inch-deep wading pool at the western end of the basin. The water would also be seen under metal grates on the sides of the basin and could be heard by plaza visitors.

To the west of the sunken basin, at street level, granite benches would sit under the trees. This shaded westernmost third of the park would taper to a tall stone spire with a light on top, representing the ship’s prow. In the committee’s least-favorite design element, the northern edge of the park would be lined with rib-shaped vertical steel posts that the landscape architects said “represent the ghosts of ships that might have docked there in the past.” In practical terms, the ribs would function as traffic barriers.

“This is going to look like a memorial to the Arizona or Hiroshima or something,” said committee member Paul Hovitz, finding the maritime theme more chilly than charming.

The committee argued that the Parks Department designers had ignored the needs of the Seaport’s growing residential community. Instead, committee members said, Parks had geared its Peck Slip plans towards gaining approval from preservationists, some of whom think that trees and greenery are out of context in the famously gritty historic district.

Any design for the former docking slip, which currently serves as a free-for-all parking area, will have to be approved by both the city Landmarks Preservation Commission and State Historic Preservation Office. The city Department of Transportation, which is revamping the curbs and cobblestone streets in the slip, already had one of its plans rejected by L.P.C.

Board member Noel Jefferson, who sits on C.B. 1’s Landmarks Committee, said Tuesday that the design was historically inappropriate not because of its trees, but because of its harsh, futuristic feel. Roger Byrom, who chairs the Landmarks Committee, said Wednesday that he wasn’t surprised the Seaport Committee had rejected the design. On March 8, the Landmarks Committee passed a resolution supporting the design’s nod to maritime history but calling upon the architects to make the space warmer and consider the needs of area residents. Byrom said that the full board would likely keep the two committees’ resolutions separate, since one represents a strictly architectural set of concerns while the other represents the voice of the neighborhood.

“We are desperate for green space in Lower Manhattan and I don’t think they [city officials] hear us,” said Skip Blumberg, head of Friends of City Hall Park. “They are creating a nightmare city of the future with high density and no place to just breathe.”

Several residents expressed concerns that the park’s nighttime lighting would be too dim. The committee also reiterated worries that the plaza’s sparse, open basin would become a gathering place for street vendors, skateboarders, and performing panhandlers, also known as buskers. The committee first expressed anxiety about potential open space problems during its October meeting, but those concerns never made it into the board’s most recent Peck Slip resolution.

Still, not everyone was displeased with the Parks Department plan. One resident in favor of the piazza said he was tired of park advocates speaking for him. Lee Gruzen, who led the campaign for a lawn-free open piazza as a part of the Seaport Community Coalition, praised the design and asked Parks to continue honoring the slip’s history in its plans for the future.

“You know I’m going to love it,” Gruzen told Mauro, expressing her delight at the creative reuse of the granite block cobblestones. “It’s recognizable as Peck Slip…The warmth and the life will come from the use of it.”

On Wednesday, a Parks Department spokesperson said in an email that the department could not release renderings of the Peck Slip design because “it has not been approved yet and [Parks] will be making some changes.”

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