Volume 17 • Issue 21 | October 15 - 21, 2004

Talking Point

Courtesy of Richard Rogers Partnership/ SHoP Architects/ Ken Smith Landscape Architect

Rendering of the city’s proposal to build cafes under the F.D.R. Drive.

Can the waterfront improve much if the F.D.R. stays?

By Kit White

For decades, the East River shoreline between East River Park and Battery Park has languished as a forgotten remnant of a misbegotten vision to encircle Manhattan in a maze of roadways that denied access to its greatest asset. No major city has made so little of so much and taken so long to try to recoup its loss. With a plan unveiled last Wednesday, the city’s Economic Development Corp. and the City Planning Commission have finally turned their attention to creating a master plan to reclaim the south shoreline.

Richard Rogers Partnership of London and SHoP Architects and landscape architect Ken Smith of New York have laid out a long-term scheme to beautify and revitalize the riverfront and connect it with East River Park on the north and on the south at Battery Park. The southern connection to Battery Park is an elaborate, ramped park-scape whose structural and design complexity clearly reflects the teams’ belief that it represents the most critical element of the entire design. Additionally, the design calls for treating the underside of the F.D.R. Drive with lights and glass pavilions to house cultural and community amenities.

Using the existing elevated highway as their leitmotif for the waterfront’s potential, they further proposed the possibility of building slim residential towers above the F.D.R. as a means of raising revenue for the creation of up to 12 acres of park extending over the river. The design, as the three teams presented it, unfolded with a certain ineluctable logic: save money by leaving the elevated highway in place and exploit it for its developable space. As powerful as that logic is, it is the plan’s terrible trap and a fatal flaw that leads this design in the wrong direction.

According to the designers, there are two reasons to leave the F.D.R. in place: cost of removal and a shortage of space beneath the elevated roadway for enough lanes to accommodate traffic. For those who know the area, the rationale seems defective. The F.D.R. is an unsightly physical and visual barrier to the waterfront. If we are serious about reclaiming the waterfront for public access, then half-measures should be rejected. Do we really care about reconnecting to the shoreline, or do we simply wish to spend millions of dollars on what looks like a half-hearted attempt to make do with a bad situation?

The amount of traffic that courses under the F.D.R. down South St. is minimal and the elevated portion of the drive south of the Brooklyn Bridge is grossly underutilized. The claims that an eight-lane South St. would be required to accommodate traffic if the elevated roadway was removed seem exaggerated. Even six lanes would probably be unnecessary between the Brooklyn Bridge and the underpass. Four lanes should be able to handle the traffic in that stretch and if there were drop-off lanes by the Seaport then there would be no problem.

Additionally, if New York is serious about retaining its place as a great city of the world, then it must address the very real possibility of a future with less traffic, not more. The argument for the necessity of more and larger roads sounds suspiciously like the hyperbolic claims used to advance the ill-fated Westway project in the late ’70s. We now have the more humane and less costly solution to that failed argument, and Manhattan is better and more livable for it.

There is also something unsettling about the proposition that in order to have a public amenity as critical as a vital shoreline, private financing through jury-rigged towers atop an aging eyesore is the only way. There was a time when we did not feel that important public amenities had to pay their own way or that they were envisioned as extensions of the private sector. When the architect Richard Morris Hunt proposed that Central Park have elaborate entrance gates solely along Fifth Ave. across from the homes of the City’s wealthiest citizens, the park’s designer, Frederick Law Olmsted, quit in protest. It took years for the city to woo him back and his steadfast belief that the park was a gift to the people from the people is his great legacy to us. We should heed his example.

That the C.P.C. and E.D.C. have undertaken a master plan for the south shore is admirable and long overdue. But it offers little in the short term for the city’s beleaguered Downtown residents who have little parkland to call their own. Even over the life of this plan, there is little nature promised without caveats costly to its integrity as a true public space. Is this a plan for a real shoreline with the promise of parkland, or is it an elaborately masked proposal for more development? This plan seems to offer a vision of the future with very little vision in it.

Kit White is an artist and designer who restored his building in the South St. Seaport and lives in the neighborhood.

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