Volume 74, Number 24 | Octuber 13 - 19 , 2004

Richard Rogers Partnership/SHoP Architects/Ken Smith Landscape Architect 

A rendering of the proposed pavilion under the F.D.R. Drive for the Lower East Side/South St. Seaport/Financial District area.

City floats East River towers-and-park idea

By Josh Rogers

After a half century or so of new East Side waterfront plans, city officials think they may have an idea that won’t end up with all of the others — that is, sleeping with the East River fishes. They are now considering building seven apartment towers over the F.D.R. Drive near Wall St. to pay for an additional 12 acres of park space from the Battery to East River Park.

The plan also includes creating the “Champs Elysées of the Lower East Side” along Pike and Allen Sts., creating a better southern entrance to East River Park, building a pedestrian/bicycle ramp connecting Battery Park to the East River esplanade, building new park spaces on Peck Slip and Pier 15 near the South St. Seaport and adding pavilion spaces under the F.D.R. for things like cafes, studios, cultural spaces and community centers. These improvements would not require building the towers and could be completed in phases over the next three to five years. Without the towers and the extra park space they would fund, the project is expected to cost at least $100 million and be paid for mostly with federal, post-9/11 money administered by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.

Amanda Burden, chairperson of the City Planning Commission, told The Villager she was hopeful the L.M.D.C. board would authorize the money by the end of the year. If so, construction on the short-term plans could begin by the end of next year.

The towers plan is considered a longer-term project. Up to seven narrow towers, perhaps as tall as 400 ft., would rise from the street through the center of the elevated F.D.R., one or two lanes of which would be removed in this area. The apartments could generate several hundred million dollars of revenue needed to build and maintain about 12 acres of new park space on “slips” over the river. Even though the slips would cover more of the water than the traditional piers in the Hudson River Park, city consultants say they would be designed to be friendly to marine life and the slips would have fewer structures in the river than piers. The State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Army Corps of Engineers have long been reluctant to approve projects that involve rebuilding or repairing piers because of the effects to fish.

City officials and consultants unveiled their plans at a Community Board 1 meeting last Wednesday at the City Planning Department hearing room, across the street from the C.B. 1 office. City Planning officials are expected to present the plan to Community Board 3 on Oct. 13 at 6:30 p.m., at Henry St. Settlement, 466 Grand St., Room G05.

The idea behind the new plan is to draw Downtowners to the East River, in the opinion of many, an underutilized park resource in large part because of the imposing, elevated F.D.R. Drive. One of the elements is to build a tree-lined, bench-filled boulevard along the Allen St.-Pike St. thoroughfare. “We think of it almost as the Champs Elysées of the Lower East Side,” said Gregg Pasquarelli of SHoP Architects, one of the project’s consultants.

Officials released renderings of the C.B. 1 section of the plan’s first phase — south of the Brooklyn Bridge — but did not release for publication the renderings of Pike and Allen Sts. because they wanted to let C.B. 3 members see it first at Wednesday’s meeting.

The plan also includes creating a wider and friendlier southern entrance to East River Park for pedestrians, joggers and cyclists coming up the esplanade. Architect Michael Davies, a director of Richard Rogers Partnership, said the amount the southern entrance can be improved is limited by the fact that there is still a Department of Sanitation truck garage nearby on a large pier shed.

Davies, who works in London, said the plan would help New York catch up to other cities by making better use of its rivers.

“The waterfront is way below the stature of this great city,” Davies told C.B. 1 members. “[This will] turn it into the front yard for Downtown.”

The first-phase improvements were designed by Rogers Partnership, SHoP and landscape architect Ken Smith. They also include the pedestrian/bicycle ramp connection near the historic Battery Maritime Building near the southern tip of Manhattan, a reflecting pool plaza to replace the Fulton Fish Market parking area on Peck Slip, rebuilding open space on Pier 15 near John St., and could include things like 1,000 birch trees along the waterfront and a small beach area near the Brooklyn Bridge.

Downtowners familiar with the plan reacted favorably to its park aspects, although some questioned the wisdom of building towers over the F.D.R. and building the expensive Battery Maritime ramp connection in the first phase, when in their view, there were more pressing park needs.

Randy Polumbo, who lives and works in the South St. Seaport area, said he liked most aspects of the plan, but he thought it would be better to take down the elevated F.D.R. He said he has to constantly clean his windows because of car fumes from the highway.

“We don’t really have a view corridor, we have an F.D.R. corridor,” said Polumbo. “The F.D.R. is so ugly. I feel like you are threading this large intestine through this jewel.”

Polumbo, who owns two Seaport buildings, went on to say that if Lower Manhattan had “to sell its soul” to accept more large buildings, it is important to make sure the buildings are architecturally significant and that some of the grit of the historic Seaport neighborhood be preserved when the Fulton Fish Market moves to the Bronx sometime at the beginning of next year.

City Planning’s Burden told Polumbo: “I loved what you said.”

As for taking down the F.D.R., which is six lanes wide in this area, consultants did consider it but decided not to do it because they said it would have required an eight-lane, street level roadway. Polumbo said there is so little traffic under the F.D.R. that he thought you could maintain just six lanes of F.D.R. traffic at street level without creating traffic problems.

The Downtown Alliance and C.B. 1 did a joint study of the area several years ago and concluded that the F.D.R. should not be taken down and the area underneath could be used for pavilions similar to the city’s current plan. The study also considered closing a few lanes of the F.D.R. to create a walkway. Now the reduced lanes may be used to create space for cores for new residential buildings in a six-block area north and south of Wall St. C.B. 3 also opposed an at-grade F.D.R., feeling it would mean more traffic spilling into local streets.

The new apartments would be attached to the cores and cantilever over the highway to the east with waterfront views and no western windows facing Lower Manhattan’s skyscrapers. The floor plate for each building would be small, about 5,000 sq. ft., which could accommodate several apartments per floor.

SHoP’s Pasquarelli said the buildings could be built without closing any additional lanes of the F.D.R. during construction. The lowest level apartments would be over the roadway and be the equivalent of five stories off of the ground.

Paul Goldstein, C.B. 1’s district manager, said the short-term plans were “under-whelming” because so much of the money is being used for the Maritime ramp. “I think we are deferring everything for 10 or 20 years,” said Goldstein. He said the plans for open space on Pier 15 looked to be geared to accommodate tall ships and not the most important park need on the East Side — play space for children.

City Planning officials stressed that it was still early in the process, but seemed much more willing to modify the design for Pier 15 than drop building the Battery Maritime Building ramp connection.

For many years, Burden has been a strong advocate for creating a continuous esplanade around Manhattan and said the ramp was an important piece to the goal. She said the Maritime Building ramp would be considerably less than $50 million, although precise figures have not been worked out.

Vishaan Chakrabarti, Manhattan office director of City Planning, said the city is still talking with the L.M.D.C. about whether the state-city agency is willing to cover the costs of the ramp.

Like Burden, Chakrabarti said he is confident a large amount of L.M.D.C. money is coming soon for the first phase of the project. “We are optimistic about that,” he told board members. “As we go into the more ambitious schemes, there is no identifiable funding.”

That’s why the residential buildings would be needed, he added. If the plan advances, the city expects to issue long-term ground leases to developers, similar to the way Battery Park City was constructed. For 30 years, Downtown’s East River waterfront was zoned to be landfilled to create an East Side version of B.P.C., but the plan never got close to being approved by the Army Corps and the zoning was changed in the 1990s.

Carl Weisbrod, president of the Downtown Alliance and an L.M.D.C. board member, said he is happy to see the movement to improve the waterfront, but he has reservations about the towers plan.

The first phase would require moving the tour buses and cars that currently park under the F.D.R. Moving the parking has long been a goal of C.B. 1 and C.B. 3, the city and others, but there is still no alternative site.

If the parking is moved it would set up pavilion space for retail near well-traveled streets like Wall and Fulton Sts., and opportunities to bring in cultural and community spaces near other streets, Chakrabarti said.

Some owners of nearby buildings are beginning to react negatively to the towers part of the plan, concerned about the loss of river views and the effects to the F.D.R., which would be reduced by one or two lanes.

“To me the drive is an asset,” Harry Bridgwood, who manages the massive office building at 55 Water St., said in a telephone interview. He said prospective commercial tenants typically want to make sure that black car limousines will be able to get to and from the building quickly. Condo owners at 3 Hanover Sq., who opposed a proposal several years ago to build a trading-floor office tower at 55 Water St. on an elevated plaza, may also raise objections.

The new buildings would line up with the streets to create clear access to the river, and protect whatever river view corridors exist in spite of the elevated roadway.

The seven proposed buildings combined, would include a maximum of about 1 million sq. ft. City Planning officials said they were open to building fewer or smaller buildings, but that would also mean the new park space would be reduced. They believe they can finance 2 sq. ft. of park space for every 3 sq. ft. of apartment space, although detailed financial plans with various options are still being studied.

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