When SHoP Architects unveiled schematic plans for the East River Esplanade at a meeting of the waterfront committee of Community Board 1 on October 22, the designs became the latest component of the battle over the future of the city’s waterfront. After years of dereliction and neglect, the city has finally cleaned up its rivers, and both people and fish are returning, thanks in part to a string of parks that now ring the city. While most people seem pleased with this, the city’s maritime community is not. For them, SHoP’s plans are just the latest slight in an ongoing fight over the soul of the city’s rivers.
It would be hard for anyone to deny that SHoP’s proposal is a vast improvement over what it will replace. Running for two miles underneath FDR Drive from the Battery north to East River Park, the East River Esplanade will replace a wasteland of worn-down bricks and asphalt strewn with broken glass. It will provide restored views of the waterfront and pavilions for public space. The question for the city’s mariners, though, is whether or not it will be inviting for boats.
“You probably mentioned planters 60 times, boats never, and ships twice,” Lee Gruzen, chair of SeaportSpeaks, told SHoP’s Gregg Pasquarelli at the committee meeting. “For 350 years there has been a kind of excitement on the waterfront. This makes us couch potatoes. I want to do something new you can’t do anywhere else.” The biggest concern is a rebuilt Pier 15, which has two levels, one for watercraft and one for recreation. SHoP sought to carve out pieces of the pier to expose its foundational structure. The pier in part resembles a fractured hill, covered in jagged slopes and topped with trees that will no doubt startle those driving by on the FDR. Julie Nadel, chair of the waterfront committee and a member of the Hudson River Park, called the designs more of the same. “They forgot to do the part where the boats dock,” she told AN. “It’s a very good, fanciful design, but it doesn’t do what it was asked to do, which is provide a place to dock a boat. Until it does, the plan is a failure.”
Pasquarelli insists these fears are unfounded. “They’re just staking out their position,” he said. “It’s a schematic design, and you can’t make judgments based on that. Just because I haven’t specified the cleats yet doesn’t mean there won’t be sufficient access.”
“Boating is one of our top priorities,” he added. “They’ve got 50 percent of the site, they just don’t realize it yet.”
While nautical access may still be in dispute, there is no question the plan vastly improves connections to the water from the land. This begins with the “calming of South Street,” Pasquarelli said. “It will become a typical New York City side street.” There will be one-lane in each direction with the remaining pavement given over to a 12-foot bicycle lane separated from the street by a planted berm.
Cyclists are set apart from the promenade by the FDR’s concrete pylons. Beneath the overpass stand glassed-in pavilions that serve a range of potential public uses, from shops and cafes to dojos and galleries. Beyond that is a 60- to 120-foot boardwalk edged by 30 to 40 feet of landscaping and a final 20 feet of boardwalk. A sinuous railing provides protection and, at its widest points, a table complete with bar stools. At night, these features are illuminated by light reflected off the FDR’s girders.
Most of these features disappear at the cross streets, where SHoP has devised what Pasquarelli called “get downs.” Part step, part aquatic amphitheater, their true purpose is to provide unblocked views of the water down the area’s historic slips. “It reminds you that this is a place where ships used to come right up into the city,” he said.