As New York City's Bloomberg administration comes to an end, one of its major accomplishments is coming into focus: the construction of a new middle-income neighborhood on the formerly industrial waterfront of Long Island City, Queens. Known as Hunter's Point South, the area includes thousands of apartments (many of which are permanently affordable), ground floor retail, a bold new school by FXFOWLE Architects, and an expansive new park designed by Thomas Balsley Associates and Weiss/Manfredi.
The park’s design displays clever pragmatism that capitalizes on the site’s assets. Lacking a dedicated conservancy, this city park needs to be tough and low maintenance. Balsley, a veteran of city public space projects, has figured out how to pack a visual and programmatic punch within a constrained budget.
The newly completed first phase is divided into four distinct zones: to the south a sandy “beach,” at the center a large lawn and amphitheater, to the north a decorative “rail garden,” and finally a dog park. The lawn is dominated by a large oval surrounded by curved, stepped terraces which create an amphitheater to watch games or take in the magnificent view of the East River and the midtown skyline. The oval serves a number of functions: it creates a focal point for the park, which opens up views on axis with the street; it also cleverly separates natural turf areas from the artificial turf within the oval (if the natural grass is green, the artificial turf appears seamless with the natural); it also serves as an athletic field for the new school across the street.
Weiss/Manfredi consolidated various park functions—bathrooms, storage, concession stand, shade structure—into one large curving pavilion that echoes the shape of the oval. A pleated metal canopy—angled to accommodate photovoltaic panels, which power the structure—extends almost to the water’s edge, and provides shade for a nearby ferry launch. Together, the oval and pavilion create a formal element that makes the park appear larger than it is, and one that emphasizes the horizon, including the UN, the Empire State building, and Kahn’s FDR Four Freedoms memorial.
North of the oval, the “rail garden” includes tracks aligned with the original right of way, punctuated by grasses and edged by walls of board-formed concrete. The designers used standard issue city streetlights, but shortened the posts to create more human scaled lighting, one of many resourceful and budget-conscious decisions. The garden is meant to recall the area’s industrial past, and while it is a pleasant space, it feels more like a threshold between the large lawn and the adjacent dog run than a destination of its own.
A new separated bike path lines the eastern edge of the park. Bioswales with gabion walls capture stormwater, and the entire park is designed to withstand floods and storm surges (the park, then under construction, survived Hurricane Sandy largely unscathed).
When the economy stalled the Bloomberg administration wisely pushed ahead with construction of the park and the school, correctly guessing that housing would quickly rebound and that the neighborhood would function better with these public amenities in place. Hunters Point South may stand as a good example of when Bloomberg’s integrated approach to architecture, landscape, real estate development, and public services actually lived up to his vision. In any case, residents of Queens now have an excellent new neighborhood park with a world-class view. For those from outside the area, it is well worth the ride on the 7 train, or better yet, the Bloomberg-approved East River Ferry.