East Side Story

Courtesy WXY

The waterfront of Lower Manhattan, a vestige of maritime commerce and industrial conditions suitable for the dockworkers of centuries past, is slated for yet another face-lift. The East River, a tidal strait connecting the Harlem River to the Upper Bay of the New York Harbor, has been in the limelight recently. Brooklyn Bridge Park; Williamsburg, Brooklyn; Roosevelt Island; and Long Island City, Queens to name a few, have all been revitalized in recent years to accommodate a new class of recreationalists and market-rate dwellers alike. However, development on the river’s western edge has been far more sparse, until now. A 3.5-mile stretch from the Manhattan-side embankment of the Brooklyn Bridge to East 38th Street is set to begin transformation by the end of this year.

Members of Community Boards 6 and 3 have been advocating for upgrades to their local waterfront spaces; namely, Stuyvesant Cove and Piers 35/36-42 respectively, for nearly two decades. A sea change occurred when these two factions coalesced and got the attention of Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and State Assemblymember Brian Kavanaugh. Together, with the collaboration of the Lower East Side Ecology Center, the city has challenged WXY Architecture + Urban Design with the task of concocting a plan to connect Lower Manhattan with its eastern edge. The result is the East River Blueway Plan—a community-based planning initiative named for its focus on access and connectivity on the water.

Map of waterfront infrastructure.

Adam Lubinsky, a managing partner at WXY, believes in a comprehensive planning strategy. “The East River Blueway Plan will be the foundation for an interconnected network of waterfront sites.” Easier said than done. Much of the waterfront is severed from the city by the FDR Drive, a high-speed roadway that soars and dips. The focus, according to Lubinsky, “is on those who can walk there.” WXY, with Borough President Stringer and Assembly member Kavanaugh, have publicly engaged the communities since September of 2011, often hearing about local desires to cross the highway.

Unfortunately, the FDR Drive is not the only obstacle. Superblocks of towers-in-the-park housing, poor drainage, a mixture of active and inactive waterfront industry, and many other factors add up to discourage development on this site. ADA-inaccessible overpasses; narrow, collision-inducing bike lanes; and combined sewage overflows have also been identified as key issues. However, in a recent interview, Lubinsky spoke optimistically of the site’s conditions. “The infrastructure there creates a really hard edge, and all of the buildings built over the past 80 years have turned their back to the river.” The challenge, he continues, “is to get residents to turn around, to realize the river is there, to be aware of it and to start to use it more.” Soon, if the hopes of community members are realized, New Yorkers may be biking along and even kayaking and swimming in the East River.

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