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When the renovation of Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway is completed next spring, 15 years will have passed since parkway resident Marge Louer started a petition to restore and update the Olmsted/Vaux-designed median at the head of this old Brooklyn avenue.
With paving and benches installed by Thanksgiving, the project is nearly complete. The grand finale will be the spring tree planting.
“It is so much better. It is how it should have looked when it was changed in the 1920s to put in the subway,” said former Prospect Park Alliance President Tupper Thomas.
In 1998, Louer reached out to Thomas to take on the project. “We worked with the community to come up with a design and a cost,” recalled Thomas. “Council Member James Davis was going to fund it, but he was killed before he could,” referring to the city councilman who was fatally shot in 2003. Subsequently, the Eastern Parkway project failed to win council funding.
Courtesy NYC Parks Photo Archive
Cultural organizations along the decrepit Parkway took the initiative themselves to spruce up the area. The Brooklyn Public Library was renovated; the Brooklyn Botanic Garden reaffirmed its stature, with a new entrance by the former Polshek Partnership and a visitor center by Weiss Manfredi; and the Brooklyn Museum of Art likewise boosted its image as Brooklyn’s high-end community center, with a sweeping new glass entrance and public plaza, also by Polshek.
Ultimately, at the request of then-then Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg provided the $4 million needed, but the scope of the project soon expanded to include a new roadbed, significant roadway alterations, and replacement of the vintage-1880 sewer pipes. In the end, an acronym soup of agencies had their hands in the project: DDC, DOT, DPR, DEP, MTA, and the Landmarks Commission, as well as the Design Commission. The final tally came in at over $18.6 million, with funding from not only the city but federal sources, including earmarks by the now former U.S. Rep. Major Owens. Stimulus funding ultimately closed the gap.
Like everything Olmsted touched, Eastern Parkway instantly gained national significance when it was constructed in the 1870s. Along with Ocean Parkway, it was part of Olmsted’s vision of a contiguous greenway connecting Prospect Park and smaller neighborhood parks with the city’s more bucolic edges. Using the boulevards of Paris as a model, the design for the parkway would accommodate ribbons of transportation: pedestrians, bikes, and carriages that would drive under a canopy of trees. Because the roadway was predicted to be heavily used, the roadbed itself was made of durable macadam, recently invented by a Scottish engineer but still not widely used in the 1870s.
Flashing forward to present day, the new median has been redesigned to better accommodate today’s transportation choices. The service road has been narrowed and the median itself widened to allow for an ample bike lane. That path is sited at a higher elevation, setting it off from the busy roadway. A westbound lane of traffic was eliminated to allow for pedestrian islands at crosswalks. At Washington Avenue, the median has been lengthened to make crossings shorter. Pedestrian signage has also been installed at this busy intersection, where drivers are often spatially disoriented because of the wide expanse created by the service road that flanks the northern side.
In addition to transportation safety measures, historic lampposts have been installed. DDC anticipates that the benches—the Central Park Settee, designed in the style of Olmsted’s parks—and plaques commemorating fallen World War I soldiers will be in place by Thanksgiving. (At some point the 100-plus plaques were removed and some were lost. Reproductions are being installed for the missing ones.)
While the Eastern Parkway project nods to the past, its traffic improvements and landscape innovations also make it modern. Hexagonal asphalt pavers were recently installed, leaving residents concerned that the neighborhood was being returned to a “same-old/ same-old” ambiance. Specifically, the 1920s pavers put in place following local subway construction became warped and buckled, making walking, let alone pushing a stroller, treacherous.
But today’s paving system is new and improved, according to Prospect Park Alliance landscape architect Christian Zimmerman, who is the chief designer of the landscape component. A two-foot layer of structural soil was laid first, allowing for compaction; topsoil came next, to allow the tree roots to stretch out. Then came reinforced concrete, in case an errant garbage truck should one day wander onto the median.
Greenery is also on its way: Since many of the original trees have died over the years, Zimmerman and his company will soon tag a variety of trees at New York state nurseries for an April planting, including sweet gum, swamp white oak, pink oak, willow oak, and rotundiloba sweetgum.
“We are trying not to have a monoculture in hopes of preventing disease,” he explained.
The subway has gone disco thanks to a new hallucinatory lighting installation by New Mexico-born artist Leo Villareal. Hive incorporates a network of LED tube-lights forming hexagonal webbing on the low-rise ceilings of the Bleecker Street subway station. The individual hives outline a honeycomb and illuminate the newly opened transfer passage from one uptown train to another. Encoded computer programming generates random light patterns where the LEDs change colors, altering from florescent lavender to psychedelic green. The playful, hypnotic light adds liveliness and sparkle to an otherwise nerve-racking commute. Villareal’s exploration of the element of chance in his work brings his light sculpture to life. Hive’s dynamism bridges the color, light, and space of the station to create an entrancing atmosphere.
Villareal found inspiration for his lighting randomization from British mathematician John Horton Conway’s Game of Life. Life is a cellular automaton in which a two-dimensional grid of cells interacting determines their survival, reproduction, and death. The unpredictable flashing and morphing of the LEDs echo the erratic ever-changing nature of the city itself and, perchance, the irregular possibility of your train showing up on time.
Well aware that the areas of greatest density often have the least public space, James Ramsey, the principal of RAAD Studio, set out to tap into New York City’s infrastructure for an exciting alternative to the above ground park. Instead of looking skyward à la the High Line, Ramsey ventured down into what he calls “the historical bowels of the city.” On the site of a 1.5-acre abandoned trolley terminal that lies under Delancey Street on the Lower East Side, the Lowline is poised to be New York’s most radical park project yet.
Here, remote skylights will not only transmit enough sunlight underground to see by, but enough to grow a wide variety of plants. “It was almost a philosophy on how you could get light down into places that wouldn’t normally get it,” said Ramsey. “When you start thinking about that you realize how much potential there would be for something that could bring natural daylight into dark spaces.”
In March, Ramsey and the Lowline’s co-founder, Dan Barasch, launched a Kickstarter campaign that raised $155,000 to fund the development of the remote skylights and construct a fully functional life-size installation to show to the community and prove to the MTA that not only is their idea popular, but it’s feasible as well. On September 13th, Ramsey, Barasch, and R. Boykin Curry IV, the project’s first major donor, will present a “mini” Lowline, a 30-foot-by-30 foot-by-20-foot canopy and green space installed inside the Essex Street Market. The event will include Vin Cipolla, president of the Municipal Arts Society, Mark Wigley, dean of Columbia University’s GSAPP, Loren Angelo, general manager of brand marketing at Audi of America, and John Alschuler, the chairman of the High Line, who will be announcing the results of the project’s financial and engineering studies.
Lizzy Zevallos / Lowline
Edward Jacobs, a former high-performance motorcycle designer at Confederate Motors, who Ramsey describes as “a visionary and pretty much the most talented guy I’ve ever met,” is overseeing the fabrication and installation of the canopy. In brief, Jacobs designed a system of 600 laser-cut hexagonal and triangular anodized aluminum panels that form a tessellated curve designed to reflect the light gathered by the remote skylights down into the underground space. Because the curved ceiling-scape is so specialized, no two panels are exactly alike. Each have slight differences in length or width that allow Jacobs to create a form that maximizes the reflectivity of the natural sunlight directed into the park—and he did it in less than two months.
The public will have its chance to swoon at the installation in the two weeks following its unveiling. Then the hard work really begins. Apart from creating a convincing proposal for the MTA that outlines all aspects of the project and addresses their needs and concerns, Ramsey and Barasch must focus on fundraising, a task made somewhat less daunting by the project’s widespread support as well as claims that the Lowline will require only a fraction of what the High Line cost to construct. State Senator Daniel Squadron, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez are all already singing the Lowline’s praises, and even Turkey has expressed interest in a Lowline of their own.
Unlike the High Line, the Lowline isn’t a long stretch of landscaped walkway, but a wide expanse the size of Gramercy Square Park. One of Ramsey’s goals is to encourage the sense of discovery and exploration he feels when he visits his favorite part of Central Park, the seemingly uncurated Ramble, which he calls “the beating heart of Central Park itself.”
“You can walk through there and actually forage for strange, wild edibles,” he gushed. “You get a little bit lost. You don’t know what’s around the corner or over the next hill. I think that it’s one of the more successful landscape designs not only in the city, but in the world.”
In tribute, Ramsey is designing a Ramble of his very own for the Lowline that will capitalize on the elements that drew him to subterranean Delancey Street in the first place. “We’ve got this found archeological space that no one knows about. There’s this component of mystery to it that New York still does have all these secrets you can explore that you can’t find on Yelp. Going down into [the Lowline] invokes that sense of discovery and mystery as well as this element of archeological adventure, like you’re exploring a ruin. I want to capture the idea that you can explore not just horizontally but vertically. It should be a jungle gym for adults where you can do a little Rambling,” said Ramsey, brimming with Olmstedian spirit. If everything goes according to plan, Ramsey estimates that the earliest possible date of completion is 2016. “That’s a really ambitious date, but this project is really ambitious, and look how far we’ve come in a year.”
There are rare artists whose work crosses so many disciplines that categories fall short. And Cliff Garten’s “civic sculptures” stretch into the worlds of architecture, landscape architecture, urban infrastructure, and masterplanning.
His jumbo-sized pieces consist of LED-illuminated sculptures, street furniture, landscapes, chandeliers, and even bridges that, while they visually dazzle, are also capable of transforming neighborhoods. They are most successful when Garten partners with enlightened civic engineers who know the value of rendering the public domain on a user-friendly, human scale. Pieces such as Sea Spires and Avenue of Light have even been economically uplifting, helping businesses flourish within an active pedestrian environment.
With a Master of Fine Arts in sculpture from the Rhode Island School of Design and a Master of Landscape Architecture from Harvard Graduate School of Design, Garten moved to LA in 1999 and established a studio in Venice.
He recently made the news for his involvement with LA’s new Expo light-rail line. His original scheme, highlighted by eye-catching canopies and developed with LA architecture firm ZGF and LA landscape firm Melendrez, was not realized as he envisioned. “The plan was lost at a point when political changes in the MTA caused a complete reorganization of the project,” Garten said.
An advocate of civic collaboration, Garten is well aware of the challenges for an artist. “In the context of how American infrastructure projects are organized, art tends to become the window dressing of the project rather than an essential element of the infrastructure,” he noted. “If we want infrastructure that we can take pride in owning and using, some of the fundamental aspects of how our culture regards our infrastructure and how the design professions in consort with government build our infrastructure will have to change,” he said.
The sinuous bridge supports cars and pedestrians on decks that curve over the river. Underneath are the Sammamish River and a bike trail. Garten collaborated with Entranco and AECOM engineers to represent “flow” both over and under the bridge, with braided aluminum panels, including railings. The result is elegantly lyrical in its appearance and comfortable in its human scale.
Long Beach, California
Though not as towering as Garten’s other light sculptures, the 16-foot, LED-illuminated, stainless-steel figures of Sea Spires are equally interactive. Standing sentry-like at a key pedestrian corner, they are curvaceous shapes evocative of underwater—or perhaps interplanetary—denizens transparently afloat. Though monumental, they resist the opacity and plopped-down appearance of much public art.
Avenue of Light
Fort Worth, Texas
The project consists of six stainless-steel sculptures that incorporate LED illumination and rise 36 feet along the median from Lamar Street to Main and Commerce streets. Each sculpture is composed of 100 stainless-steel plates, slightly turned from the preceding plate and welded together. The plates are designed to create a vanished edge depending on the angle at which they are viewed. Straight on, each sculpture appears translucent. Lights shoot up the center as well as the outside of each sculpture to reflect the edges of the metal.
San Francisco, California
A landscape architecture project in the courtyard of the historic Federal Building at 50 United Nations Plaza, Ribbons is created within an adaptive reuse project by HKS. Garten reframed the courtyard as a site-specific artwork, using recycled concrete and a permeable ground plane. The design transforms the classical symmetry of the original design by Arthur Brown, Jr., by retaining its axial connections, but inserting a sculptural matrix of paving, seating, fountains, and plantings. Serpentine elements seem to emerge and submerge across the open space.
Corridor of Light
These towering illuminated sculptures combine public art master planning with sustainability. The curved, stainless-steel sculptures—some pieces stretching 26 feet high and suggesting floating jellyfish or helixes—reflect LED lighting in changing patterns. They also knit together the North Lynn Street corridor by creating a sustained identity. Real estate values have increased accordingly. The project’s funding was a partnership between the public works and public art departments, the Rosslyn business improvement district, and the Rosslyn Renaissance planning group.
National attention focused on the recent opening of the Expo Line, an 8.6-mile light rail route that connects downtown LA with Culver City. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Before all is said and done, Los Angeles —long stereotyped as a car-only city—will have more than 100 miles of public transit lines, as the West Coast, home to the nation’s first light rail line in San Diego and to its most comprehensive light rail system in Portland, continues to add a slew of new rail.
New lines, stations, infrastructure, and transit-oriented developments are popping up and in planning stages in and around Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego. And if you count West Coast–adjacent cities such as Phoenix and Denver, there are even more. Los Angeles and Seattle are set to double their offerings while Marin and Sonoma are just beginning to add rail to the mix.
Of course, this transit explosion isn’t just a local trend. According to the American Public Transportation Association, from 1995 through 2010, public transportation ridership increased by 31 percent—a growth rate higher than the 17 percent increase in the U.S. population. In part this shift is a result of people returning to urban cores. But perhaps the most compelling reason for the expansion is the crippling impact of traffic in the region and in the country, and its accompanying demons—sprawl, pollution, and climate change. Municipalities are creating new land-use strategies—some a result of new anti-sprawl laws like California’s SB 375— that emphasize walkability and dense development near rail.
As a testament to their popularity, most recent rail projects and extensions along the coast have been paid for not just through federal largesse but by local ballot measures such as LA’s Measure R, San Diego’s TransNet, and Marin and Sonoma County’s Measure Q.
“The biggest surprise for all of us wasn’t that we envisioned it, but that there was so much support,”said David Mieger, deputy executive officer of countywide planning and development at Metro, LA’s transit agency, of Measure R. “In 2008, we got two-thirds of the voters in the county. Motherhood and apple pie usually doesn’t rate that high.”
Opponents, particularly neighborhood groups fighting tax increases and construction disruptions, charge that rail’s extensive costs aren’t worth the benefits; they say that
ridership still isn’t what it should be. For instance the new Expo Line’s ridership has so far reached only half the projected load. “Every commuter rail project in the country has exceeded ridership,” answered Matt Stevens, a spokesperson for Sonoma-Marin Area Rapid Transit (SMART). Mieger adds that, unlike just a few years ago, a good portion of riders in LA are now “discretionary,” meaning that they choose to take public transit, even though they don’t have to.
Rail doesn’t just provide architects and engineers with jobs designing stations and related infrastructure; it can also completely transform municipalities’ land use patterns, ushering in transit-oriented development and walkable streets. Cities have been incorporating these plans into their new approaches to land use and will continue to do so. Metro, for example, has developed an extensive transit-oriented development program in Los Angeles that has spurred the creation of more than a dozen pedestrian-friendly, transit-adjacent projects. “This is a planning solution, not just a transportation solution,” said Metro’s Mieger. San Jose “is directing new growth to build out downtown in a more urban way,” said Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), which just opened a new office in San Jose. He warns though that in Silicon Valley “they’re fighting some pretty big forces and some pretty entrenched traditions” favoring sprawl and the automobile.
The return to rail is, in some surprisingly convenient ways, a return to the past. Many of these lines were built on the rights of way of existing train and trolley systems that were active in the beginning of the 20th century and abandoned in favor of cars and buses around mid-century. LA’s Expo Line runs on a former right-of-way of the Los Angeles & Independence Railroad. Marin and Sonoma’s runs on a right-of-way owned by the Southern Pacific Railway.
Of course rail isn’t a flawless solution. Besides pockets of underuse, rail and light rail are still far from reaching the tipping point on the West Coast. In LA, for example, 80 percent of the city’s residents still don’t live within convenient distance to rail. The recession has stalled plans that were even more ambitious. For instance slower returns from Measure R’s tax-related funding have forced the completion of LA’s Purple Line subway extension beyond 2030. (LA Mayor Villaraigosa hopes his 30/10 program will significantly speed projects up). And architects and engineers claim that regulations regarding rail design—often overseen by public utilities commissions rather than design or building experts—are still not suitable for innovation. But the progress is palpable, making cities feel more like cities again. “For a lot of these cities these lines and stations are the biggest things affecting their development in years,” said Roland Genick, of LA-based Parsons Corporation, which oversaw the Expo Line and is now working on LA’s Gold Line Foothill extension.
San Diego, the city to first re-introduce light rail to the West Coast (and to the country) back in 1981, now has 53 miles of light-rail track. Its most recent extension in 2005, the green line, extends from Old Town San Diego out to Santee, east of Qualcomm Stadium. The extension stretches about six miles and five stations, closing what was a gap in the system’s loop through the city.
Plans for an 11.2-mile extension from old town to UC-San Diego in La Jolla is set to be in place by 2018, said San Diego Metropolitan Transit System spokesperson Rob Schupp. Most likely the line will be an extension of the city’s blue line. Roughly $1.2 to $1.8 billion for the project comes from a local sales tax called TransNet, which will provide half the funding. The remainder of the money will come from federal funds.
Even posh La Jolla was “all for it,” said Schupp. In addition to the new lines last year, the city added $700 million worth of retrofitted light-rail vehicles (64 in all) to its Silver Line, which was completed in 2005.
The city’s newest transit line is the Expo light-rail line, an 8.6-mile route now running from downtown LA to Culver City. By 2015 the Expo is expected to extend to Santa Monica. Designed by Gruen Associates, with support from Parsons and Miyamoto International, the line has been funded mostly by Measure R, a 2008 city sales tax increase estimated to eventually bring in from $30 to $40 billion. About 35 percent of that, up to $14 billion, will go toward rail projects.
The measure also funded an extension of Metro’s Gold Line into East LA and is helping fund the Gold Line Foothill Extension, stretching farther into the San Gabriel Valley. Other city transit projects—totaling 12 in all— include the Regional Connector, a 1.9-mile underground light-rail route linking the city’s Gold and Blue lines; extensions of Metro’s Green Line to LAX airport and farther into the South Bay; and the Purple Line subway extension down Wilshire Boulevard all the way from downtown to Westwood and, funding allowing, to Santa Monica. In fact, by the time Measure R’s funds are all spent, LA’s rail lines will have doubled, from about 60 miles to about 120, said Mieger.
Partially as a strategy to reflect LA’s diversity and partially because each line has its own construction authority, the stations along each route are widely different. The Expo’s minimal stations are highlighted by wavy metallic canopies and blue steel frames; Foothill takes on gabled roofs and a traditional vernacular; and the Gold Line into East LA has an explosion of colors and forms.
San Francisco opened its first light-rail line in over 50 years in 2007 with its T-Third line, which included 5.1 miles of light rail spread over 18 stations. The line has proven a huge success and brought San Francisco up to seventy miles of light-rail track. The next move for the T-Third is the T-Central subway, an underground extension of the line another 1.7 miles from Mission Bay into downtown, with stops in South of Market, Yerba Buena, Union Square, and Chinatown. The project is funded primarily via the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program, with about $942 million coming from that source. A combination of federal, state, and local sources will provide the remaining funds. The line is slated to open in 2019.
Outside of San Francisco is the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) project, largely funded by Measure Q, a 0.25 percent sales tax passed by voters in the two counties in 2008. SMART will provide rail service along 70 miles of the historic Northwestern Pacific Railroad alignment. Slowed by the economic downturn, the plan is to open a 38.5-mile initial operating segment between Santa Rosa and San Rafael by 2016, with additional segments to be opened as funding becomes available. Ultimately it will extend 70 miles. The project is the first passenger rail project in Marin and Sonoma counties since the 1950s. According to spokesperson, Matt Stevens, designs for the stations have still not been finalized, although Zimmer Gunsul Frasca (ZGF) did complete preliminary work.
Meanwhile in Silicon Valley the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) is overseeing a the Capitol Expressway Light Rail Project, extending light rail by 2.3 miles and four stations in San Jose. But the big news in that area comes with heavy rail. The VTA is overseeing a $2.3 billion, 10-mile, two-station extension of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) into Silicon Valley from Fremont to North San Jose. A total of $900 million is coming from the Federal New Starts program, with $1.18 billion coming from the local half-cent Measure A sales tax. Design-build is being overseen by the joint venture team Skanska- Shimmick-Herzog. The second phase, still in project development, will reach six miles and four stations running through downtown San Jose and ending in Santa Clara. That would cost about $3.6 billion, largely because it would be underground.
Sacramento’s contribution to the transit extravaganza is the 1.1 mile extension of its green line from downtown Sacramento north to the city’s river district. The extension just opened on June 15, to big crowds and even fireworks. The city is also planning a $270 million, four station, 4.3-mile extension of its blue line from Meadowview road to Cosumnes River College. A team of design-build architects, including Vrilakas Architects and MFDB Architects, have produced station designs unique to their locations. “We want our stations to reflect their neighborhoods,”said Sacramento Regional Transit District Architect David Solomon “It’s easier for the riders and it makes for better community building.”
With a mature and extensive system of 82 miles of track and 85 stations operating since 1986, Portland has been a model for city officials throughout the nation for how light rail can work. In 2011, over 41.2 million riders boarded Metropolitan Area Express (MAX), according to the local transit authority, TriMet.
There are currently four lines operating and a fifth—the Portland-Milwaukie MAX light rail Orange line—under construction and expected to open in September 2015. It will extend to Milwaukie in Clackamas County, 7.3 miles south of the current Yellow line that runs from the Expo Center to Portland State University.
The ten stations along the Orange line will feature a mix of landscaping and public art to reflect the character of each surrounding neighborhood. The Lincoln Street/Southwest 3rd Avenue Station in the Halprin District will include a vegetated trackway dubbed an “eco-track”; at the SE Tacoma/Johnson Creek station,
a Bike and Ride station will provide secure parking for over 100 bicycles; and at the OMSI/SE Water Ave station, two artists have proposed a large “sonic dish” that will reflect sound and light as nearby commuters pass by.
Half of the $1.5 billion project is being financed by the Federal Transit Administration, with the remainder coming from local, regional, and state sources, including $250 million in bonds financed by future Oregon Lottery revenue. This is the most expensive line Portland has ever built because it traverses urbanized land and adds a new bridge, the first to cross the Portland section of the Willamette River since the opening of the Fremont Bridge in 1973.
When open, by September 2016, the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Bridge in the South Waterfront District will be the first multi-modal car-free bridge in the nation. TriMet hired Donald MacDonald of MacDonald Architects, as the lead designer and chose a cable-stayed bridge design, which would help maximize horizontal and vertical clearance on the busy river and keep costs lower. Approximately 1,720 feet in length, the bridge will feature two towers and include, in addition to a light-rail track, dedicated bus lanes and two 14-foot wide paths for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Light rail in Seattle had a shaky start ten years ago. Initially it was met with fierce opposition, then a threatened loss of funding, and eventually the resignation of the former CEO of Sound Transit, the agency that serves the Puget Sound region. But finally, after almost a decade of debating and lawsuits, the first light-rail line in the city, Sound Transit’s Central Link, opened in July 2009, a 15.5-mile route connecting downtown Seattle to Rainier Valley and SeaTac Airport.
The city is now pushing forward with a huge light-rail program, with a total of 36 miles planned by 2023. This includes the University Link (U-Link) a 3.1-mile underground section running from downtown Seattle north to the University of Washington, scheduled to open in September 2016. There are three more planned sections: a 1.3-mile section south toward Tacoma to open in 2016; a north leg to Northgate and eventually Lynnwood that will open in 2021; and a 14.5-mile extension east over the I-90 bridge through Mercer Island to Bellevue that will open in 2023.
Construction of the U-Link is now underway. At the University of Washington station, designed by LMN Architects, a pedestrian bridge will traverse Montlake Boulevard, linking the upper campus, the University of Washington Medical Center, and the 27-mile Burke-Gilman Trail, affording views on a clear day of Mount Rainier.
Total funding for the U-Link project is $1.9 billion, with $750 million derived from a blend of grants from the Federal Transit Administration, including a TIGER I competitive grant, as well as local support. In 2008, voters approved the Sound Transit 2 measure, increasing sales tax and motor vehicle excise tax.
“It’s so nice to discover that after all these years we’re not done yet, and we can still change our cities,” said SPUR’s Metcalf.
The last major rezoning push by the Bloomberg Administration in Manhattan could be upzoning the grand dames around Park, Madison and Grand Central. On June 6, the Department of City Planning (DCP) went to Community Boards 5 and 6 to open the discussion on East Midtown, a-yet-to-be-defined business district surrounding Grand Central. While Midtown is hardly a tabula rasa along the lines of Hudson Yards or the World Trade Center, rezoning has the potential, according to Edith Hsu-Chen, director of DCP’s Manhattan office, to “seed” a healthy amount of new development for the next ten, 20, or 30 years, while boosting the value of one of the world’s premier office addresses.
At least one developer has already taken notice. Earlier this month The Wall Street Journal reported that SL Green, one of the city’s largest commercial property owners with more than 25 million square feet of office space throughout Manhattan, has assembled a one-block parcel right next door to Grand Central between Madison and Vanderbilt on 42nd Street to be developed in a joint venture with architect-savvy developer Hines. The company has already rehabbed several old buildings in East Midtown, including 62-year-old 100 Park Avenue, which sports 14 green rooftops and LEED Silver certification. “If we don’t do something now,” Mary Anne Tighe, the powerful broker and CBRE chief officer has said, “in the fullness of time we might find these areas have become orphans.”
Edward V. Piccinich, SL Green's executive vice president of property management and construction, appears to be in it for the long haul, but not without concern about the next Planning Commission. “Whoever goes in [to Midtown] is going to have to work in a very strategic way, whether it’s coordinating with the MTA, mixed-use development, or phasing and circulation,” he said. “It’s not just about creating a plaza.”
Developing East Midtown will not be for the harried or the faint of heart. The applicable zoning codes in the area are a paralyzing mess of contradictory allowances. The 1961 zoning law implemented floor area ratios, or FARs, in many cases tighter than what was already built. In 1982 a Special Midtown District was created to restrict FAR in an attempt to shift development west to help Times Square. The plan worked all too well and development in eastern Midtown slowed. Then in 1992 the Grand Central Subdistrict—from 41st to 48th streets and between Madison and Lexington avenues—was created to allow for air right transfers from Grand Central Terminal and other area landmarks to new developments nearby.
The average permitted FAR in East Midtown is 12 to 15, but in the Grand Central Subdistrict it can be as much as 21.6 FAR. The problem for developers is if they want to tear down an obsolete pre-1961 tower of, say, 21FAR, they can only build it back up to a post-1961 zoning allowance of about 15FAR.
And yet, in spite of the failed 1992 incentives, the still-in-place 1982 disincentives, and the added turn-offs of subway improvement requirements, mandated plazas, and a very public review process, the area still commands top dollar, although the study (don’t call it a plan yet) presented at Community Board 5 noted that there’s been just 0.06 percent annual growth rate in the past decade.
The new zoning will likely allow a 21.6 FAR with out any of the current constraints. It will also likely allow a massing cluster near Grand Central—where the taller buildings already exist, but are considered by many developers to be outdated and beyond renovation. Piccinich notes that many of today’s office tenants are looking for column-free continuous office floor plates, which are rare in buildings built before 1960.
The planning department's study also pays extensive attention to pedestrian circulation and mass transit below grade. Any changes there would require intense coordination with the MTA. By 2019 Long Island Rail Road’s East Side Access project will be funneling a horde of LIRR commuters through the same MTA tunnels that Metro North passengers use. Hsu-Chen said an already existing bottleneck at the subway turnstiles has got to be part of the conversation, too.
With world-class congestion below grade, it’s almost perverse to note the desolate quality of Vanderbilt Avenue. This dank but grand old side street was left adrift when 9/11 put a stop to the taxi drop-offs at the Vanderbilt Entrance to Grand Central. The site has obvious potential for a DOT plaza.
Upzoning has its champions, but the concerns are many. Preservationists were already gunning at the proposal months ago. But even Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic District Council, acknowledged the area needs help. “They’ve always had tall buildings around [Grand Central],” he said, adding that the real problems have to do with infrastructure and pedestrian circulation. “I hope they don’t do too many slabbed plazas,” he added.
The main objection voiced at CB5 and by opponents is that there are millions of square feet of brand new office space to be leased at the World Trade Center and at Hudson Yards. Planning’s Hsu-Chen stated the obvious: Planning’s job is to plan. The implication was that Bloomberg’s time is running out and the Commission cannot wait until Hudson Yards and World Trade Center are leased before taking action on Midtown.
Greening the city has meant a glorious and historical expansion of its parks and waterfront amenities. But building new parks is far more complicated than planting bulbs and bushes. And even as the city has demonstrated great initiative in creating new parks, how it plans to maintain them—physically as well as financially—is far more uncertain. Caitlin Blanchfield takes a stroll through the variegated schemes for keeping up New York’s parks and esplanades.
New York City is currently in its greatest period of park expansion since the 1930s. With 29,000 acres of land already in the stewardship of the Parks Department, tracts flanking the Hudson and East Rivers are being turned over to green space, restored wetlands, and recreational use. Where once there were rotting piers and toxic sludge, New Yorkers kayak in the Hudson and schoolchildren catch (and release) sea horses under the Manhattan Bridge. As Nancy Webster, executive director of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy, put it, New York’s new parks “redefine an understanding of local geography and provide a unique sense of place for New Yorkers” by recapturing its identity as a port city.
Cutting the ribbon is one thing. Keeping a park usable, healthy, and engaging for decades to come, quite another. Capital projects far outstrip park maintenance in the City’s budget. According to Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, the budget for capital projects, which includes opening new parks and restoration projects that require heavy construction, is around $1.6 billion annually. The maintenance budget, which is dedicated to horticultural care and facility upkeep, is around $300 million.
“Maintenance and operations have a separate and vastly smaller stream than capital projects, yet capital design has no knowledge of maintenance and operations funding, which should dictate design strategies,” said Deborah Marton of the New York Restoration Project, an organization that functions as a wealth reallocator, distributing funding from private donors, city, and state across the boroughs, particularly in the Bronx, Harlem, and Central Park. “Parks are often allowed to fall into disrepair because they will then get capital dollars. We’ve inherited 19th-century ideas about how cities and budget are structured. Much of the city’s public spaces are in the jurisdiction of different organizations: the Housing and Preservation Authority, the MTA, Port Authority, and the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. This division is anathema to how we currently think about public spaces.”
Courtesy Hudson River Park Trust
With city and state funding providing just under 65 percent of current maintenance and operation budgets, ensuring that parks are properly maintained has fallen to strategic alliances of privately interested citizens and varying models of public/private partnerships committed to overseeing long-term sustainability and funding. While some, such as the Hudson River Park Trust and the Brooklyn Bridge Corporation are legislated entities, many other organizations, like friends groups working in small community parks, are entirely voluntary, leaving the places they steward at the whim of charitable resources.
“Maintenance and operations have a separate and vastly smaller stream than capital projects, yet capital design has no knowledge of maintenance and operations funding, which should dictate design strategies, ” said Deborah Marton, senior vice president of the New York Restoration Project.
Approaching its 35-year anniversary, the Central Park Conservancy is a paragon of success for public/private partnerships. In the late 1970s, slashed budgets and municipal neglect had rendered the park both dangerous and in catastrophic disrepair, at which point concerned citizens banded together and formed the conservancy. Since then it has raised $650 million and developed a sophisticated system for managing its 843 acres.
The key, said Conservancy president Douglas Blonsky, “is total vigilance.” Central Park is lucky. As Blonsky readily admits, it is the backyard of New York’s wealthiest residents and has a profile higher than any other park. Of a more than $42 million operating budget, 85 percent comes from the prosperous patrons who are stacked in the high-rises framing its perimeter. Such a model is simply not plausible in places without the density and affluence of Central Park’s constituency.
“There is no one model that works; it’s not one size fits all. There can only be one Central Park Conservancy,” said Benepe. The parks commissioner advocates for entrepreneurship, saying that funding alliances arise organically to creatively meet the needs and conditions of each park. In the city’s recent park projects, that spirit has had a decidedly development-friendly bent. Brooklyn Bridge Park and Hudson River Park, both waterfront sites with complex programs incorporating recreation, leisure, and environmental remediation, have gone the way of rents, not altruism.
In the late 1980s, after Brooklyn’s waterfront had ceased to be the shipping hub of decades past and had deteriorated to house a dwindling number of warehouses, a group of concerned citizens rallied to turn the narrow space between Piers 1 and 5 into park lands, rather than the housing, retail, and parking development it had been slated to become. Advocates raised grants and secured capital funding for a build out, but because the cost of operating and maintaining a park on the waterfront is so high, Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Pataki decided that a different funding stream, separate from the Parks Department budget, should be created to ensure the long-term sustainability of the park. They established the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation to operate commercial development on just under 10 percent of the 1.3-mile-long park. The Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy was subsequently created to manage programming. Based on financial models like Battery Park and Hudson River Park, the ground rent and taxes are intended to cover park maintenance and operations. On the city’s side it’s sacrificing ground rent and taxes, while the park allocates what could be public space to private use, which has incited some to lambast the park as a front lawn for high-end real estate, or as Project for Public Spaces’s Fred Kent put it, a “dead waterfront.”
At the southern tip, One Brooklyn Bridge Park is a luxury condominium complex with waterfront views and ground-floor retail (first store to move in: a dog spa). Since its completion in 2008, it has netted $14.8 million dollars, which has funded all park security, maintenance, and waterfront infrastructure costs. As the park continues construction, a hotel and residence will go up on Pier 1; two residential buildings are slated for Pier 6. Retail development on Water Street and John Street in Dumbo will also augment commercial revenue.
In part, this blend of private development and public space arose to meet the unique needs of the site: the pilings on which the park is built are subject to deterioration from salt water and aquatic microbes and must be checked every three years. As the river regains its vitality—the result of industry decline and waterfront greening— and teems with healthy, hungry critters, these pilings will need more frequent assessment and replacing. Reinforcing pilings on Pier 5 in concrete totaled $11 million. According to Nancy Webster, revenue from commercial development has been a successful stream of income, capable of footing the self-sustaining maintenance and operations bill so far. With the first review since 2008 on the horizon, she predicts the model will continue to function, so long as the hotel and apartments bring in projected profits. Currently, negotiations are underway with developers for hotel and residential development on Pier 1. Retail locations on John Street in Dumbo and Pier 6 are still undeveloped, and the development corporation is looking into alternative revenue sources from the sale of properties near the park now owned by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., which would have to take place by the end of 2013. At the same time, portions of Piers 3, 4, and 6 remain unfunded, their future uncertain.
“One advantage to our model is that we will have capital reserve for unseen maintenance emergencies. We will have funds to react as things come up. In other parks when emergencies arise, the city cannot fix them in a timely fashion,” said Regina Myer, president of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation.
Courtesy Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation
Across the river and on the west side of Manhattan, Hudson River Park faces such a predicament. The legislation that enacted Hudson River Park as a city- and state-owned entity in 1998 has proved too limited to allow for the kinds of development that would net the necessary funding. The issue at Hudson River Park is twofold, explains Madelyn Wils, the Hudson River Park Trust’s executive director. With two piers still undeveloped, the Trust does not have the income it anticipated when the act was first created. Unforeseen infrastructural problems are also proving a drain on the budget. For instance, the bulkheads on top of which the park is built and that hold up Route 9A (the Westside Highway) are costly to shore up; many of them failed to withstand Hurricane Irene last summer. Moreover, wooden Pier 40 is fast decaying after plans for its development were halted in 2006, when the Trust was unable to find a developer or development plan that met the stipulations of the Hudson River Park Act.
Compared to the uses at Brooklyn Bridge Park, the act is narrow, excluding housing, commercial office space, hotels, and manufacturing. What was likely intended to protect the waterfront from overly privatized development has left the Trust in a quagmire of dead-end Requests for Proposals (RFPs). Currently the park, which stretches from Midtown to Battery Park, allows commercial maritime and ferry ports, entertainment, retail, and commercial recreation. But, according to Wils, respondents to RFPs have rejected those uses, leaving the trust in search of viable commercial development in the park, and looking to make marinas or generate commercial activity in the water itself. Exacerbating these financial strains, Chelsea Piers, tenants on three piers from 17th to 23rd streets, are suing the Trust to repair damages caused by marine borers over the past 20 years.
According to the Pier 40 Development Feasibility Study by HR&A Advisors and Tishman/AECOM, released privately in May, Pier 40 needs about $100 million in repairs. The report found that the best source of ongoing income—adding the least traffic impact—would be 600 high-end rentals (as the Trust cannot sell its property) and a 150-room hotel. Other revenue-producing ideas under exploration include tax-exempt bonds and the more controversial Park Improvement District.
When created, the Trust was envisioned as an exemplar for in-water parks—influencing waterfronts in cities as far away as Paris and Sydney—but that has also exposed the park to unforeseen costs, such as retrofitting the decaying piers that are fodder for marine borers and battered by wind and brackish water. “Twenty years ago no one knew healthier water would mean more voracious aquatic borers, so you can’t build with wood. We’ve learned, for example, you have to use certain pavers to withstand water pressure from the currents,” Wils explained. Renting out berths for ferries and commercial cruise ships have racked in rent, but not enough to assuage these unpredicted high costs.
On Staten Island, Freshkills, the Parks Department most recent and expansive project, opening to the public later this year, must navigate not only an aquatic site, but also one atop a former landfill. Unlike Brooklyn Bridge Park and Hudson River Park, Freshkills— at 2,200 acres, three times the size of Central Park—does not have any trust, corporation, or conservancy in place to fund its annual operations. Not easily accessible by foot or subway, Freshkills is no magnet for the types of public/private partnerships that make other waterfront parks financially self-sustaining. According to Tara Kiernan of the New York City Parks Department, Parks is establishing a nonprofit Freshkills Park Alliance to fundraise for the park.
Courtesy James Corner Field Operations (left); William T. Davis (right)
To be built out over the next 30 years, Freshkills represents the next generation in experimental models for how a park can coordinate a complex program of restoration, recreation, concessions, and passive enjoyment, almost all within the city’s budget. Using active landscape design guidelines and the insights of 21st-century landscape architecture and responding to community input, Freshkills has been designed by James Corner Field Operations as a sustainable landscape using native plants and restoring natural habitats that, as long as healthy, will maintain themselves—and hopefully prevent it from meeting the same fate of Flushing Meadows Corona Park, where a pastoral park with shade trees and lawn grass built in the low-lying lands near Flushing Bay was overtaken by salt grasses and invasive species.
Capitalizing on less-than-idyllic site conditions, the sanitation department is already harvesting methane gas from the landfill below Freshkills, which it is selling back to National Grid, generating $12 million in revenue for the city. The park is also partnering with research institutions and local universities to investigate water quality, soil restoration, habitat restoration, and reforestation, among other environmental issues, opening up opportunities for grant funding. New York Department of State, Division of Coastal Resources, and the Federal Highway Administration have thus far contributed $12 million to the project.
While such initiatives dynamically wed stewardship and financial sustainability, they are but a drop in the bucket considering that Freshkills master plan has a $100 million price tag—in part so high because of the cost of remediating landfill seepage. As construction is still so heavily underway, the park has yet to determine its future maintenance budget.
As landscape architect and Columbia University professor of landscape architecture Kate Orff points out, “Maintenance is a park.” And parks that go unmaintained have the potential to do more than just becoming unkempt; they can be dangerous. Parks budgets have been downsized 30 percent, according to Wils of the Hudson River Park Trust. Parks Commissioner Benepe voices concern about how parks will be able to retain funding in the future. As great parks projects continue to roll out, it’s essential to pair a zeal for creating public space with an even greater dedication to keeping them safe, accessible, and vital for the long run.