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In lower Manhattan, a prominent developer wants to convert a public space into private retail, and the city is at least a week away from a vote that could allow the project to move forward. Rockrose Development's bid to completely enclose and privatize the arcade at 200 Water Street comes just months after the city permitted the destruction of the landmarked Sasaki fountain at the Citicorp Center, and is yet another example of a public outdoor space the city could cede to a commercial interest.Rockrose wants to take advantage of new zoning rules that would allow the company to fill in the public arcade on Fulton Street with retail and restaurants, reducing the public space by half.
When they were built in the 1970s, the Water Street Arcades were a covered network of walkways linking office buildings in the area, which extends three blocks in from the East River, north to Fulton Street and south to Whitehall Street. The arcades and accompanying plazas were built as tradeoffs that let owners build taller than existing zoning allowed. The target area contains 20 buildings, with 225,000 square feet of open plazas and 110,000 square feet of arcades. In exchange for building and managing these privately-owned public spaces, or POPS, developers near Water Street got to add more than 2.5 million square feet of extra floor area to their buildings.
In June 2016, the City Council approved a zoning change that opened up these spaces to commercial development. The Water Street Upgrades Text Amendment allows existing arcades to be infilled for retail and encourages "improvement" of existing plazas. In total, the new rules place more than 167,000 square feet of the POPS up for redevelopment.
The city maintains that the arcades are dull and underutilized because they push ground-floor retail away from the sidewalk, are obstructed by thick structural columns and poorly lit, and often terminate in dead ends. It also asserts that the plazas mostly open onto lobbies and feature little greenery, a combination that is uninviting to passersby.
While some public spaces in the Water Street area do affirm these concerns, the ones at 200 Water Street are an exception. They originally featured exuberant public art, and are open to traffic on all four sides, a necessity for pedestrian circulation in an increasingly lively neighborhood.
From a design perspective, it would be hard to top the space's first incarnation, which was cool enough to land on the cover of Progressive Architecture (PDF) one year after opening.
The original owner was the Kaufman Organization, a New York developer known for above-and-beyond stewardship of its POPS. Emery Roth & Sons designed 200 Water Street (also known as 127 John Street) in 1971 as an office building in the International Style, but CEO Melvyn Kaufman playfully messed with its gravitas, ornamenting the glass curtain wall from street to roof.
"One twenty seven John Street is neither imposing nor distinguished in the usual sense of those words," said PA Associate Editor Sharon Lee Ryder. "It is imposing because you can’t forget it once you’ve been there and distinguished simply because there is nothing like it."
Designer Pamela Waters used roofing gravel to craft a cheerful cat chasing a bird on opposite sides of the seventh floor setback, an almost wraparound terrace. Viewed from above, it's clear that the terrace's gap permanently prevents the cat from catching its prey (though there's another wire mesh bird that covered the window-washing rig). On the roof, mechanical equipment was painted kindergarten colors and decked out in lights to illustrate water and air flowing through the HVAC system.
On the plaza level, metal benches in the same colors sat beneath Op Art murals that zigzagged through custom scaffolds all the way up to the edge of the sidewalk. Visitors could ascend the scaffolding to access seating on above the street. Around the corner at John and Water streets, Kaufman pasted mirrored walls onto two buildings that couldn't move for the 32-story tower's construction, while an inset digital clock on the Water Street side of the old building mimics the grid of the new tower. Melvyn Kaufman even installed a wax likeness of himself on one of the benches (it was removed after some unspecified "hostile reactions"). The arcade's whimsy, capped off by a water feature and a neon-banded purple-and-blue light tunnel to the inside, was meant to enliven a long walk from the main entrance on Fulton Street to the building's elevator bank.
Since the Kaufman Organization sold the building in the mid-1990s, the space's cheerily excessive amenities have given way to a boring plaza that some believe is willfully neglected. Today, most of the remaining art from the Kaufman days is in serious disrepair: the white scaffolding is a blank skeleton, stripped of its canvas, while the original pool and fountain are empty. (The impossible-to-miss Water Street clock now graces a Starbucks, in front of a well-maintained but unoriginal public space occupied by wood benches and concrete planters.)
Rockrose maintains that the Fulton Street arcade is beyond rehabilitation, and proposes restaurants and retail as a way to enliven the front of the structure, which it converted to rental apartments in 1996. As soon as the end of this month, the City Planning Commission could hear Rockrose's application to infill three of the building's POPS, totaling more than 4,700 square feet, per rules outlined in last year's zoning text amendment. The developer would like to add almost 1,800 square feet of new residential space in the double-height arcade facing Fulton, and on the ground floor, the plaza would lose about 3,000 square feet of public space. New York–based MdeAS is working with the developer to design the new spaces.
In return, Rockrose estimates it would receive $600,000 in annual rent from the new spaces. Members of Manhattan Community Board 1 (CB1), whose district includes the property, held meetings with Rockrose this summer to ask if the developer would consider compensating amenities. Rockrose refused, saying that, by law, it was not obligated to provide additional amenities.
CB 1 maintains that building into the arcade could interrupt the flow of connected spaces that distinguish the Water Street POPS and its buildings from the rest of the neighborhood. Though the city contends that the plazas are underused relics from bad midcentury planning, lower Manhattan is in the midst of a development boom that's slated to bring more foot traffic at all hours to the traditionally 9-to-5 neighborhood. The intersection of Fulton and Water streets is a heavily-trafficked corner, the gateway to the South Street Seaport. Likewise, the South Street Seaport's restaurant and tourist revival, including a new mall at Pier 17 and ferry service from nearby Pier 11, herald an increase in pedestrian traffic at Fulton and Water streets at what is already a busy intersection. According to CB1, Rockrose hasn't submitted a pedestrian traffic study on the impact of enclosing almost 4,000 square feet of space at this corner.
At press time, multiple attempts to reach Rockrose for comment on its plans for 200 Water Street were unsuccessful.
Mindful of the precedent-setting nature of Rockrose's request, and its dissatisfaction with the developer's concessions, the community board voted the whole proposal down last month. The board released a statement, "CB 1 should urge the owners of the site and all stakeholders to maintain and keep the critically needed open space at 200 Water Street open for the public's use consistent with the original agreement made between the developers and the citizens of New York."
In a March 2016 resolution, just before the City Planning Commission passed the Water Street zoning rules, CB1 recognized the property as distinct from its neighbors, and asked the owners to not enlarge chain stores, but instead offer the community additional benefits:
"Owners of properties similar to 200 Water Street, where the benefit to the property owner clearly outweighs the community benefit from plaza upgrades, should be required to provide benefits in addition to the plaza upgrade, such as enhancements to surrounding sidewalks and the nearby Pearl Street Playground. CB1 requests that the arcade infill at 200 Water Street not be used just to expand the existing large box retail, and prefers retail that positively activates Fulton Street."
(Despite this shout-out, CB1 nevertheless supported the Water Street Upgrades Text Amendment last year.)
Multiple nonprofit urban advocacy groups have weighed in on Rockrose's proposal. In an open letter, the City Club of New York suggested Rockrose's "lack of enthusiasm" for maintaining the POPS was an aegis for redevelopment-by-neglect. "In this case, converting half the space of the POPS to rental floor area and reducing the area maintained for the public by half is clearly a win-win for the owner," it said.Echoing the City Club's statement, the Municipal Art Society praised the original character of the spaces, adding that “[the] plazas and arcade have been allowed to deteriorate to the point that, instead of preserving these valuable community assets, Rockrose stands to benefit from the loss of public space.” This is not the first time Rockrose's stewardship of public space has been in called into question. The original designers sued Rockrose back in 1996 over its alleged failure to maintain the plaza and its art, which Rockrose owns. The parties reached a court-approved settlement that required the firm to maintain the artwork in the POPS through 2011. In a brief, the plaintiffs' attorney, Robert Ward, described the significance of the agreement: “When the building was built back in 1971, the owners got a plaza bonus. They were able to build a bigger building because of the plaza. The new owners of the building want to build in that plaza, but they do not want to take some of the building down. That is an important issue in terms of balancing the equities.” There may be other options for reuse, though, that preserve the public space. In a letter to Marisa Lago, chair of the City Planning Commission, the group Friends of Privately Owned Public Spaces suggested three ways that Water Street Arcades could be creatively repurposed without reducing the total amount of public space. The owner could glass in an arcade to make a public interior and collaborate with a public entity like the New York Public Library for programming, or create a POPS with a food service component a la Lincoln Center’s David Rubinstein Atrium. As a last option, the owner could cede space to a city-run concession (like the ones operated by NYC Parks) whose proceeds would fund improvements to other POPS in the area.
At the earliest, the City Planning Commission could review the application on October 30, although no public testimony will be heard at that meeting. To comment on Rockrose's proposal, members of the public may email the commission at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "Application N 170284 ZAM 200 Water Street Arcade Enclosure." The commission's website is updated regularly, so readers should check back there for the latest hearing schedule.Editor's Note: Last year, The Architect’s Newspaper sponsored a design charrette for the Water Street POPS to envision how they could become the vibrant gathering spots and successful corridors they once were. In May 2016, AN Managing Editor Olivia Martin also provided testimony opposing the Water Street Upgrades Text Amendment at a meeting of the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises. Martin had no role in reporting, fact-checking, or editing this story.
Brooklyn's first park may be getting a new entrance that some say would open up the green space to the neighborhood. But opponents contend that the renovation would erase significant historic fabric, including a rare public commission by the late modern landscape architect Arthur Edwin (A.E.) Bye, Jr.
In light of divided public testimony, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) postponed a vote last week on a Parks Department plan to redesign a main entrance at Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park. The renovation would eliminate one of the few public works by the eminent 20th-century landscape architect, following a trend in New York City park design that opens park edges to the streets. The agency's proposal has been gaining momentum since earlier this year, but those who came to speak at the September 19 hearing cleaved on whether Bye's landscape should be demolished to make way for the new entrance. According to the Parks Department, the proposed changes would align with an unrealized design by McKim, Mead & White.
For those who don't know, Fort Greene Park is a beloved 30-acre expanse in the northern corner of Fort Greene, a gentrified neighborhood near downtown Brooklyn. On a recent late summer day, children jumped around on play fortresses in the Revolutionary War–inspired playground, installed in the 1990s, while joggers cut paths around the hill to the Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument, McKim, Mead & White's towering memorial to the thousands of people who died aboard British ships in New York during the Revolutionary War (the remains are interred in a crypt below the structure). But the firm wasn't the first notable architect to work on the park.
The area, once the site of a military fort from which the neighborhood takes its name, has been in use as a recreation space since 1848. But the state waited around 20 years after its founding to bring on Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux to convert the decommissioned fort into a proper city park. As in Central Park and nearby Prospect Park (which both opened more than two decades after Fort Greene Park), the duo cut closely-planted, wending walkways through a rural landscape, with paths offering views of great grassy lawns. The designers planned a main entrance at the northwest corner that opened onto an open space for public gatherings.
Since then, amid minor tweaks and changes, the park has undergone three partial redesigns by leading landscape architects. Though unmistakably of their eras, all of these redesigns pay homage to Olmsted and Vaux's original design and reveal the layered histories that characterize New York City parks of this vintage.
McKim, Mead & White led the first major revamp in the early 1900s, adding formal and classical elements to the park. The firm re-imagined the lead-up to the crypt with a palatial set of granite stairs cut into the hillside that allowed access to the crypt and the monument, cutting an axis through Olmsted and Vaux's gathering meadow.
More than a century later, Robert Moses's landscape architect, Gilmore D. Clarke, together with his partner Michael Rapuano, applied their experience designing parkways in Westchester County, New York, to the landscape. The pair regraded the terrain, replaced winding paths with straight promenades, and erected a stone wall around the park perimeter while programming more space for recreation. Their 1930s interventions strengthened the McKim, Mead & White axis.
Around 40 years after that, in the early 1970s, A.E. Bye built upon the work of his predecessors with a characteristically spare series of mounds that lead up to the steps of the monument at the top of the park's highest hill. Though it's not as obviously modern as a Dan Kiley or a Lawrence Halprin landscape, Bye's work near Fort Greene Park's northwest edge is undoubtedly modernist in its approach and execution—his design vocabulary of cobblestones, grass, and urban street trees drew on existing plant life and the city's natural systems. It's also the latest work of modern landscape architecture in New York City to be threatened with removal.Bye's stone and earth mounds may look like leftovers from another project, but they typify the landscape architect’s work, which is often so subtle that it goes unnoticed at first. Obsessed with light and shadow, Bye would watch precipitation slide off the land, move earth around, observe the ground, and move more soil until he could get snowfall to settle in the lees of his hills in accordance with the patterns he wanted. His 1971 Brooklyn work, in the lead-up to McKim, Mead & White's stairs, references the graves of the war prisoners buried in the Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument. Its Brutalist forms are close cousins to children's playscapes of the era, most notably Richard Dattner's adventure playgrounds (Dattner and Bye were Cooper Union colleagues.)
Now, the Parks Department is planning to replace Bye's and part of his predecessors' work with a new, more open entrance as part of Parks Without Borders, the agency's initiative to rethink the edge conditions of New York City greenswards.
The plan started in May 2016 with a $10.5 million grant from Parks Without Borders, with around $7 million of those funds going to the contested entrance redesign. That initiative, spearheaded by Parks Department Commissioner Mitchell Silver, gives grants for improvements to parks selected by area residents. The money goes towards revamping entrances and park-adjacent spaces by taking down fencing that some see as imposing, or adding plantings to visually (and some say, symbolically) open up parks to the public they serve. The Fort Greene Park Conservancy, the nonprofit that stewards the park, successfully applied for a grant to re-do the northwest entrance. The current proposal would eliminate part of Clarke's wall and all of Bye's landscape.The Parks Without Borders project area is almost four acres, and plans call for replacing the mounds with flat paving flanked by an allée to soften the space. In the schematic drawing, the entrance facing the monument is 45 feet wide, as opposed to the original concept drawings, which depicted a 75-foot-wide entrance. A circular paved space in the park would be updated with a water feature surrounded by plantings and benches. The redesign would add two ten-foot-wide ADA-compliant ramps on St. Edwards Street and Myrtle Avenue—illustrated by a Drake meme in the renderings.
Bye is best known for his minimal, sculptural landscapes, found mostly on the gated estates of the East Coast elite and suburban corporate campuses. He designed gardens for George Soros' homes in New York and Connecticut, as well as for Leonard and Evelyn Lauder. Bye didn’t do as much urban work, but in New York, his early work could be seen at the Water Street POPS, a privately-owned but publicly accessible plaza at 77 Water Street with stylized geometric stream wending towards the East River.
Archival plans for Bye’s designs are co-credited to Berman, Roberts & Scofidio, Ricardo Scofidio's firm before he and Elizabeth Diller founded what is now DS+R.
“Ed wasn’t much of a drawer,” Scofidio said, referring to Bye by his nickname. He didn't design in plan. Instead, Bye used self-designed stamps of trees to create planting schemes, or he worked on-site, moving earth to realize his designs. This hands-on approach didn’t mesh with the city bureaucracy, Scofidio said, so his firm at the time did drawings for city approval that showed how Bye would remove concrete paving, add 16 trees to the plaza, and install a lawn surrounded by earthen mounds. Pictures from the 1970s show the mounds edged by concrete and wood benches that faced outward from their anchors.Scofidio noted that his other partners were more involved in Fort Greene Park than he was. Attempts to contact John Roberts, the firm's other surviving member, were unsuccessful. It's likely, though, that Bye's mounds in Fort Greene were developed under a Parks Department program championed by former mayor John Lindsay that hired noted landscape architects to inject new life into aging city parks.
To learn more about Bye and his public work, The Architect's Newspaper (AN) reached out to Thaisa Way, an urban landscape historian at the University of Washington, Seattle and the author of a forthcoming book on Bye.“Normally the work he does in natural materials like soil is done here in stone,” Way said.
She strongly disputed the Parks Department’s assertion that Bye’s mounds are incongruous with Fort Greene Park's overall appearance—his practice was tied too closely to architecture to ignore the work of designers who came before him.
Though Bye was offered teaching positions at prestigious landscape architecture schools, he preferred to teach architects. Way pointed out that for almost a decade, Bye taught at Cooper Union under then-Dean John Hejduk, whose design of Wall House 2 (also known as the A.E. Bye House) bears Bye's influence, since it was the only design by the paper architect that featured a site. From 1951 through the mid-1960s, pretty much every architect-in-training at Cooper—including Scofidio, a former student and later colleague—took a course with Bye, and for years afterward Bye co-taught site-planning courses for architects at the school. Moreover, before he started teaching, Bye worked briefly for Clarke and Rapuano, a relationship that suggests he was familiar with the firm's approach to public projects.
To Way, Bye’s considered, subtle approach to topography and materials offered a spatial richness that knit together urban spaces in a way that few designers can or could. Bye's role at Cooper bridged a gap between architecture and landscape, a gap that still dogs the profession today. "In our design education, architects are educated on one side of the building and landscape architects are on the other," said Way. "We end up with cities where there might be a beautiful building, but it's set awkwardly in the site, or we have a beautiful landscape, like the High Line, with buildings that just want to grab a view. We don't do a very good job of integration: How do you make the urban landscape inclusive of the buildings, the parks, sidewalks, the streets in a way that adds delight and pleasure and efficiency? How do you see spatially, and not just scenographically?”On any nice day at Fort Greene Park, there are people lounging on Bye's mounds, stretching after a run up the steps, or lying down, staring up at the trees. The mini-landscape is a raised stage for dance performances, a subtle modern lead-up to McKim, Mead & White's rigidly formal classical monument.
In spite of this, the Parks Department wants to remove all of Bye’s work, citing accessibility concerns. The mounds are lined with uneven cobblestones, and their grade is too steep for wheelchair users and others with mobility impairments to access. The agency’s preliminary renderings show a grand entry at the corner of Myrtle Avenue and St. Edwards Street that replaces the mounds with a flat plaza, pictured above. The project's website states that the design phase is 30 percent complete, and construction is expected to begin between spring and fall of 2019. (The rebuild will be done in phases to keep the Myrtle Avenue entrance open throughout construction.) In July, at a meeting of Brooklyn Community Board 2 (CB2), residents came out in force against the proposed changes, but at a meeting two weeks ago, Brooklyn Paper reported that CB2 voted unanimously in favor of the Parks Department plan, with one abstention and one recusal.
In order to advance, the redo needs a green light from the community board and Landmarks (the park was designated as part of the Fort Greene Historic District in 1978). Curiously, the designation report doesn't mention any design updates past the early 20th century, so Clarke's substantial work goes unmentioned. Bye's work, completed seven years before designation, isn't mentioned at all.
Now that the landscape is over 40 years old, a decade past the lower cutoff for landmarks consideration, there is growing concern that modernist landscape design is disappearing from New York City parks and public spaces. What is the motivation, then, for dramatically altering a park that some say is working just fine?
The park is a thick dividing line between wealthy and poor Fort Greene. The entrance in question, on Myrtle Avenue, faces a superblock of public housing complexes; its mostly black and Latino residents frequent the park's north side. Although there new luxury apartments popping up around the Myrtle Avenue corridor, that side of the park closes at 9 p.m., while the southern border at DeKalb Avenue, which faces a stately row of brownstones, closes at 1 a.m.
In 2000, there were almost 35,000 black residents of Fort Greene, or 65 percent of the population. The 2010 census found that black people now make up only 47 percent of the population, while the white population spiked from 18 to 36 percent of the neighborhood. The 18 percent decrease in the black population is 4.5 times greater than the borough average, and nine times greater than the city as a whole.
Despite real estate pressures and divergent opinions over the importance of Bye's design, stakeholders do agree that the park is in need of ADA-compliant upgrades, like handrails and curb cuts, new lighting, enhanced active recreation areas, including a new basketball court, as well as some T.L.C. for cracked walkways and lawns eroded by overuse.
To prepare for the revamp, the Parks Department held a design visioning session in February 2017 at the Ingersoll Houses, one of the public housing complexes across from the park. At that meeting, The Brooklyn Paper reports, the agency presented two plans (one had more trees) and some residents expressed concern that the plans were too similar, leading them to believe the design was "fait accompli." At that same meeting, the paper reported that Parks believed that keeping A.E. Bye's mounds for preservation's sake was ill-advised, as the work doesn't match Olmsted and Vaux's vision. The Parks Department said it didn't know why Bye added his mounds.At last week's Landmarks meeting, though, the commissioners’ discussion focused on the historic issues that the LPC is supposed to weigh in on and deferred any discussion of more urbanistic concerns, such as whether the proposal included enough green space. In addition to representatives from three nonprofits and one landscape architect who specializes in modern landscape preservation, six community members came out to testify against the plan, and four, including one CB2 member and two individuals from the Fort Greene Park Conservancy came out in support of modifying Bye's work. Opinions on the mounds contrasted sharply.
Testimony from urbanists at the City Club of New York, preservation advocacy groups Historic Districts Council (HDC), and Society for the Architecture of the City implied that Parks had cherry-picked historical examples to support its design vision. Christabel Gough, secretary of the Society for the Architecture of the City, suggested the open, monumental Parks Department renders are “more reminiscent of Mussolini’s Rome than Olmsted," while Patrick Waldo of HDC critiqued the Parks Department plan for gesturing to a never-realized McKim, Mead & White scheme instead of actual history. Waldo argued that returning sites to some halcyon “original” was contrary to the intent of contemporary preservation practice.
Landscape architect and preservation consultant Michael Gotkin framed Bye’s mounds as a homage to Olmsted that had to be considered in his era to be fully understood. “In the 1970s, this was their approach to preservation,” Gotkin said. Claiming that Olmsted would have wanted visitors to enter on an axis, as the Parks Department did, was a false assumption; on the contrary, Olmsted's entrances were oblique and visitors were encouraged to discover the access. It would be a mistake to return the park to some way it never was. (The Parks Department diagram that illustrates this argument is laid out on page 33 of its plan.)
Echoing Gotkin’s testimony, Commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron said entering the park from the corner was “antithetical” to previous design approaches, but Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan didn’t quite agree. The commission "doesn't have to reject something because it wasn’t historically here,” she said.
“This is one of the most interesting and difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make,” said Commissioner Frederick Bland.
In light of the conflicting testimony, especially around Bye's work, the commission decided to hold off on a vote. An LPC spokesperson said that once the commission receives a revised design from the Parks Department, it will schedule the item for another public hearing.
Authorities expect the whole of Freshkills Park to be fully open by 2036. More information can be found on the park's website, here.