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East Side Story
Manhattan activists get what they wanted: along the degraded, industrial waterfront, a sinuous new park and an environmental center.
By Allen Freeman
Photographs by Max Donoso Saint

We observe that (a) nature abhors a straight line and that (b) Manhattan is laid out in straight lines. A hundred and fifty years ago, Frederick Law Olmsted, who insisted that artifice should imitate nature, set out to engineer natural-appearing contours into some 1,300 acres of worn-out land near the middle of the island; eight years ago, Brooklyn-based landscape architect Donna Walcavage, ASLA, began a similar quest on a thin strip of land along the East River. The result is curvilinear Stuyvesant Cove Park, and if the curves are transparently man-made—imposed, as they are, on a flat plane and sandwiched between an arrowlike concrete bulkhead and a strip of elevated highway—they are nonetheless welcome. Unlike Central Park, which conceals its ruse, Stuyvesant Cove is what it appears to be: a man-made park on a reclaimed waterfront.

“The design team wanted to break from the model of a straight shot for miles along the waterfront, a walk that had to be set up against the rail, immediately next to the river, X feet wide,” Walcavage says. “We wanted to make the form of the park as sinuous and flowing as the river itself.” Like a river—or like a tidal strait, an arm of the Hudson River Estuary, which is what the East River really is—Stuyvesant Cove Park’s serpentine path widens and narrows. Sections hard against the bulkhead rail alternate with stretches in which planting beds are foreground to river views.

Walcavage received the commission in 1996, the park opened last year, and it was dedicated this June, a long birth for only about three acres. But the park’s history extends back 18 years, and the fact that it is there at all is due to a community’s persistence through protests and conflicting visions—not to mention very long community meetings. Along the way, Walcavage, her staff, and their collaborators listened and gave the community the park they wanted.

Stuyvesant Cove Park
Stuyvesant Cove Park, by Donna Walcavage Landscape Architecture + Urban Design, puts curves into a slender site between the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive and the East River.
East Side Story: Photo by Max Donoso Saint

On the east side of Manhattan Island at 23rd Street and Avenue C, under the viaduct for Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive, Walcavage begins a tour of the new park. A fairly large Gulf station stands on the northeast corner; the Bellevue Hospital complex rises in the block to the north; the Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town apartment buildings line Avenue C to the south. Skyports, a six-story parking garage covered in ugly metal panels, occupies a pier jutting into the East River. Stuyvesant Cove Park extends south of this intersection.

Stuyvesant Cove is a thin nook of shoreline, about a quarter of the way up the length of Manhattan from Battery Park, where the east side of the island turns in slightly. The area was envisioned for riverside parkland before Manhattan was platted in the 1840s, but port and industrial uses prevailed. “The working piers disappeared years ago,” Walcavage says. “There was a pier for a floating hospital ship, a pier for a ferry that crossed to Queens. And then there was a big concrete plant here; it was used in the building of the World Trade Center, as far as I know, and probably for a lot of the buildings in the postwar building boom. Materials were barged in and concrete was barged out.”

She points out a little prefab building with solar collectors and says it is standing in for a yet-to-be-built environmental center. “The community wanted something environmentally friendly,” she says. “They wanted something that reflected the environment of the estuary, and they wanted a lot of plantings. They didn’t want a playground because there’s already one nearby.”

South of this spot, along the park’s western edge, a ribbon of asphalt skirts the columns supporting FDR Drive. This straight strip, contrasting with the rest of the new park, is a portion of the East River Bikeway. Carr Lynch & Sandell of Cambridge, Massachusetts, working with Walcavage’s firm and consultants BRW of Minneapolis, master planned 5.5 miles of the East River Bikeway and Esplanade in 1995, and about half of that length is built, Walcavage says. The bikeway and esplanade will extend from Battery Park to East 63rd Street, north of the Queensboro Bridge, and will be part of a 28-mile system of bikeways, esplanades, and parks that will eventually encircle all of Manhattan (see “An Island unto Itself,” Landscape Architecture, July 1999).

Along Stuyvesant Cove’s meandering curves, the pattern created by the walkway’s blue, green, and white asphalt paving tiles approximates waves. “We’ve been doing patterns that are more abstract but that have some sort of order to them,” Walcavage says. “I don’t care whether this green block is here or there, and [the workers who lay the tile] are going to make mistakes anyway.” Indeed, it is difficult to recognize any arrangement in the tiles at all. Dryly, she adds, “You might be able to see the pattern from a satellite.”

Edging the curves are planting beds, raised and bounded by cobblestones; boulders are scattered in the beds and along the borders. Site excavation, Walcavage says, revealed successive layers of paving 15 to 18 inches thick, “which was good because we really didn’t want to dig, didn’t want to disturb. We had no idea what we might find. This land is fill, soaked with gasoline. And, mostly at the back of the site along the bikeway, there are a lot of utility lines.” (A large Consolidated Edison electrical generating plant with smokestacks dominates the skyline just south of the park.) Workers excavated down 18 inches or so, put in gravel, broken stone, and a filter fabric, and brought in large quantities of topsoil. The cobblestones are salvage from the site, cleaned and reused.

Woodchip paths through the beds offer walkers alternatives to the hard asphalt as well as access to gazebos at the back of the park, near the bikeway. The boulders are also from the site. “They offer places to sit,” Walcavage says. Stuyvesant Cove’s benches, made of galvanized and stainless steel with wooden seats, were designed by Steve Carr and Dan Gorini of Carr Lynch & Sandell for the East River Bikeway. Some are shortened into chair versions. Lengths of railings at the river follow close to the bulkhead. They alternate with segments that curve back into the park and around the beds. Overall, the park plantings are native species—including foamflower, seaside goldenrod, Carolina rose, and golden groundsel—and consist of large areas of bloom combined with grasses. The first plantings in the outlying beds—Joe Pye weed and andropogon—didn’t thrive because the soil was subject to a high-tide brackish soaking twice a day. A more salt-tolerant saltmeadow cordgrass has substituted.

Halfway along the length of the park, remnants from the former concrete factory project like a natural reef about 60 feet out from the bulkhead into the river. “People around here call it an outcrop,” Walcavage explains. “They love to crawl out there. Unfortunately, it’s next to a CSO.” She explains that CSO stands for combined sewer overflow that, when it rains a lot, collects the extra stormwater, mixes it with sewage, and dumps the mess into the rivers. “Not a wonderful feature,” she says. “We wanted to build a platform out over the outcrop, but we ended up just putting a maintenance gate along the bulkhead. Carter Craft, of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, thinks the gate is the single best thing about the park because you can actually get to the water if you can get someone to unlock it.”

The vision for a park at this point on the East River grew out of a protest. In the mid-1980s, New York City selected a developer for a project called Riverwalk—five residential towers, a hotel, an office building, and a plaza—to be built on a pile-supported platform along the East River between 16th and 24th Streets. But then the economy took a downswing, and citizens—primarily middle-class residents of the Peter Cooper Village, Stuyvesant Town, and Waterside Plaza apartment buildings—rallied against the development. Calling themselves Citizens United against Riverwalk (CUAR), they contended that pile-supported platform constructions, especially ones as big as Riverwalk, would overwhelm the area’s sewage treatment capacity, harm aquatic life, and set a precedent for such projects elsewhere in the city. The plan was withdrawn in 1990.

With the help of Manhattan Community Board 6, whose jurisdiction includes much of the East Side in midtown, a pro-park faction within CUAR formed a new group, the Stuyvesant Cove Park Association, which pieced together some funding from city programs and local elected officials and produced a pamphlet that set forth a vision for the waterfront. It called for a park with an environmental theme and an environmental center.

Jeannette Rausch, the senior vice president for waterfront redevelopment at the New York City Economic Development Corporation, says she started attending community meetings and arranged for the park association to apply for federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act enhancement funds. The funds, which were used to master plan a park, were available because the New York State Department of Transportation, in a six-year project to rebuild the FDR Drive viaduct, was using a portion of the site as a construction staging area.

Seven years ago, the Economic Development Corporation was ready to move, having amassed additional funds from city and federal sources. Some money also came from the Department of Transportation. When the FDR Drive work was done, the state agency proposed an in-house design for site remediation, an action that infuriated members of the park association because it conflicted with the neighborhood group’s plans. The Economic Development Corporation negotiated, and ultimately the department chipped in to build Stuyvesant Cove Park, which cost $8.3 million including reconfiguration of Avenue C and other roadwork.

The Stuyvesant Cove Park Association remains active today. It has partnered with the Community Environmental Center, organizing volunteers for park maintenance and monitoring the site. It also maintains a web site (www.stuyvesantcove.org) and publishes a newsletter that in content resembles a small-town news- paper, reporting, for example, on efforts by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to remove the outcrop and featuring a birder’s journal.

Last year, the Waterfront Center, a nonprofit education and urban planning organization based in Washington, D.C., recognized Stuyvesant Cove with a national award for excellence, and the Economic Development Corporation received the Governor’s Waterfront ReDiscovery Award, which recognizes “leaders in planning, designing, or implementing dramatic positive waterfront revitalization.” Walcavage gives much credit to Rausch, who was trained as a landscape architect and became an urban planner.

As for Walcavage herself, she hopes to return to the park. Ultimately, she says, she would like to be able to cut away parts of the granite bulkhead, following along the lines of the waterside planting beds, and make areas with rocky edges and pockets of plants, “partly wetland and partly tidal marsh.”

Then Stuyvesant Cove will more closely approximate the nature it mimics.

PROJECT CREDITS
Landscape architect: Donna Walcavage Landscape Architecture + Urban Design (formerly the New York City office Johansson & Walcavage Landscape Architects); Donna Walcavage, principal in charge; Ila DiPasquale, project manager; Manwa Pang; Lula Blackwell-Hafner; Terry Johnson; Anthony Brown.
Urban design and planning: Carr Lynch & Sandell.
Engineers: Daniel Frankfurt, consulting engineers, civil and structural engineers, and construction management.
Consultants: AKRF, Inc., environmental and planning consulting; Atkinson Koven & Feinberg Engineers, LLP, electrical.
Client: New York City Economic Development Corporation; Jeannette Rausch, senior vice president; Alyssa Cobb; Jawad Assaf.


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