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American Society of Landscape Architects


August 2004 Issue

How the West Was Done
At Greenwich Village, a preview of Manhattan's Hudson River Park.

By Allen Freeman

How the West Was Done
Luca Vignelli Photographer

The first segment in the grand remaking of Manhattan's West Side waterfront is in place, and it offers a preview of New York City's largest landscape architecture project since Central Park. When fully finished, circa 2010 (depending on public funding), the $400 million Hudson River Park will radically transform Manhattan's lower West Side and midtown waterfront—once a gritty workplace of merchant ships and a port for the great ocean liners—into a linear parkland.

Completed last year at the edge of Greenwich Village, the first segment offers three new park piers and 3,300 linear feet of esplanade bordered by a sequence of small inland parks. This summer, adults and children have flocked there—in big numbers on pleasant days—entering from the western edge of the village or coming up from Battery Park City or taking the subway from more distant parts of the city. They stroll or bike, play or sunbathe, catch a water taxi, or sit in the sun or shade and gaze downriver to the harbor and the Statue of Liberty, upriver toward the George Washington Bridge, or across to the rising skyline of Hoboken, New Jersey.

The Hudson River Park, of which the new segment is a small part, will parallel the West Side Highway from Battery Park to 59th Street and encompass 13 new recreational piers. Negotiate the five-mile route today by foot or bicycle, and you'll see decrepit old piers with uses—a municipal tow pound, for instance—that are incompatible with recreation interspersed with construction sites where new piers are being built and upland park fragments are taking shape.

Eventually the Hudson River Park's five miles will be a component piece of a 28-mile linear waterfront park system that will encircle Manhattan (see Landscape Architecture: "An Island unto Itself," July 1999, and "East Side Story," August 2003). The completed park will also anchor the southern end of the Hudson River Valley Greenway Trail System, a patchwork of waterfront and community trails extending from Battery Park up to the community of Waterford north of Albany.

Overseeing the construction and maintenance of the Hudson River Park is the Hudson River Park Trust, a public benefit corporation housed in Pier 40 just south of the new Greenwich Village segment. Created in 1998 as a city-state partnership, the trust has selected three teams of landscape architects, marine engineers, and architects for four of the park's seven segments. Leading two of the teams are landscape architects: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates at Chelsea and Sasaki Associates with Donna Walcavage Landscape Architecture + Urban Design at Tribeca. The trust hopes to have final construction documents for these segments next spring. Landscape architect Miceli Kulik Williams and Associates entered a joint venture partnership with architect Richard Dattner & Partners for two more segments adjacent to the Clinton and Hell's Kitchen neighborhoods. These segments are under construction.

For the segment at Greenwich Village, the New York State Economic Development Corporation selected a team in early 1998, before the Hudson River Trust came into existence, and then the trust took over the $46 million project as the client and owner. Howard Abel, FASLA, of Abel Bainnson Butz led that team, negotiating with city agencies and community groups and refining the design with the trust. "The trust felt a responsibility to reanalyze what it had inherited," Abel says, referring to the work the Greenwich Village team had already completed. "We added some new program elements and facilities and looked closely at the design of the entrance, but the park's theory didn't change."

To go into the park from the West Village, you cross the West Side Highway's six lanes at the Christopher Street light. A display fountain surrounded by ample places to sit marks the entrance into the north-south esplanade. Examples of the Hudson River Park's design vocabulary are immediately evident: bluestone and granite paving, art deco-inspired light standards, a stainless steel railing with an ipe hardwood handrail at the bulkhead, and the weathered old stone bulkhead itself.

Several hundred feet upriver, the straight esplanade inflects inland in a shallow semicircle called a bow notch. This smooth bite out of the bulkhead was taken years ago to accommodate the largest ocean liners. A new pedestrian bridge suspended over the water at the line of the bulkhead now lets you walk across the notch. A couple of pleasantly understated freestanding pavilions rise on the upland side, one for restrooms and the other for concessions. The pavilions' shallow vaulted roofs, their profiles facing the water, echo the curve of the bow notch.

You can walk out into the river on the largest of the new segment's three new piers, Pier 45, which extends 800 feet into the Hudson. (All three piers were built over the piles of historic piers.) Near its center is a long panel of grass that tilts very slightly toward the south. Along its northern edge, benches curve in a design suggestive of rolling waves. Surrounding the grass are areas of boardwalk and patterned pavement with ramps and short runs of stairs. Tensile fabric canopies and small bosks of honey locusts offer spots of shade. The park's lightweight, comfortable chairs are not affixed to the deck, and users looking for companionship or sun or shade frequently rearrange them. An open shower provides a place to cool off on hot days.

To the north lie the new Piers 46 and 51. Extending about 400 feet into the river, Pier 46 offers picnic tables and synthetic turf for touch football or Frisbee. Pier 46 is more programmed and—so far—less frequented than the longer Pier 45 to its south. At the end of Pier 46, wooden piles protrude slightly above water level. The pile field marks the length of old Pier 46 and serves as a marine habitat. Farther upriver, another full-length pile field—all that is evident of old Pier 49—has been reserved for possible future development. Near the north end of Segment Four (also known as the Greenwich Village segment), stubby Pier 51 reaches only about 100 feet into the Hudson as a children's play area with a nautical theme and water features that have proved to be popular.

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The inland green strip between the esplanade and the Hudson River Bikeway (which runs next to the West Side Highway) is interrupted by entrances at Christopher Street and other intersecting east-west streets and by slight changes in grade and a variety of plantings, from evergreens to roses. To help keep some of the traffic noise out of the park, Abel Bainnson Butz sloped the ground up against the highway and densely planted the park's east ridge. The occasional breaks open views of the park and river for cyclists and motorists.

"Our development pattern is first to demolish the old piers because they are falling apart," says Marc Boddewyn, ASLA, the Hudson River Trust's vice president for design and construction, in explaining the wholesale demolition and reconstruction of the waterfront. "That's because we have obligations to the state and federal governments not to let debris fall into the river. You can maintain the wooden piers if you have the money, but the structures were often built for a 30-year lifespan. They would rebuild these things every 10 to 20 years as uses changed or piers burned down or vessels crashed into them."

Boddewyn and Connie Fishman, the trust's president, are giving a run-through tour of the park in late May, starting at its northern end at 59th Street: "Look over there at old Pier 97," he says. "The [pier's fenders are] in better shape than I would have thought, but the timber itself isn't. For anything in the splash zone, if marine borers and other organisms don't [destroy the wood], a good old case of rot will." A landscape architect, Boddewyn leads a trust staff of only two—a marine engineer and another landscape architect who works as a project manager—and oversees a battalion of engineering and construction consultants that expands and contracts according to the workload.

Asked why the park's new piers are being constructed only where old ones stood, Fishman replies that the Army Corps of Engineers and the New York State Department of Environmental Construction—the agencies that regulate water construction in the Hudson—mandate it. "We can't add piers in places where there were none previously, and we can't increase the total amount of covered-over area from what it is today," she says. "In particular, the agencies that look at fish resources try to maintain continuity. The fish get used to their environment and interact with it in a certain way."

The fish, or at least some of them, like sun. "In addition to not wanting to shade new areas, the agencies also don't want the pattern of water and the way it flows through the existing piers to be radically changed," she continues. "So when we rebuild a pier, we leave most of the timber piles in place, even though they no longer have any weight-bearing capacity." Reconstruction involves selective removal of old wooden piles, which are replaced with precast concrete versions, spaced about 25 feet apart in bents of six or seven across, to support new concrete decks.

Look where the pile fields are sticking up, Fishman says. "There are always more birds and fish around the old piles than in the areas where the water flows freely. The wood attracts barnacles and worms and other things that attach themselves to the piles. The fish come and eat those, and the birds come and eat the fish. And so it goes."

Fish habitat affects the progress at West 56th Street near the north end of Hudson River Park, where a public boathouse is being constructed as part of the new Clinton Cove project. Except for the plantings, Clinton Cove, which will include a floating public pier, is expected to be complete by summer's end. This brings up another ecological prohibition: a moratorium on pile driving in the river from the first of November to the first of May. "The juvenile striped bass like the winter here," Fishman says, "and then when the water warms up, they leave and go out in the ocean. Pile driving shakes up the sediment, and the fish don't like the vibration." The moratorium increases construction costs, she says, because fall shutdown and springtime remobilization add time to the job.

Asked the trust's criteria for landscape architecture design, Fishman says the trust seeks a degree of consistency through design elements like the railing and light pole but believes that each area should be designed by different teams to express neighborhood character. The trust staff, together with its board of directors, makes the designer selections, she said. The 13-person board includes not only public officials like the governor, the mayor, and Manhattan's borough president but also Madelyn Wils, a community activist and member of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. Fishman mentions Wils as one of those important to the trust's approach to community involvement and reviews as well as designer selection.

But it was Fishman, as executive director at the trust's inception five years ago and more recently as the trust's president, who set the policy of putting landscape architects in leading roles on each of the projects. Boddewyn says that Fishman did this because she fully understands the roles of landscape architects, marine engineers, and architects. Fishman herself says, "New York is really a building city, not a landscape city, and this is the biggest park project that has been going on here for years. Finding the firms with the capacity to do the job was part of the selection criteria because these jobs take a lot of work."

Howard Abel, as leader of the Greenwich Village segment team, puts participation in building the park into a practitioner's perspective: "For us, as landscape architects, to get commissions like this, to [lead] a $46 million project, is really where all of us in the profession want to be. That, and the fact that New Yorkers love to visit the park."

Hudson River Park Segment Four (Greenwich Village). Owner: Hudson River Park Trust. Landscape architect: Abel Bainnson Butz, New York City. Architect: Sowinski Sullivan Architects. Marine engineer: Han-Padron Associates. Civil, structural, and mechanical engineer: Afridi Associates. Lighting designer: Domingo Gonzalez Associates. Railing design: R. G. Roesch/Office of William B. Kuhl. Cost estimator: V. J. Associates. Surveyor: Topo-Metrics. cadd consultant:cadd Management Consulting. Contractors: Charles Street to West 11th Street, Ferreira Brothers Contracting; West 11th Street to West 12th Street, William A. Gross Construction Association; upland and piers, Tully Construction. Construction manager:dmjm + Harris.

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