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American Society of Landscape Architects


October 2007 Issue

Building on a Gritty Legacy
The design for Riverside Park South recalls New York City’s industrial infrastructure.

By Alex Ulam

Building on a Gritty Legacy Bruce Katz

All too often the vigor of contemporary New York City park designs is weakened by the incorporation of historicist motifs such as replicas of 19th-century metal picket fences or renditions of timeworn aesthetics such as Frederick Law Olmsted’s layering of beds of flowering plants against backdrops of evergreens.

However, the design of Riverside Park South by Thomas Balsley Associates incorporates a different kind of history. Instead of trying to re-create some generic naturalistic idyll that could be located anywhere, this design celebrates the specific natural and industrial history of its site, located on the banks of the Hudson River on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

The park’s design recalls the waterfront’s preindustrial era by incorporating, with the exception of some ornamental grasses, the indigenous plants that flourished there in the days before Manhattan became the center of a modern metropolis. The design also recalls the railroad yard, which was located there from the 1850s until 1970. Along with spectacular views of the river, there are vistas of decrepit transportation infrastructure, darkened and twisted into ghostly sinuous shapes with the passage of time. The trains that ran on this site could turn only at a 22-degree angle to reach the river’s commercial piers; pedestrian pathways located at the same angle follow the train routes, leading out to promontories overlooking grids of black pilings from the piers that once lined the site. There are also rusting carcasses of the railroad transfer bridges that were used for transferring rail boxcars from the barges that went back and forth to the rail yards in New Jersey. In the northern part of the park stands the West 69th Street Transfer Bridge, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In the early 20th century, this structure was a state-of-the-art piece of industrial equipment that was one of the fastest means of unloading waterborne cargo. The operator’s cabin, which sits three stories high and is supported by a pair of massive metal trusses, raised and lowered the transfer bridge, which connected the tracks on the shore with the tracks on the barges that carried the boxcars.

While it celebrates the site’s past, the park’s design is also decidedly modern. Adjacent to the railroad gantry is the one pier in the park that has been rebuilt: the 715-foot-long Pier I, which has been reconstructed in a curved shape with brushed metal railings and metal grill benches. Riverside Park South represents a breakthrough for contemporary waterfront parks, which is especially significant in New York City, where more than 700 acres of waterfront parks and public spaces are either in planning stages or under construction. Balsley has managed to make a bold design statement at a time when the plans for public amenities in the city frequently suffer from the input of too many stakeholders and end up with the “designed by committee” look. Riverside Park South has benefited also from a public–private partnership that has insulated the design process from many of the commercial trade-offs that are common in other parks dependent on private funding. In addition, although private developers are financing the park’s construction, the special corporation established to oversee its construction is completely independent. The park itself is physically separated from luxury condominium buildings by a boulevard, preventing ambiguity about what part is public and what part is private. Perhaps the only drawback of the Riverside Park South project is that it has taken so long to be built.

Even now, 17 years after Thomas Balsley, FASLA, began working on the park, it is still far from complete. The first waterfront phase of the 21.5-acre park was completed in April 2001. The fourth and last waterfront section of the park will be completed this fall and planted next spring, linking up with the historic Riverside Park designed by Olmsted to the north and the northern segment of the new Hudson River Park designed by Dattner Architects and MKW + Associates to the south. Phases five and six in the upland areas of Riverside Park South, east of the Miller Highway Viaduct, which bisects the entire park, are under design, and their construction will begin in about 2009. Phase seven will start at some unspecified date. However, even once the upland phases are finished, its full realization will not be achieved until the Miller Viaduct, which casts shadows on everything beneath it, is demolished and its replacement roadway is buried in a tunnel. This may happen in 2025, when because of age the structure is due to be replaced. Still, the fact that this park exists and is now finally moving toward completion is due to a Promethean feat of willpower on the part of Balsley and the civic and community groups that pressed for its construction. 

The park was born from one of the most contentious land-use disputes in New York City history. Throughout the 1980s, Donald Trump, the legendary developer who had regained control of the 75-acre former Penn Central rail yard site after an abortive attempt to develop it in the mid-1970s, released several plans for what would have been one of the largest commercial/residential developments in the city.

But Trump faced formidable obstacles to his grandiose schemes; he needed municipal approval to get the area rezoned from industrial to residential so that he could build his development. However, Upper West Side community members and civic groups were trying to stop him by initiating lawsuits and lobbying politicians. “We had a very strong community base as well as a coalition of all the civic organizations citywide and local,” says Roberta Brandes Gratz, an Upper West Side resident and prominent author of books on urban affairs, who formed the group Westpride at her kitchen table as part of the effort to force Trump to scale back his ambitions for the former rail yard. “He was smart enough to understand that to go forward he needed to make some concessions.”

A coalition of civic organizations, including Westpride, hired its own designers to create a revised plan for Trump’s Riverside South project. The plan, released in 1990, reduced the scale of Trump’s development to a series of moderately tall residential buildings and reduced the overall development space by more than half. The coalition pledged to support Trump’s development in the city’s land-review process if he accepted the broad outlines of their plan, which also called for his donating land for the creation of a 21.5-acre public riverfront park. In addition, the coalition demanded that Trump fund the Riverside South Planning Corporation, which would include representatives from the neighborhood, the civic groups, and Trump’s own organization. The corporation was to be charged with establishing design guidelines for the buildings and the park and overseeing their construction. In 1991 Trump reached an accord with the civic groups in which he acceded to most of their demands. “He knew that there were going to be years of fighting ahead, and I think that he had reason to worry that he might be slowed down or stopped,” says Kent Barwick, president of the Municipal Art Society, a prominent civic organization devoted to planning.

Trump has since sold his interest in the development to the Extell Corporation, and after many delays, the developers have picked up the pace of construction to take advantage of the red-hot New York City real estate market. Eight massive apartment buildings have already been built and two new ones are under construction. When the development is finally completed, it will consist of 14 buildings occupying a grid of new city blocks adjacent to the waterfront park. As part of an agreement that Trump signed with the city, the developers must make more funds available for a new phase of park construction. For each square foot of new building space the developers contribute approximately $12 in capital costs for an equivalent amount of park construction. The developers are also initially responsible for paying for the park’s maintenance, which will eventually be covered by fees the apartment owners pay. Gratz says that she believes the terms of the agreement with Trump are unique among the many different kinds of public–private partnerships in the city and that the Riverside South model has proved much more successful than others involving developer commitments to fund creation of public space. “Historically in New York there are all these commitments to build a park or some other amenity,” she says, “but somewhere along in the process the money runs out, the plans change, and either the amenity gets canceled or it gets highly compromised.”

The Riverside South model is especially effective for financing the upkeep of waterfront parks, which generally cost significantly more to maintain than inland parks, says Charles McKinney, Affiliate ASLA, chief of design for the parks department and former administrator for Riverside Park. “The city and the state do not have enough money to maintain these parks at a very high standard, so you need to think about where the money is going to come from. You can only make so much money selling ice cream and hot dogs or having a restaurant, but you really cannot come close to paying for everything,” he says. “The thing that makes the most sense is somehow having the people who live nearest the park pay some increment toward the operation of the park, because it is their property values [that will be] enhanced.”

Initially, the corporation hired Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, to design the park, but his plan, which had a heavy emphasis on public art projects, proved controversial, and he was replaced by Balsley. Back in the 1990s, Balsley says, it wasn’t clear when the park would be built.

Many in the community were even willing to sacrifice the park if that’s what it took to stop Trump’s development. One Upper West Side resident, Mary Frances Shaughnessy, who is a member of the Riverside Park Fund, a friends group for Riverside Park, said that the notion of making compromises with the developer was extremely unpopular with many people in her neighborhood. “There was a lot of controversy, even in my own organization, the Riverside Park Fund,” says Shaughnessy, who currently serves as the organization’s representative to the Riverside South Planning Corporation. “We took some heavy hits because people were upset that we were going to bed with Trump, and for a long time our credibility was really at stake.”

A lack of capital also slowed the process. “It took awhile for us to start getting traction, because this is totally tied into the real estate market,” Balsley says. “The park is being built with private money, development money, and they only build as much of the park as they are obliged to build. That was why I was a little skeptical about whether we would ever see a completed park from 72nd Street to 59th Street anytime soon, because that was a lot of buildings that you would need to [finance], but now we have probably hit the strongest real estate cycle ever in recorded New York City history—so they already have us working on phases five and six.”

The park design process was already under way in 1991 when some of the community members and some powerful Upper West Side politicians, including Congressman Jerrold Nadler, whose district includes Riverside South, succeeded in derailing the plans for relocating the highway underground. He favored returning the site to its former use as a rail yard, and the thinking at the time was that by keeping the viaduct in place the opponents of the development could quash the plans for the overall development. Although the antidevelopment faction was not able to stop Trump, it succeeded in postponing the moving of the viaduct, which greatly complicated the design process for the park. “The community mounted sufficient pressure to prevent the highway from going underground,” says McKinney, “but in the end the developer didn’t care if the highway was underground or not.” Initially, Balsley had designed a plan for the park that was predicated on the removal of the Miller Viaduct. But in 1991, at the 11th hour, when Balsley was finalizing his plan, he was compelled to develop an alternative that anticipated the possibility that the viaduct might never be removed. “Just before we got the approvals we were forced to do an alternative design, the Interim Park Plan. It had to anticipate that the highway would never go down.”

The design of the four waterfront sections of the park will, for the most part, be unaffected by whether or not the viaduct is eventually removed. However, the viaduct’s presence required major adjustments to Balsley’s initial master plan in the unfinished upland sections. To use the space beneath the viaduct where the shadows make it difficult for things to grow, Balsley located basketball and handball courts there. As part of the Interim Park Plan, Balsley also designed a steep slope up to the platform on which Riverside Boulevard, the development’s partially completed main north–south thoroughfare, is located. To avoid putting pressure on the viaduct’s supports, the slope had to be made steeper than would have otherwise been necessary, and at its base a concrete relieving platform had to be built to absorb the weight of the slope pushing downward.

As a result of recent developments, it appears that the viaduct might come down after all, which would have a significant impact on the design of the unfinished sections of the park. In 2001, the federal government identified the removal of the highway as a preferred alternative to rebuilding it. Last year, work started on the underground tunnels for the highway located in the eastern edge of the park as part of an effort to save the expense and disruption of having to dig up sections of the park at a later date, if and when the viaduct comes down. The tunnel construction project has resulted in the postponing of phase five and the implementation of what is known as the Modified Interim Park Plan. When the viaduct is eventually rerouted into the tunnels, the hardscape recreation areas will be relocated and the steep slope that leads up to the condominiums will be regraded into a lawn rolling down to the riverfront sections of the park.

Despite the site’s various constraints and the complicated technical hurdles, Balsley says that the planning process established for Riverside Park South provided him with more autonomy than has been the case for other designers in big waterfront park projects under way in New York City such as Hudson River Park, where he says the community has had substantially more influence and the Hudson River Park Trust has “micromanaged” the design process. Balsley also says he worked hard to gain the trust of the community during the master plan process for Riverside Park South, which he says resulted in his having more freedom later when he began to design the individual phases. “What I learned was to [initially] back away from strong design ideas and allow the whole concept to be flexible and just protect it, so that when that process was finished, we could then go back in and insert the strong design ideas,” he says. “When you start out in a process like that, if you come out of the blocks with ‘this is what we are going to do,’ then it goes nowhere.”

McKinney, the parks department design chief, says although the city is the ultimate client, the design process has benefited from being under the aegis of the Riverside South Planning Corporation. “The planning corporation is an informed constituency,” he says. “They are all professionals—organizations like the Municipal Art Society and the Riverside Park Fund—and they represent big ideas. They are thinking at the scale of the city rather than the ‘I want, I want, I want’ of individuals.”

In addition to escaping endless community reviews for each step of the project, the design process established for Riverside Park South also took control of important design decisions away from the developer. For example, instead of the self-contained complex that Trump had initially pushed for, the compromises that the civic groups wrangled out of him included his commitment to a plan for the Riverside South development that connects it both to the park and to the rest of the city. Balsley, who also did the streetscaping guidelines for the Riverside South development, says these street connections to the rest of the city are a crucial factor in the park’s success as a public space.

In contrast to many other New York City waterfront parks, which are frequently cut off from the rest of the city by highways, Riverside Park South connects directly to Manhattan’s street grid through the new city blocks created by the development project. Also important to the park’s public aspect is the newly constructed Riverside Boulevard, which overlooks the park. Balsley says that back in the 1990s these street connections, which were established through the overall planning process for Riverside South, went against standard urban planning practices of the day. “The conventional thinking by planners was to build the buildings right up against parks and remove those streets and let it be a seamless experience,” Balsley says. “But now we want streets, because streets define what is public and what is private, and they help mitigate a development’s natural instinct, which is to believe that a park is their front yard.” This proclivity “was not a problem in this case, because we had Riverside Boulevard, and we had the Riverside South Planning Corporation as a watchdog. So in terms of public–private partnerships, there were so many safety measures in place that the developer was never going to have any influence over what the park looked like.”

In contrast to the colorful flowering beds of plants found in many New York City parks, Balsley primarily uses grasses and leafy trees. The park’s plantings, most of which are indigenous to the Hudson River waterfront, include grasses such as spartina, little bluestem, and flame grass arranged in geometric sculptural planes rather than the Olmstedian layered naturalistic approach that prevails in many other New York City parks.

McKinney says that Balsley’s design for Riverside Park South is introducing New Yorkers to a fundamentally new type of landscape. “We have a bias in New York City—we love the naturalistic,” he says, “but Tom to his credit has said that there are other kinds of beauty—he really distills the plantings. It doesn’t have as much variety as you would in Hudson River Park or Riverside Park, but the plantings are beautiful and they are arranged abstractly, like trapezoids of different kinds of grasses. Sometimes there are layered views where you see one kind of grass behind another kind of grass, and the contrasts call attention to the character of each plant.”

Through the design’s internal pedestrian circulation system, which uses Olmstedian-style curvilinear paths, the park echoes the adjacent Riverside Park to the north. The paths provide a sense of discovery by winding around concrete retaining walls, beds of tall grasses, and small hillocks ending at dramatic outlooks over the river. However, although Balsley is incorporating elements of a layout that is associated with Olmsted, he uses it for a different purpose.

“Olmsted was very much inspired by creating views and vistas in a city where there were none,” says Balsley. “But here all the attention is directed west to the river—there is a little framing of views, but it is not like a series of park rooms.” Balsley says that he was careful to avoid using any historicist motifs in his design. “You have to be very careful of storytelling because it can become theme park-like,” he says. “The gantries are the motifs—but we have tried to keep the message subtle, because we think that there is enough power in those to tell the story.”

However, in some places, the parks department, in conjunction with the Riverside South Planning Corporation, has installed features such as a historic train locomotive, which deviates a bit from Balsley’s preference for understatement. “We felt that other than the landscape architects themselves or people who are really working hard to see those things, most people would not understand that this once had been a massive rail yard that had huge economic importance to the city of New York,” says Michael Bradley, former executive director of Riverside South Planning Corporation. “So the last two segments that have been constructed...have more literal design cues to the railroad history.”

Riverside Park South has benefited from a designer who is willing to buck tradition without being insensitive to the needs of park users. The park’s success also substantially reflects the aggressive engagement of civic and community groups, which established ways to protect the design process and to ensure the park’s future maintenance is fully funded. Then there is the fortuitous layout of the site—it is not cut off from the waterfront by highways, as are many other New York City waterfront parks. One of the most striking aspects of this project, at a time when public–private partnerships are becoming a key element in the financing of parks, is the great deal that the public was able to wring from the developers. “As much as I don’t think of Trump as a positive developer,” says Gratz of Westpride, “the city got concessions from him in a way that it doesn’t even try to get today.

Alex Ulam is a freelance journalist who writes frequently on architecture and design for publications such as The Architect’s Newspaper and Architectural Record.

PROJECT CREDITS Lead design: Thomas Balsley Associates, New York City (Thom-as Balsley, FASLA, Sam Laurence, Michael Koontz, ASLA, Steven Tupu, ASLA, Jeffery Dragan, ASLA, Allyson Mendenhall, Shigeo Kawasaki). Consultants: Lee Weintraub, FASLA, Lee Weintraub Landscape Architecture, Yonkers, New York, and Jody Pinto, public artist, New York City (Schematic collaboration); AKRF, New York City (Utility engineering); Philip Habib Associates, New York City (Civil engineer); OLKO Engineering, New York City (Marine).

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