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American Society of Landscape Architects


September 2007 Issue

Not Business as Usual
Five New York City-based landscape architects and one architect donate their time to reimagine the East River waterfront.

By Alex Ulam

Bo Business as Usual C/O Municipal Art Society

This past June, in one of the most remarkable planning exercises in recent New York City history, six leading American design professionals donated their time to collaborate in a daylong charrette at a vacant storefront at United Nations Plaza to produce a bold new vision for the redevelopment of Midtown Manhattan’s forlorn-looking East River waterfront.

The six New York City-based designers included one architect, Ricardo Scofidio of Diller Scofidio+Renfro, and five landscape architects: Kate Orff, ASLA, SCAPE studio; Margie Ruddick, ASLA, WRT; Ken Smith, ASLA, Ken Smith Landscape Architect; Matthew Urbanski, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates; and Brian Jencek of Hargreaves Associates.

Most of the area on which the designers focused, between East 38th Street and East 42nd Street, is presently a no-man’s-land that bears the imprint of a period in city planning when automobiles were given priority over pedestrians. The dominant features include a three-city-block-long site that was formerly home to a Con Edison plant and has since been cleared for development. North of the construction site is a block surrounded by busy automobile traffic arteries and occupied by a blacktopped playground and a massive ventilator shaft building. Across FDR Drive, at the base of the highway’s massive elevated off-ramp, the section of riverfront considered by the designers comprises a former parking lot strewn with trash and surrounded by a barbed-wire fence.

 The goal of the charrette, which was held under the auspices of the Municipal Art Society (MAS), a prominent civic organization devoted to urban planning and design, was to open pedestrian access to the East River and to create a great civic space by coordinating the development agendas for four proposed projects: the United Nations expansion, the renovation of FDR Drive, the extension of Manhattan’s greenway on the East Side, and the redevelopment of the nine-acre former Con Edison site into a complex with luxury residential towers and an office building. “We are trying to bring all of the players together,” says Kent Barwick, president of the MAS. “The purpose was not to do the vision, but a vision—something to get the private sector and the public agencies interested in what could happen there.”

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