Building the (New) New York, the Bob and Jane Way

New York in 2016
Image by Nick Higgins
Lower Manhattan in 2016
East River Waterfront Park, rendering courtesy of SHoP/The City of New York
High Line in 2016
Top left, the High Line before (Courtesy of the City of New York). (Rendering courtesy of Field Operations/Dillier Scofidio & Renfo/The City of New York.)
The Brooklyn and Queens Waterfront in 2016
Silvercup West, a Richard Rogers-designed, $1 billion project for a six-acre site just south of the Queensboro Bridge, is one of the most interesting and forward-looking in the city. (Rendering courtesy of Richard Rogers Partnership/Silvercup Studios.)
Harlem in 2016
Columbia Manhattanville (Rendering courtesy of RPBW/SOM)
Fresh Kills in 2016
With miles of biking and running trails, serpentine water features, a wind farm, and a 9/11 memorial, the world's biggest dump is becoming a world-class park. (Inset: Fresh Kills before.)
Downtown Brooklyn in 2016
Atlantic Yards, before (top) and after.
Flushing in 2016
Left: Flushing Commons; top right: Mets Stadium; bottom right: Flushing Town Center
Hunts Point in 2016
Hunts Point Greenway. The Bronx Lafayette Avenue will become a paseo, with a landscaped pedestrian path down the center, ending at Riverside Park. (Rendering courtesy of NYC Economic Development Corp.)

We are a city of 8 million people, give or take a few hundred thousand. But we are building a city for 9 million. Literally. Right now. That will be New York City’s total population just a couple of decades hence, and politicians, bureaucrats, developers, architects, and engineers are, as you read these words, figuring out how to fit another million people onto the collection of islands and peninsulas we call home. We can’t just bulldoze and slap up some towers—we’ve learned some lessons from the sixties—and it isn’t just half a million new homes that we need. Those million need offices, factories, labs to work in. They need subways, buses (and ferries and trams) to commute in. They need places to park and places to play, plus the power to light their homes. All in a city that can’t sprawl. 


This is Tomorrowland—a new city, a city larger than San Francisco, built on top of the city we know. In ten years, New York City will be transformed in ways we can only guess at. But in the pages that follow, you will explore our best guess, based on the plans, the dreams, the cornerstones, and the rising steel in nine city neighborhoods, spread over all five boroughs. In 2016, we won’t be able to be so parochial anymore—one Times Square isn’t going to be enough to fulfill the entertainment needs of that bigger, younger, more diverse population, and you’ll be talking about the lights on 125th Street. Fresh Kills will be three times the size of Central Park. If you imagine the city as a play—every neighborhood has a role—a lot of understudies are finally going to be called onstage. 

When New York didn’t get the Olympics or the Jets, there were lots of pitying articles about how Mayor Bloomberg’s (and Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff’s) big dreams had died. But that was a complete misperception. City agencies went right on ahead with their plans. Greenpoint-Williamsburg rezoning, check. East River waterfront, check. Soon, Governors Island, Willets Point. Eventually, something new on those West Side rail yards. 

And New York is—finally—getting greener. Mandated green city buildings, new sustainable towers in Battery Park City. Community groups dream of more green buildings on the ruins of the Sheridan Expressway. What is fascinating is the recovery and recycling of the works of the city’s greatest bogeyman, Robert Moses. He was responsible for the last great era of park building in the city, but he also sliced apart neighborhoods with highways and towers. Today’s mini-Moseses are combining his initiatives, building parks on the neighborhoods his roadways isolated, transforming infrastructure into landscape architecture. It is on the long-ignored waterfront that the most amazing transformation is occurring. 

Sprinkled like jewelry across this new city fabric are projects, some fabulous, some already outdated, by both the dinosaurs and fledglings of the architectural pantheon. Yes, we’re getting our Gehry (one, two, three, four, maybe more), but also our Morphosis, our ShoP, our TEN Arquitectos. 

But often in some peculiar locations. Piano across from the Port Authority? Gehry in Brooklyn? Viñoly by the Williamsburg Bridge? The New York of 2016 doesn’t husband all the new design ideas in Manhattan but spreads them out. (One can’t help but get a little giddy with all the big names, but there is a dark side to hiring all these out-of-towners. Too often they serve as ambassadors to the upper-middle class for owners with an agenda, cloaking the same old towers in a park. 

The planning phrase on everyone’s lips is “eyes on the street,” the reductio ad absurdum of the argument of the late Jane Jacobs’s 1961 Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs argued that the lifeblood of her then-threatened neighborhood, the Village, was the shopkeepers and homeowners and stoop-sitters who watched the sidewalks and parks for free. Under City Planning commissioner Amanda Burden, neighborhoods are being contextually zoned to preserve their “special character.” 

Jacobs’s vision was lovely but limited, with little room for new buildings, new neighborhoods. Rereading her arguments, one develops a sneaking admiration for the size of Moses’s thoughts. For the city to grow, it needed major change. Under Bloomberg, big thinking is happening again. What we have is a—some would say unholy—alliance of Bob and Jane. Exaltation of the neighborhood, coupled with the idea of building new ones from scratch. The Bloomberg administration still lags in taste at times. Why does every economic-development initiative have to be as big as possible? (Note to gadflies: Many of these projects are not yet set in stone. If you hate it, you can still change it. Start your blog now. But also start imagining an alternative—preferably in PowerPoint.) 

Still, when Majora Carter, executive director of Sustainable South Bronx, stands on the newly green rooftop of the historic American Banknote Company Building and quotes Daniel Burnham, one can’t help but get a little chill. “Make no little plans,” she says. “They have no magic to stir man’s blood,” goes the rest of the quote. For Tomorrowland, little plans haven’t been made. 

Lower Manhattan in 2016
With a new park and starchitect towers (And don’t forget Ground Zero), downtown will become a real neighborhood. 

Ground Zero will be rebuilt. By 2012, perhaps. That’s the date the newly reconciled powers-that-be have picked as their goal. Port Authority vice-chairman Charles Gargano bristles at the suggestion that nothing has happened yet—it’s just that most of the work has been underground. “You need consensus on everything. Abraham Lincoln said, ‘If you don’t have consensus, you don’t get anything done,’ ” says Gargano. Construction has begun on Santiago Calatrava’s transit hub and what is now the Port Authority’s Freedom Tower. There are no design changes under the new setup, but the mayor’s suggestion of moving the memorial museum inside the bunkerlike lobby is being studied. By the end of 2007, the bathtub will also be completed, allowing Larry Silverstein to get started with towers two, three, and four. Tower five, off the site, will likely be sold to a residential developer. Frank Gehry’s performing-arts center and the Norwegian architecture firm Snohetta’s $80 million visitor center are floating somewhere in the ether, with fund-raising stalled. 

Meanwhile, down on the ground with the mortals, north and south but mostly east of ground zero, downtown is rebuilding itself, thank you very much. And not as Wall Street. As the West Village, cobblestone streets, designer condos, quirky cultural institutions, waterfront esplanade, and all. At the top of Fulton Street, Calatrava’s stegasaurian (not soaring) PATH station and Grimshaw Architects’ Fulton transit hub will make elegant work of downtown’s tangle of trains. Commuters, tourists, and residents will pour out of the 21st-century stations. To the west will lie the memorial and the three-block retail corridor the Port Authority plans along Church Street. Workers in towers two, three, and four will enter off the side streets to provide maximum frontage to the upscale retail. To the east lies Manhattan’s new family neighborhood with Fulton as its Main Street. “Lower Manhattan is the fastest-growing residential area in the city right now,” says outgoing Economic Development Corporation president Andrew Alper. “It will go from 23,000 residents to 46,000—double—by 2008. By 2030, the number we are using is roughly 80,000 people. That’s a pretty good-sized city in most parts of the world.” 

Thirty-eight million dollars from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation will widen the sidewalks, restore façades, plant trees, and upgrade parks. The EDC would like to see apartments above the storefronts and wants to make it easier to combine the tiny shops into larger cafés, non-chain stores, maybe even a supermarket. Should they get built, Calatrava’s 80 South Street and Frank Gehry’s Beekman Tower—two blocks north of Fulton—will provide the starchitect quotient, as will (probably) André Balazs’s 15 William Street. A condo conversion with interiors by Armani Casa is in the works, and Phillipe Starck has finished another. 

The social and cultural center of the new neighborhood should be at South Street Seaport, where major renovations are planned by new owners General Growth Properties. Beyer Blinder Belle is redesigning the area to emphasize its incredible site and historic architecture, with, according to plans, greater east-west connections, a cultural tenant, and retail that reflects the new domestic population of the neighborhood. North of Pier 17, a shed that used to be part of the Fulton Fish Market has been selected by the exiled Drawing Center as its new location. The Drawing Center could be the northernmost point of a miniature cultural district. The snazzy, ultracontemporary East River Waterfront Park (almost two miles long and designed by the Richard Rogers Partnership, SHoP, and Ken Smith Landscape Architects) will start on the Lower East Side and sweep around the bottom of the island to the Battery Maritime Building (which is the gorgeous Beaux-Arts depot for an aerial tram to Governors Island). The underside of the FDR Drive becomes the illuminated roof for a series of multiuse pavilions, and, cleaned up, is a place to shelter from rain and sun. In this plan, the piers themselves gain topography, split-level ramps, and lawns that serve as picnic areas and viewing platforms. 

Buy your lunch at the food market the EDC would like to see in the historic market stalls and embark on a two-borough, one-island excursion. “I really see the East River waterfront, Governors Island, and Brooklyn Bridge Park operating as a network,” says City Planning chair Amanda Burden. “You could have lunch in East River Park, go kayaking in Brooklyn Bridge Park, and maybe a cultural activity on Governors Island, all in a day.” 

The Brooklyn and Queens Waterfront in 2016
Could the East Side of the East River become the ultimate address? 

On the East River, the Brando-era waterfront, sidelined by containerization, cut off from the brownstones by a Robert Moses highway project (the BQE), dying a slow industrial death, is being made over. The ragged coastline will be abated, landscaped, and developed into a set of towers (likely shiny and shinier, given the prevailing Meier aesthetic) that will step up, down, and around pockets of green and pockets of work, from Long Island City (for the singles who work in midtown) to Williamsburg (for the couples who work downtown) to Dumbo and Brooklyn Heights (for the families who work from home). To the north will be the glittering Richard Rogers towers of Silvercup West, with 1,000 apartments, eight new soundstages for Silvercup Studios, a waterfront catering hall, office space, stores, and a cultural institution. Down south, Fairway just opened, and next year Ikea will have done so, saving Brooklynites the trip to New Jersey or Harlem. “If you go from the border of Queens at Newtown Creek all the way to Coney Island twenty years from now, on almost every stretch of that waterfront you will see something very different than there is today,” says Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff. 

To get public access and a privately funded waterfront esplanade in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, the 2005 rezoning allows 30- and 40-story condominium towers, a brand-new saw-toothed skyline with visual openings down the east-west streets. “We’re finally opening up the waterfront to these two communities, and to prohibit any more transfer stations, power plants, all those horrible things that had happened to it,” says Burden, who argues that the existing low-rise neighborhood is “protected” by new building height limits inland and the stepping down of those towers to meet the townhouses. 

The first residential project built will likely be Palmer’s Dock, a few blocks from Williamsburg Central, the Bedford Avenue L stop. But given the distance of many sites from the L and the G, one wonders if the newest residents won’t think of themselves as closer to Manhattan, with the river just an extra-wide avenue. Schaeffer Landing, below the bridge, cut a deal with New York Water Taxi, guaranteeing that its residents wouldn’t have to take the J, M, or Z. 

In Brooklyn Heights, the waterfront piers were owned by the Port Authority. When the PA tried a Greenpoint/ Williamsburg–like tower plan in the late eighties, the neighborhood rebelled and counter-proposed the Brooklyn Bridge Park with the agreement that it would be self-sustaining. Those locals are now suing the state over just what that promise entailed, now that annual maintenance—$15.2 million—will be paid for by three towers of 30, 20, and 20 stories. 

Such park-financing models are definitely the wave of the future. “It is a model that is working at Hudson River Park,” Gargano says. “If we can set aside 10 percent of the space that will generate revenue, that is environmentally friendly, and can provide the presence of people located close to the park, that’s a good thing.”

Brooklyn Bridge Park, designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. stresses the site’s connection to the water, with protected bays, rocky beaches, boat launches, and walkways a foot over the East River surface. Van Valkenburgh has tried to make an urban park, one that shows you the piers and mitigates the BQE noise but doesn’t try to be English pastoral or a corporate lunch area. The first section, a set of rolling artificial hills south of the Brooklyn Bridge anchorage, should open in 2010, the rest in 2012. Hiccups in that shiny new fabric will occur in the pockets where the waterfront still works. Or could work. Areas of the waterfront in Williamsburg, Red Hook, and Sunset Park have been designated Industrial Business Zones. Piers 7 through 9, just south of the park, are to remain industrial for the foreseeable future. The shuttered Domino Sugar refinery is going residential, with a design by Rafael Viñoly; and Thor Equities, which has a Vegas vision for Coney Island, is fighting to condo-ize the Revere Sugar refinery in Red Hook. That’s right next door to the Ikea, Topic A in Red Hook. Both plants have photogenic silhouettes—icons of the old waterfront it would be sad to see swept under by the new. 

When Doctoroff talks about the new waterfront economy, he means the Queen Mary 2 anchoring in the Atlantic Basin—in less than ten years, one hopes those tourists will spend the night at a proposed Brooklyn Bridge Park hotel and shop at the marketplace ringing the deep-water basin, rather than taxi immediately to Manhattan.

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