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'Close the Gap' Exhibition Showcases Ideas for East River Greenway

By Mary Johnson | January 19, 2012 7:26am
Jim Stokoe and Gerhard Abel tied for first place in a design competition to generate ideas for what the East River Greenway could look like between East 38th and East 60th streets.
Jim Stokoe and Gerhard Abel tied for first place in a design competition to generate ideas for what the East River Greenway could look like between East 38th and East 60th streets.
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DNAinfo/Mary Johnson

GRAMERCY — A plan to close the gap in the East River Greenway may be a long way from completion, but that hasn't stopped architects and designers from envisioning everything the proposed esplanade could become.

Transportation Alternatives, along with community volunteers and an architectural organization called d3, spearheaded an international design competition last year to come up with innovative ideas for the stretch of riverfront. The top submissions went on display inside the Newman Library at Baruch College Tuesday night.

They will remain there until Feb. 28.

The East River Greenway, a stretch from East 38th Street to East 60th Street, was the subject of intense debate and controversy last year as elected officials and community residents hashed out the details of a plan to pay for the immense public project.

In the end, Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed off on an agreement that will allow the city to engage in a complicated real estate deal with the United Nations to generate the necessary funding, but the start of construction is likely still years away.

Despite the distant promise of a greenway, the Close the Gap contest attracted some 58 entries from 22 different countries, said Sandra McKee, an architect and a volunteer who helped organize the competition.

None of the entrants is guaranteed that anything will come of the ideas, but McKee said the designs will be passed along to the city, if requested.

"A competition is a great way to get ideas, free ideas," said McKee, who noted that past design events with community members have put forward somewhat limited concepts for the 22-block stretch.

"So we’re hoping this can loosen them up a little bit."

Of the 58 entries, two winners were selected — Jim Stokoe of Washington, D.C., and Gerhard Abel, of Pla.net Architects in Vienna, Austria. The two designs are markedly different and draw upon varying sources of inspiration.

"The East River, we felt, was just this beautiful, powerful force, but also very vulnerable," said Stokoe, who worked on the project with his daughter, a fifth-year architecture student.

"We also thought about the city and how we could make a better connection from the city grid to the river."

Stokoe proposed filling the gap in the greenway with a series of bridges that would include a skyway running past the United Nations. He also wanted to divide the chunk of the esplanade into segments based on the unique character of the different neighborhoods through which it would run.

"It should actually transform as you get to different conditions or parts of the city," Stokoe said.

Abel, who flew into New York City for the exhibition’s opening on Tuesday night, incorporated the possibility of hydropower into his design, hoping to capitalize on the East River’s swift currents, and proposed creating floating docks along the water's edge.

Abel’s design also included new ferry stops and a connection with Roosevelt Island.

"This is America. This is the Big Apple. We were going for a big solution,” Abel said. “If you don’t put these ideas forward at this stage, when would you?"

Abel even proposed an idea to help pay for the eventual esplanade, one that would encourage developers to contribute funds for public spaces by promising them the opportunity to build bigger and taller.

Since Abel and Stokoe tied for first place, they will split the $5,000 set aside for first- and second-place winners. 

But both men agreed their participation wasn’t about the money. Gerhard's winnings didn't even cover the cost of plane tickets for himself and some members of his staff.

"Our hope," Stokoe said, "is that our work and the work of the other placed finishers will stimulate discussion about what the possibilities are."