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East River Design Contest Winner Would Bring Wetlands to Upper East Side

By Amy Zimmer | April 25, 2012 8:10am
First prize winner Joseph Wood, who is studying architecture at Syracuse, brought the waterfront into Manhattan's grid.
First prize winner Joseph Wood, who is studying architecture at Syracuse, brought the waterfront into Manhattan's grid.
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UPPER EAST SIDE — An adventurous plan to bring the East River inland, creating snaking canals and turning the Upper East Side into a wetland took first place in a competition to redesign the waterfront.

The pie-in-the-sky scheme was one of nearly 100 submissions in an "ideas competition" to dream up new visions for the crumbling stretch of the East River esplanade from 60th to 125th streets.

Civitas, a nonprofit that focuses on the Upper East and East Harlem and ran the contest, crowned the winner last week. The victory came with a $5,000 prize.

"The idea is thinking of a new streetscape, focusing on the pedestrian and thinking of a new ecology, using the flow of the river," said Joseph Wood, a Syracuse architecture graduate student who initially designed the project for a class.

"It's taking the esplanade away from just the waterfront and having it tie into the infrastructure of the city."

Wood's renderings, as well as other those of other entrants — including the second place winner's image of land jutting out into the river and third place, which included a space to broadcast park-goer feedback — will be on view at the Museum of the City of New York from June 6 through September.

"We think summer is a perfect time for people to come to the museum and think about the designs and then take the ideas to the waterfront," said Hunter Armstrong, executive director of Civitas.

"Ultimately, we want people to take their ideas back to us. We need a community plan, a community vision."

The group will sponsor a series of public events to kickstart discussions on how to transform this part of the waterfront that has to overcome a set of significant challenges, including being difficult to access, narrow and noisy as it's crammed in by the FDR Drive. 

It has suffered neglect over the years and is dotted with sinkholes and deteriorating bulkheads.

"We really want something led by the community," said Armstrong, who believes the transformation will take decades, just as the development of the Hudson River and Brooklyn Bridge parks have taken years.

Over the past couple of years, City Councilwoman Jessica Lappin has secured $2 million for esplanade renovations, her chief of staff, Jane Swanson, said at a recent Community Board 8 meeting.

"It's not insignificant given the economic times," Swanson said. "But it's not nearly enough as needed for this significant capital project."

Before any grand plans to redevelop the space, however, it "needs to be made safe," she said.

So far, 10 different spots have gotten repairs and 12 additional spots were next in line, she said. The Parks Department is planning to conduct an engineering study in the fall to assess needed work for the esplanade's worn pilings, Swanson said.

The contest's winning ideas aren't necessarily meant to be realistic, Armstrong said, recalling how the High Line held a contest in 2003, before that elevated park was rebuilt, where one winning design was to turn the former railway into a 7,920-foot swimming pool.

The goal is to get people discussing what they want on the East River esplanade, Armstrong said, noting how Wood "took an interesting approach by bringing the waterfront into the grid of Manhattan."

Wood had never actually been to the East River esplanade until after he submitted his design, he acknowledged.  But when he went recently he saw the huge need for improvement.

"It's hard to find where to enter," the 23-year-old from New Jersey said. "And there's nothing to draw you if you want to stay there."

Not that Wood believes his proposal will come to fruition. He has no idea how much it would cost to implement.

"I wouldn't even want to know," he said.