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Bold Ideas for East River Esplanade a Feat of Imagination, Fans Say

By Amy Zimmer | June 27, 2012 2:01pm
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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CARNEGIE HILL — They may be fantastical, whimsical and wildly expensive to realize, but the eight East River esplanade designs dreamed up by planners from around the world deserved to win purely on the basis of audacity alone, judges said.

The entrants of the “Reimagining the Waterfront” ideas competition,  on show at the Museum of the City of New York, were so inspiring judges said Tuesday choosing a winner had been difficult.

But they were blown away by the winning design by Syracuse University architecture student Joseph Wood — which proposes to rip out some streets in Harlem and the Upper East Side and replace them with an interlocking system of canals.

Wood was named winner in April. The judges were talking at the ongoing exhibition.

“The winning selection showed incredible ambition that the waterfront is not only about the waterfront but about the entire city,” said Robert Rogers, founding partner of Rogers Marvel Architects, which is working with the team redeveloping Governors Island.

While not addressing what it would do with the electrical lines below the city streets, Wood's design led the way in collective efforts to jumpstart a conversation on the deteriorating stretch of the East River esplanade from 60th to 125th streets, said judges who screened the top contenders out of 90 submissions.

The proposals are meant to be springboards to get people thinking, talking and excited about the possibilities for transforming the waterfront — much like the High Line did with its design contest nearly 10 years ago.

“I think this scheme did the most for real estate values,” Rogers said, “and this town runs on real estate.”

All of the winning exhibits are on view at MCNY through Oct. 28. The competition was sponsored by the East Harlem and Upper East Side community group Civitas.

Albert Butzel, a lawyer who led the charge to create the Hudson River Park, said it might be farfetched, but he still thought the proposal had a glimmer of reality.

“It’s a vision, but it’s not an incredible vision people can’t get their heads around,” he said, noting he just returned from a trip to Amsterdam, which is dotted with man-made canals.

“It really could happen,” Butzel said.

The complicated permitting process with the state Department of Conservation and the federal government’s U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, does not always make for easy waterfront development, judges acknowledged.

“Right now [the DEC is] in a mindset where they believe that human intervention to create or reconstruct a natural environment [like a soft water’s edge] is worse than [an existing] crumbling hard edge,” said Signe Nielsen, co-principal of Matthews Nielsen Landscape Architects, which worked on the master plan for Hudson River Park.

Several judges discussed the importance of building a constituency for the esplanade, noting that it takes time, as it did for the Hudson River Park. But as piers and paths evolved there, bicyclists and walkers came not only from adjacent neighborhoods, but from across the city. 

Another big part of that is making sure the waterfront is easy to access — which is not the case for the East River esplanade at the moment, whether it's to the surrounding neighborhoods or to the rest of the waterfront. There’s a big gap along the water from East 38th to 60th streets.

Though the esplanade from East 60th to East 125th streets cuts through different demographics, Warren James, of the East Harlem-based firm Warren A. James Architects + Planners, said all wanted more open space.

“The Upper East Side has three times the density as East Harlem,” he noted.

Another proposal created a saltwater estuary from dredged sediment. One team proposed boxy structures in containers set up along the esplanade that could be used to broadcast messages and engage the public in dialogue about the park’s future via art installations.

James thought the boxes idea was a way to bring the “democratic process” into the park’s design and involve the neighborhoods along the esplanade. “It seemed like the most feasible project to start right away,” he added.

The immediate need along the esplanade has been repairing potholes and crumbling bulkheads. The city made emergency fixes to 10 spots between East 66th and 104th streets and will soon tackle 22 more problem spots, officials have said.

A Parks Department engineering study of the renovation needs was expected to begin this month and be completed in the fall to come up with a long term plan — and price tag — for upgrades.