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The Evolution of Battery Park

by Annette K. Netburn

The story of Battery Park City dates back to the late 1950s when the piers on the west side of New york City were in a state of disrepair. The luxury liners, so dominant in the 1940s and early 1950s, had all but disappeared as airplanes replaced ships as the preferred means of transporation.

Traditionally, New York City has expanded its boundaries by creating landfills. Battery Park is no exception. To fully understand how far Battery park City has evolved, it is necessary to return to the early 1960s when large cities such as Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. were reexamining urban priorities. John F. Kennedy had been elected President and was a primary force in leading the country to rethink urban design. One of his first acts was to appoint a Federal Commission to study the use of Pennsylvania Avenue, one of the nation's most important arteries and the avenue on which America's Presidents reside.

In 1966, John V. Lindsay became mayor of New York City. Architects directed attention to the role of architecture in decision-making policy stages. Among them were a group recently graduated from Yale University. One in particular, Jonathan Barnett, was a major part of Mayor Lindsay's Urban Design Group. I first met Jonathan when we both worked at Architectural Record, a professional journal for architects and engineers. Jonathan was an Associate Editor at the time and I was the Administrative Assistant to the Managing and Chief Editors. After that, I was the Editorial Production Manager of the magazine for over 25 years.

Jonathan asked me to proofread the final copy of his book, "Urban Design as Public Policy." The book jacket description, written by the late Jeanne Davern, states, "Jonathan Barnett describes the methods of controlling and directing the process of urban growth and change."

The reader's attention is directed back to 1965 and the new departments created by Mayor Lindsay: the Office of Lower Manhattan Development, the Office of Midtown Planning, and the Urban Design Group. All worked closely with the City Planning Commission. In addition, the Greenwich Street Special Zoning District was established. This district is bounded today by the World Trade Center to the north, the Battery to the south, Trinity Church on the east, and the Hudson River on the west, which includes Battery Park City. These special districts control the zoning and building regulations and have become an important part of the governmental process in New York City. The main concern of the Greenwich Street Special Zoning District turned out to be "the movement of people through the district...including access to the subways and the flow of pedestrian traffic" (Barnett 48). The zoning laws encouraged open space and pedestrian bridges and walkways.

And so the background for Battery Park City started out with the Lower Manhattan Land-fill plan in 1965, designed by the architectural firms of Conklin and Rossant and Wallace, McHarg Associates, and supported by the Mayor. However, then governor Nelson Rockefeller had decided to develop the western side of the land-fill as a seperate project to be called Battery Park City. He favored a plan by another team of architects which would comprise commercial and housing over light industry. "After considerable debate two firms, Philip Johnson and John Burgee, and Conklin and Rossant were added to the team of architects developing Battery Park City (Barnett 58). Barnett notes that the new plan allowed seperate developers for the individual areas.

David Rockefeller, chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank, led a group of bankers to finance the buildings to allow the most reasonable rentals. Design standards called for traditional views of the Hudson River to be left clear of new buildings. Pedestrian traffic would encourage an esplanade that would give the public the ablity to walk freely along the entire water-front. The West Side Highway was still in existence and was a major traffic interference at the time, and was in bad shape structurally. A hue and cry developed (1971) about the new highway proposal. City and state agencies united to come up with a plan for a new highway corridor.

"Planning," the Journal of the American Planning Association, in a profile in its August 1996 issue, v62 n8 p10 (6) reported:

"Alexander Cooper is best known for his role in the development of the [master plan] for Battery Park City in New York. Alexander's use of precedents...helped create uniformity throughout the various segments of the site...You've got 92 acres of empty land-fill; in 90 days you have to make payment on a $200 million bond. You need a plan the state legislature will like. Who do you call? Richard Cahan asked Edward Logue [an urban planner in Boston] and I.M. Pei [world reknowned architect] for an answer, and they both said, 'Alex Cooper.' Cahan was chair of the Battery Park City Authority at the time. Cooper, an architect and urban designer, was just setting up in private practice after stints with the city and Columbia University. The rest, as they say, is history."

Highlights of the master plan as described in "Planing," August 1996, v62, n8, p10 (6) follow:

"Battery Park City is a combination of office and apartment towers, townhouses clustered around small parks, and a 1.5 mile pedestrian espanade that runs the length of the project along the Hudson River. The World Trade Center Towers, built in 1970 just east of Battery Park City are far taller than anything else nearby. 'Icons,' Cooper says with approval.

"Now Battery Park City looks as if it's been there for decades. To get that look, the master plan specified that all the new streets at Battery Park City be oriented toward Broadway, which runs diagonally through lower Manhattan. 'That was the key--to try to get this property to look like other parcels in lower Manhattan so that developers would feel comfortable with it,' Cooper says.'

"In designing the Battery Park City esplanade, we went to every park on the rivers of New York City to look for precedents. We found the materials we were interested in. We found there was a consistent language. We found light poles that made sense. Hexagon pavers. Granite. We found everything we needed to know in the riverfront parks.' The result was a design that suggested 'the romantic idea; the comfortable idea; the familiar idea of 'place' in New York.'

"The plan 'took a very pragmatic, New York City attitude toward the site,' says Jonathan Barnett. 'Let's have blocks. Let's have a park. No megaliths.'

"Cooper and Eckstut wrote the design guidelines for various segements of Battery Park City in stages between 1980 and 1985. And, while the guidelines didn't specify what the buildings would look like, they did specify the buildings' placement, bulk, and materials. Cooper's only rule of thumb at Battery Park City was: 30% open space, 20% streets, 50% development.

"What's terrific about Battery Park City is that it's there,' says Richard Weinstein. 'Most plans wind up on the shelf. Most of what Cooper does ends up being done, and it works."

I took a stroll with my husband December 5, 1999, on a gorgeous day, from the southern boundary of New York City, Battery Park, with its majestic views of the Statue of Liberty. We were delighted to find that we could finally continue walking alongside the water, the end of the 315 mile Hudson River, past the new Jewish Museum of the Holocaust, through the park in memory of Robert F. Wagner, Jr. to Battery park City. Had we continued walking further, we would have found the newest addition to the espanade, the Hudson River Park, planned to eventually go as far as 59th Street.

The water views are wonderful; but the debris polluting an area where teal ducks were nesting is a constant reminder of how hard it is to protect the Hudson River. The esplanade affords the most spectacular views: The Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and sailing boats. But across the river in New Jersey, one sees only industry. We have found the wonderful gardens interconnecting the expensive low- and high-rise apartment buildings on previous walks, but unless you know they are there, you will not find them. Cooper hoped to have neighborhoods linked together, but you walk along and cannot see the public school anywhere in sight, nor can you see the small retail stores that service the area. What you do see are the expensive restaurants, and coming to the end of the walk, the expensive yachts moored in the North Cove Marina. And suddenly, you are overwhelmed by the tall commercial buildings of the World Financial Center and you think of the 40,000 people who work there. You think about the 9,000 people who live in the residential areas and you wonder about the water sewage that is generated. You look at the river and you sigh. Is this an elite enclave for the wealthy, or is it as you hope, a place for tourists and New Yorkers to find the majesty of the river that history has left to us?

This has been a long journey for me personally; it has brought back memories of people who not only helped shape this city's future, but with whom I share a part of th decision making at the staff meetings at "Architectural Record." The firms mentioned in this artlce are not just names, but people who came into the office. I am connected to the rivers of New York City as a volunteer aboard the Ambrose Lightship at the South Street Seaport, and as a former member of the Greenbelt of Riverdale, and now as a student of the Hudson River at the College of Mount Saint Vincent.

It was good to have Jonathan Barnett's book to link it all togther. We are all part of the river's history, and the history of the Hudson River is part of us. Although we have seen wonderful changes in the areas of the Hudson that I have previously discussed, there is still more than 250 miles of river that needs to be opened to the public so that we have continuous access. Remember, it is people who make changes possible.

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