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Autumn 1993
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  I deas and Observations

A Stroll Through Battery Park City
Roger Starr
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Before pulling up stakes, New Yorkers who dream about the quality of life in other cities should consider visiting Battery Park City, the complex of apartment houses and office buildings that stretches along the Hudson River at the southernmost tip of Manhattan. A trip through Battery Park City is likely not only to restore one’s bond to fellow New Yorkers, but one’s faith in our city’s ability to solve some of its problems with imagination, daring, talent, and good luck.

At least three subway lines will take you there, but for a first visit, the best way is to take the PATH train to Hoboken’s old Erie Lackawanna ferry terminal. There, one treads a pier to the deck of a gently-rocking pontoon and waits for the next ferry.

The boat ride across the Hudson recaptures the exhilarating but once common experience of transatlantic travelers, whose first sight of New York was the panorama of skyscrapers that came into view as their ships entered the harbor. From the deck of the ferry, Battery Park City comes into focus slowly; unlike many New York projects, it does not assert the right to contain the tallest building in the world. Its office buildings and apartment houses have been designed not to tower over the older city behind them, but to serve as a set of visual stepping stones to the pinnacles of downtown Manhattan.

Battery Park City’s land rose out of the water of the Hudson, not as rapidly as Aphrodite perhaps, but with effects equally noteworthy in the long run. About 20 percent of its 92 acres is built on stone excavated to make room for the massive foundations of the World Trade Center, directly east of the development. The rest is sand, millions of cubic yards of it, pumped from the bottom of the Lower Bay and carried to the site in the hold of the suction dredge that brought it to the surface. The same dredge pumped it out into a space in the river isolated from the rest of the stream by a tight line of steel caissons, driven deep into the river bottom and filled with concrete. Every structure in Battery Park City is built on piles driven through the fill of stone or sand and the silt and clay of the river bottom to the bedrock beneath.

As the ferry approaches its landing spot, passengers can see that the northern part of the site has been sculpted into a sloping lawn of green called Hudson River Park. Between the park and the promenade at the edge of the river, two extraordinary playgrounds have been installed, and children are busy discovering their secrets.

As the ferry noses into its dock space, the visitor sees a cluster of three of the World Financial Center’s office buildings and, in their midst, the glass-enclosed Winter Garden—the gateway not only to the financial center, but to the whole of Battery Park City. These office buildings—the only ones in the complex—and the Winter Garden were designed by Cesar Pelli, and financed and developed by Olympia and York. Two of the four are leased to Merrill Lynch, the third is leased to American Express, and the fourth to Oppenheimer and Co. and Dow Jones. The office buildings are dignified (no glass walls here), harmonious, but not identical in color and shape with the others. Despite, or perhaps because of their dignity, they are unlikely to attract the visitors’ attention as does that glass house, the Winter Garden.

Only the Grand Central Terminal’s main concourse rivals the Winter Garden’s grandeur as a public indoor space in New York. From the ferry’s landing, one enters through the side doors and is immediately confronted by sixteen royal palm trees whose slender trunks, perhaps sixty feet tall, are capped with fronds that seem to point down the length of the Winter Garden to a wide and majestic sweep of marble steps that rises four stories high. Above the steps is a series of darkened doorways. It is easy to imagine that they lead to the shrine of some new religion. Indeed, the visitor is apt to feel that the people around him should be wearing robes of many colors rather than suits and ties, and that white doves flying overhead would be in keeping with the general atmosphere, just as in that other Shangri-la. Actually, the doors lead to a bridge across West Street’s six lanes of traffic to the World Trade Center, where, instead of a choir, computers, fax machines, and telexes hum in the background while international deals are made—although not, perhaps, without an occasional silent prayer.

The Winter Garden’s round-arched glass roof creates an immense indoor piazza beneath it. Between two of the majestic black pilasters on which it rests is an Italian restaurant, which decorates each table with a large bottle of San Pellegrino water. Last winter, a glass squash court was set up so that a maximum number of people could watch the matches. On rainy days there is nothing to discourage anyone from bringing a lunch and looking out at the masts and antennae of the big yachts tied up in the North Cove yacht basin.

When the weather is nice, visitors should take a walk on the harbor promenade, which stretches for about a mile and a half along the entire length of Battery Park City. Off to the left is the Statue of Liberty; to the right, Ellis Island; directly in front is the revived New Jersey waterfront with the old Colgate clock still there. Standing in the sun, hands on the rail, one may watch as racing sloops toy with each other, skipper to skipper, tack to tack, on the river that not long ago scorned yachtsman who got in the way of heavier water traffic.

It’s easy to tell the time of day by noting what is happening on the promenade. Early morning belongs to the runners. Soon after, it is time for school; children dawdle while parents try with modest success to hurry them along. By 11:30, a few couples already bring their lunches from restaurants on the ground floors of the residential and office buildings. By 12:30, all the benches on the promenade have been occupied by luncheoners, some of whom install themselves on the stone seats and table that belong to a sculpture of a ruined Greek temple. Joggers appear later in the afternoon, and, as darkness comes on, there is a faint rustling of bicycles and roller blades wedeling between the walks. In the distance music can be heard, perhaps from a dance or an aerobic session on one of the promenade’s wide paved spaces designed for communal activities.

One of the most noticeable features of the promenade is the remarkable landscape gardening that is characteristic of the entire development. Horticulture was no mere afterthought in Battery Park City’s planning. Alex Cooper and Stan Eckstut divided the landscape chores between them; Eckstut having chosen the southern portion, his work is more visible at the present stage of development. The green of trees, shrubs, and flowers is a continuous accompaniment of the walk south on the promenade between the apartment houses and the river. At some points, the promenade divides into two parallel lanes, on one of which bicycles and roller skates are forbidden.

It is remarkable that in the relatively narrow spaces between the apartment buildings, the garden design gives the impression not that the green was installed after the buildings were built, but rather that the buildings were built in a green space, graced with trees and plants. The one adverse comment a visitor is likely to hear from a resident on one of the lower floors of an apartment house is that the trees are growing too well. Their branches, in leaf, obscure the view of the promenade and the river. Some residents are even asking that trees be cut back so that they can see who is doing what on the promenade. Others consider such a suggestion heretical. (Another complaint is that the Greek temple’s stone table at which some people eat lunch is used at night for romantic encounters by some of the young bloods of the development. Noisily.)

The view of the buildings on the promenade is obscured by trees, but on South End Avenue, the main artery running north-south, the architecture comes into view with stunning force. The apartment houses on both sides of the avenue have a familiar look about them, as they should. Paul Goldberger pointed out some years ago in the New York Times that Battery Park City was designed by people who see the good features in traditional New York City architecture. Not only do the buildings imitate traditional New York apartment houses, but the streets also create the feel of an enclave the way West End Avenue or Tudor City do.

Almost ten years ago, Urban Land magazine offered a straightforward recapitulation of the architectural guidelines laid down by Alec Cooper, the authority’s architect, and interpreted by Amanda Burden, its planner. Every building is required to build its front base to the property line, thus creating a street wall of all the buildings on the avenue. The first two building levels must be clad in stone, the floors above in brick. (The effect of using new brick was softened by encouraging developers to use brick of a slightly different hue from that of nearby buildings.) On some sites, arcades are required, pushing the store fronts back from the street wall to avoid the impression of shoulder-to-shoulder shopping along the street. Cornices must be emphasized, along with window and corner details at designated heights between the ground and the roofline. Rooftops must look like roofs, not as though the buildings stopped at a certain height because their developers ran low on money.

Only architects and architectural critics are likely to have formulated these rules as the traditional signatures of artful and neighborly design in New York City. But anyone standing at the end of South End Avenue looking north will see buildings reminiscent of West End Avenue apartment houses that have died and gone to heaven. There is a distinct hint of Washington Mews on the street-front wing of a building designed by James Polshek. A walk up South End Street does not, however, suggest a kind of latter-day Williamsburg. It’s a lively shopping street on which people are busy doing whatever is done on other such streets the world around.

Battery Park City almost didn’t happen. For many years the 92 acres of filled-in land on the eastern edge of the Hudson looked like a big sandy beach mysteriously unused by sunbathers. New Yorkers who survived the fiscal crisis of the mid-Seventies still have a hard time believing that a development as diverse and yet as palpably integrated as today’s Battery Park City should have emerged from a site on which no developer was prepared to build.

The idea of building a residential community on filled-in land is said to have been the product of a collision between two active minds-David Rockefeller’s and Austin Tobin’s. Austin Tobin was then the executive director of what is now the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. David Rockefeller, of course, was chairman of the board of Chase Manhattan Bank. Mr. Tobin, it is said, wanted to find a nearby, inexpensive place to get rid of the vast tonnages of stone that were being dislodged to make way for the foundations of his agency’s World Trade Center. Mr. Rockefeller, whose headquarters were in a new skyscraper in the Wall Street area, and who served as a leader of the Downtown-Lower Manhattan Association, wanted to secure the downtown area as the firmly fixed marketplace of the world’s buyers and sellers of money and financial instruments. He reasoned that by building housing in the river, nobody would be displaced by the development (the striped bass whose putative displacement later stopped Westway in the courts were ignored during the construction of Battery Park City) and would make the downtown area a night-and-day neighborhood (he may have been reading Jane Jacobs’ book on the life and death of neighborhoods).

Fortuitously, New York State’s governor at the time was also a Rockefeller,

Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller. He encouraged the state legislature to establish the Battery Park City Authority on the grounds that the project would increase the city’s supply of housing. The authority would produce the land and find suitable developers of the prospective housing. Charles J. Urstadt, a former builder and owner of apartment houses, was appointed chairman. The legislature empowered the authority to issue $250 million in “moral obligation” bonds. The proceeds were to be used to pay for filling in the land and to pay interest on the bonds themselves.

Meanwhile, the project’s vaunted purpose—to increase the supply of housing—prompted New York City’s political figures to claim a big share of the housing-to-be for their various constituencies. Percy Sutton, then borough president of Manhattan, wanted the lion’s share of the housing for people of low income; City Council members wanted it for their middle-income constituents; and the city government, which was to receive payments from the authority in lieu of taxes from the land and buildings, wanted fully taxpaying housing on the site. Naturally, it was difficult for the mayor of the city, John Lindsay, to argue that all (or even a substantial part) of the housing should be for the wealthy.

The original plan for Battery Park City, still in force in 1979, was to provide 4,800 apartments at market rentals. Approximately 9,000 apartments would be subsidized for middle-income occupancy and about 2,200 apartments would be more heavily subsidized for low-income families. In addition, the development would include six million square feet of office and commercial space. The tax revenue on the commercial projects was expected to cover costs of maintaining the infrastructure of the whole development, as well as the open space in residential areas, relieving residential occupants of that financial burden.

Despite this self-confident agenda, not a single builder declared his interest in constructing an apartment house on what remained 92 acres of sand. In 1979, the Downtown-Lower Manhattan Association commissioned Vollmer Associates, an engineering and planning firm of high repute, to report on the status of Battery Park City and its future. Vollmer Associates found many flaws in the plan for Battery Park City, but its most important finding was that unless radical changes were made, within four years the Battery Park City Authority would be unable to pay any further interest on the bonds it had issued. In short, it would be bankrupt.

Vollmer found that builders were not interested in developing apartment houses on the site, although the land was cheaper than comparable land nearby, because it was cut off from downtown Manhattan by heavily traveled West Street. Experienced builders were also afraid of having to comply with the conflicting demands of too many uncoordinated government agencies.

Few, if any, reports from private agencies on governmental activities in New York State had so galvanizing an effect as this one. The Battery Park City Authority was reorganized. Richard Kahane, of the state’s Urban Development Corporation, came in as chief executive officer. Among his first actions was the appointment of architect Thomas Galvin as one of his assistants. This step was followed by a renegotiation of the contract between the authority and New York City to trim the regulatory thicket. Kahane then engaged the marvelously talented firm of Cooper-Eckstut to develop a new master plan for the entire 92 acres.

Cooper-Eckstut started with a wholly different premise from that of their predecessors. The original plan was based on the idea that the 92 acres were to be regarded as separate from Manhattan itself, that the land would be divided into three high-rise villages, and that the development would deliberately include low- and middle-income people whose apartments would be subsidized by the government.

What emerged from the new plan was a strong emphasis on making the 92 acres a part of the city. The original Corbusian towers-in-the-park scheme was scrapped. City streets were extended into Battery Park City across West Street, and traffic lights were installed. Two pedestrian bridges were planned to cross over West Street, so that pedestrians would never have to wait for a change in the lights. In contrast to the three-village plan, Cooper-Eckstut conceived of a single, distinctly urban form for Battery Park City, tied together, like much of the rest of Manhattan, by long north-south avenues. Eckstut developed a plan for the use of open space, including large parks and small garden plots that were intended to make Battery Park City not only a real part of the city, but a uniquely beautiful one. The differences in the administration and the master plan were soon apparent to builders, who began to compete for the sites they preferred.

No one can deny that the Battery Park City program benefited significantly from an immense stroke of luck. By 1979 the city was emerging from the acute phase of its fiscal crisis. At the same time, the boom of the 1980s was particularly beneficial for the financial industries. Economic expansion created an unprecedented demand for capital, firms involved in the financial markets expanded rapidly, and office and residential spaces were in demand. While many sites remain to be developed, the fiscal troubles of Battery Park appear to be over, barring a serious collapse of the financial markets.

So far, all the residential buildings in the development have been built to the south of the Winter Garden. More residential building sites are planned in north and south sections of the site, if and when the market revives. In fact, only about one-quarter of the ultimate population is now in residence in Battery Park City—which may be more people than should be housed there.

Now that the buildings in Battery Park City are occupied by families able to pay market rents, some observers are asking whether state and local governments should have invested public capital in housing for the immediate benefit of the rich rather than the poor. The fact is, however, that in return for giving up some of its underwater land, New York City is receiving handsome revenues.

Under Battery Park City’s rules, building owners rent land from the Battery Park City Authority and also make payments to the authority in lieu of real property taxes. These payments are divided between the Authority and New York City government. Since the Battery Park City Authority is a nonprofit agency, the city ends up with a major share of the money. Between fiscal 1987 and 1992, its share has totaled $146 million. In addition, in fiscal 1991, the authority borrowed $224 million on its own bonds which it gave to the city to enable it to balance its budget. The authority is, of course, paying the debt service on these bonds, amounting to a considerable sum of money annually. The reason why the authority has been producing such fulsome revenues is simple: filling in the 92 acres created very valuable land out of totally valueless land in a high-value neighborhood at a very low cost.

Even if Battery Park City produced smaller excess earnings, it would be a success. The product—a magnificent new event in New York’s development history—indicates that government can collaborate with private builders and architects to perform what private industry alone cannot. And private entrepreneurs, using their own capital, skills, willingness to take risks, and their own judgment in selecting architects can, given wide freedom, succeed in creating in three dimensions what government started.

With its glorious views of the harbor, parks, flower beds, trees, ample spaces for outdoor activity, and not a homeless person in sight, residents of Battery Park City enjoy a quality of life that most New Yorkers imagine exists only in places like Seattle or San Francisco. Battery Park City is a remarkable achievement—and so, despite its rocky start, is the collaboration that accomplished it.

 

 


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