The High Line Upside Down

Like the High Line Park in Chelsea, a new esplanade along New York City’s East River smartly reuses transportation infrastructure. However, instead of taking shape on top of existing rail infrastructure, this new promenade on the water follows a path directly underneath and along side the F.D.R. Drive. The Architect’s Newspaper calls this the “flipside” of the High Line. Amanda Burden, NYC’s Planning Commissioner, explained the logic of leveraging the highway infrastructure: “Embracing the FDR seems so obvious now, but it wasn’t so obvious then. It provides important shade and it’s an organizing principle for all of the programming.”

The two block esplanade, designed by landscape architect Ken Smith, ASLA, and SHoP Architects, runs from Pier 11 at Wall Street to Pier 15 at South Street Seaport. This section is only a preview: It will ultimately head up to Pier 35, north of the Manhattan Bridge, making its total length about twice as long as the High Line Park’s current one-mile length. The Architect’s Newspaper says the park is part of a broader $165 million project by the NYC government to connect the promenades and bike paths of the west side to the “heavily trafficked spaghetti” of the east (see earlier post), and also link up with the bold new Pier 35 “eco-park” also designed by SHoP Architects.

The park has its own “signature designs,” but, more importantly, is designed to engage all types of people. The esplanade features chaise lounges, game tables, and riverfront benches. “At Burden’s insistence, seating is arranged in multiple groups of two or four, around chess tables, and, for the more harried New Yorker, alone.”  Clear sightlines enable visitors to see the river unobstructed: On top of the level park surface, a set of barstools sit against rails, providing an “unimpeded perch.” These railings double as tabletops, which Paul Goldberger, architecture critic for The New Yorker, seems to love: “The waterfront railing is itself a wonderful piece of design. Its steel grating leans outward, pulling you toward the water; atop the steel is a broad, flat wooden surface, wide enough to lean on. In front of the high stools it gets wider still, so you can use it as a desk. If you feel like taking your laptop out of the house, it beats Starbucks any day.”

Just to note: Unfortunately, all those railings and bench slats are made of a rainforest hardwood called ipe, which can’t be harvested sustainably given they grow very sparsely. According to Wikipedia, New York City’s parks department has used ipe in its riverfront parks since the late 1960s, largely because, as a natural hardwood, it lasts up 25 years. There are adverse effects though: “Large areas of forest must be searched and cut down to create paths to harvest and fill orders for boardwalks and, to a lesser extent, homeowner decks.” While FSC-certified ipe is now available, there are far easier ways to harvest more sustainable domestic natural hardwoods like black locust.

Ken Smith, who’s work often includes vibrant pop-art elements, uses “multi-hued grey hexagon pavers riffing on a highly pixilated photo of the water.” There’s also a series of planting beds made up entirely of native coastal plants. He told The Architect’s Newspaper: “There’s an emphasis on native plants, while the modulated seating and dunes create a meandering walkway.” The overall effect is several berms that function as “seat walls” made of sculpted concrete, but are also edged in stainless steel to enable skateboards to use and not destroy. 

Also, a new dog run, which has a huge bone, tree stump, and “bear-sized squirrel,” and are all constructed of concrete, was viewed very favorably by Goldberger, who calls it “the city’s most imaginative dog run, a kind of modernist adventure park for dogs.” 

Additional features include “Get-Downs,” which are stairways that look like widened bleachers, and enable visitors to move towards the river itself and splash around (if the water toxicity levels are low that day).  

Overall, Goldberger had some very positive comments about this new public space: “If it is possible for something to be sleek, gritty, and urban at the same time, that’s what the East River Waterfront Esplanade is. Some of it is directly under the highway structure, to which has been added a new girder painted a pale purple and lit at night, a horizontal strip of light. If the elevated highway isn’t quite the pergola that Amanda Burden, the chairman of the City Planning Commission, wants it to feel like, in its spiffed-up state with café tables and other seating it is surprisingly welcoming, and a lot more tranquil than you would expect.”

Final phases running from Broad Street to Old Slip and from Pike and Allen Streets up to Pier 35 will be completed by 2013.

Learn more about the new esplanade.

Also, check out a new Google Sketchup animation that explores how to use transportation infrastructure to create public spaces.

Image credits: (1) East River Esplanade. Peter Mauss / ESTO, (2) Bar stools. AN/Stoelker, (3) Bar stools. Maria Lokke / The New Yorker, (4) Edged Berm. AN/Stoelker, (5) Dog park. AN/Stoelker, (6) Chaise Lounge. Maria Lokke / The New Yorker.  

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