NYC 2016: Visiting local planners pt.1 (bye NYC!)

Before arriving here, we arranged a few meetings in NYC with some professionals whose work was interesting and close to our own field. We got to visit two local planners: WSP-Parsons Brinckerhoff NY office and New York City Planning Departments office.

NYC Planning Department visit

A couple of weeks ago, we visited New York City Planning Department. Obviously, city planning is in a whole different scale in NYC than in Helsinki, but we found a lot of things in common as well.

We talked about New York City’s hottest development areas. Like in Helsinki, waterfront is attractive, and the focus has slowly moved outside of Manhattan. In NYC waterfront zoning, there is usually a required amount of public spaces along the water. Public access to the waterfront is usually a must. We discussed a lot about Brooklyn, which has undergone a lot of changes during its renaissance. Gowanus canal and Red Hook in Brooklyn are some of the most interesting ones. There are plans to clean up the polluted Gowanus canal, nicknamed “the Buttermilk Channel”, so that it can be turned into a canal-fronting park and develop the real estate in the area.

WP_20160821_16_04_59_Pro.jpgGowanus canal now

NYC waterfront areas have a distinct problem though – there is a risk for flooding all over lower Manhattan because of major storms. Helsinki is not as vulnerable, because it is not by the ocean and in tropical storms’ reach, but we are preparing for the climate change still. Right now in NYC there is a flood protection program on the way.

We also talked about the streetscape changes that DOT, the Department of Transport in New York has promoted and we have mentioned in previous blog posts. Among those changes is an interesting concept called “squeet” (square+street) .  In NYC there are loads of intersections where a diagonal street meets the orthogonal city grid resulting in leftover spaces in the crossroads. By reconfiguring the intersection the leftover street space can be turned into a “squeet”. The first squeet in 2007 was a former parking lot transformed into plaza: the Pearl Street Triangle in Dumbo. As explained in her book The Street Fight, Janette Sadik-Kahn stated the iniative to the transformation of the square came from the local entrepreneurs. Like the other squeets, it is a private-owned public space (POPS). There are dozens of similar privately owned public spaces in New York City, both street plazas and more park-like public spaces. The city puts a minimal public investment into changing the space and local community takes care of the maintenance.

NYC (111).JPGPearl Street Triangle in Dumbo

It seems that especially finance related issues in city planning and finding the role between a planner and a real estate finance negotiator are common problems both in Finnish planners’ life and here in NYC. In both countries the base degree for an urban planner or designer is usually an architect, which does not cover all the needed knowledge to master the profession.

The New York City Planning Department has basic planning guidelines which we could very much relate to: keeping in mind the sense of place, making plans open and accessible and designing with care. But the one that we would like to practice back home is “plans, that make us feel good” – isn’t that what it is all about?

Bye New York – blog continues

This is our last day in New York City. It has been hectic and amazing. So hectic, that many blog posts are yet to be finished – so we are publishing the last ones this and coming weeks. We will miss you!

– Laura & Tomi

NYC 2016: Waterfronts so far so good

New York City is surrounded by water with different uses and relationships with water. Here are some that I observed.

Outdoor living room Brooklyn Bridge Park

We went to see a free outdoor movie in Brooklyn Bridge Park one night and while there, I took a look around. It seems that there something for everyone and the park is basically an extension to their living rooms.NYC (671) muok.jpg

The park consists of several piers and a greenway which combines them. Like usually, this area used to be an industrial  harbour until the 1980s. The first redesigned piers 1 and 6 were opened to public in 2010. The construction is still going on in the pier 5.NYC (673) muok2.jpg

Each pier has a different function. There is a picnic lawn, sports fields, a sandy beach, secret hideouts under the luch vegetation, you name it. The event calendar is very impressive and offers a lot of free options. All of this is managed by the Conservancy and enabled apparently largely by volunteer work, donations and memberships.NYC (685) muok2.jpg

But despite all the activities, the view is the best part of this park.

Self-organized Hudson River Greenway

Last Sunday, I wandered around Harlem trying to find a place to read a book. Behind a railway overpass and a highway underpass the Hudson shoreline was suddenly there. And I wasn’t alone – there were dozens of locals jogging, biking and hanging around, having a nice Sunday afternoon.NYC 2016 känny (117) muok.jpg

Families had BBQs and birthday parties along with booming reggaeton music. I found it nice that people were enjoying themselves despite the elevated Henry Hudson Parkway and its enormous junction nearby. This area is a vague no-mans-land, except that it is not, because it is  very much in a proper use! Luckily the road was originally built far enough allowing the use of the waterfront.NYC 2016 känny (119) muok.jpg

Ecological values in Muscota Marsh

On the way to a free outdoor yoga class (the luxury!) I went to see the northernmost tip of Manhattan, Muscota Marsh park. It is a tiny wetland park that was built by Columbia University, in collaboration with the NYC parks department. It is place where freshwater of Hudson River and salty water of the sea meet.  There was a rich estuary ecosystem before European arrival.

I think it is amazing to have a place like this to see a bit of the the original Manhattan nature rehabilitated. Even the name is a reminder of the history: “Muscota” is the Lenape word for “meadow by the water,” or “where the reeds grow.”NYC (40) muok.jpg

The cityscape is also interesting: the gigantic Bronx apartment buildings and Henry Hudson bridge behind the peaceful marsh and Spuyten Duyvil creek. Quite a contrast!NYC (46) muok.jpg

Industrial Red Hook, soon to be developed

There was a music-and-arts festival in Red Hook last weekend. If you ask me, this kind of an industrial environment is the only appropriate background for electronic music. The venue itself, Gowanus Bay Terminal, was very far from all the public transport, but I guess you have to be willing to walk miles to see places like this.

We could have taken a ferry to the festival though, because since 2008 there has been an Ikea that is served by a ferry from downtown. The rugged industrial area is getting a real clean-up now that the construction work of an enormous Norman Foster-designed office building on the other side of Ikea begins and the development of  Fairway Market and waterfront gets going. I predict it is “bye-bye festivals” soon.NYC 2016 känny (170) muok.jpg

Echoes from the past in Coney Island

Last week we took an impromptu trip to Coney Island. Brighton Beach was the last stop of a subway line, far away from the city both in my mind and in reality. Russian-language signs, high residential blocks and the suddenly opening beach behind them make a peculiar mix. The amusement park was a refreshingly old-school place, like time has stopped in the early 1900s. On a weekday the beach was half-empty.NYC (352) muok2.jpg

– Laura

Bonus: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir

Tomi admires the Central Park view.NYC (384) muok2.jpg

NYC 2016: Changing High Line pt.2

Spatial structure and views

The scenery and spatial structure of the park has changed a lot compared to the last time I visited it. At first I couldn’t tell exactly what was so different, but then I realized that vegetation has grown so much it is hard to recognize places. Paths are narrower and there is more shadow all over. Tall grass creates isolated spaces for lingering. In some sections, grown trees hide the urban landscape outside of the High Line and you can almost pretend you are somewhere away from the city.

NYC (106).JPGWildness in the city.

The quiet benches on the edges of the park offer good places for people observing. In a way, the life and people are the main attraction of the park. On the other hand, people sitting behind the tall grass are almost like elegant statues.

People that are walking on the High Line are also observed by residents on the neighbouring apartments. Most of the new residential buildings had balconies facing the park. That means that the residents are also being watched by the people strolling in the park. From a Finnish point of view that is quite hard to comprehend – in Finland, privacy is highly valued.

NYC (117) muok.jpgPrivate terraces by the High Line. 

Not that people are the only thing worth observing here. There are several viewing points where you can look at the skyline in the distance and roaring traffic below the High Line. I find it quite interesting that the city itself is seen as a valuable ever-changing landscape, with the traffic noise and all. And since the park flows through the block structure you’ll get to see the insides of the perimeter blocks that remain a mystery when walking in the surrounding streets.

The questions of temporality and conservation

Walking along the High Line I noticed a lot of temporary structures where there were building sites. Sometimes it was hard to tell what was temporary and what was not – beautifully curved canopies turned out to be Zaha Hadid’s designs. This could be a good point to learn in Finland as well – temporary can and should look beautiful. Pedestrians’ safety and orienting should always be the main concern around the building sites. If they are well taken care of, suddenly it doesn’t even matter if there is a construction work going on.

NYC (180) muok2.jpgZaha’s construction shed.

As the environment is in constant change, the whole question of a “ready” or “temporary” seems to become irrelevant. When is the High Line with its surroundings built ready? Does the area lose something of its rough charm if it is doomed ready?

The uniqueness of Chelsea was noticed as it was designated as a Historic District 1970. In 2008, a new Historic District focusing on the industrial history in West Chelsea was approved. It seems that the previously mentioned Zaha Hadid luxury apartment house is rising in that small historic district. Without a doubt, many others are also interested in building there. But every time a new design is erected, a piece of the original landscape disappears. Ultimately, what will there left of the industrial Chelsea and the High Line? At least the locals are worried: there is a community-based organization Save Chelsea that wants to maintain the economic, social and architectural variety in the area. After all, that very history is the base of all the recent development and added value.

– Laura

NYC 2016: Changing High Line pt.1

From an industrial rail to a park

I am quite sure that everyone who is into urban planning and urban development especially in industrial areas is familiar with the High Line. But if not, let’s revise the history quickly. The High Line was an elevated rail that ran from 34th Street to St John’s Park Terminal. As the goods traffic ended in 1980, a group of property owners lobbied for demolition, but thanks to local activists, planning for the reuse started in the early 2000s instead. Finally, the first part of the new park was opened in 2009.

I was lucky to visit it soon after its opening in 2010. I was interested in urban fallow visions and city transforming through regeneration. The High Line was a perfect example of those optimistic visions becoming true. Back then only the first part from Gansevoort Street to West 20th Street was open. Nevertheless, I was thrilled. The transformation was successful – there was a distinctive touch of the industrial past left to see and the landscape architecture adapts to the existing structures seamlessly. The park seemed to be very popular then, and now even more. The latest figures show it has nearly 6 million visitors per year.

P1070188.JPGThe High Line, second section.

High Line and surroundings go hand in hand

Obviously the development of the High Line park has benefited a lot from the on-going gentrification of Meatpacking District and Chelsea. The area has transformed into one of the trendiest – and most expensive – neighbourhoods, and for example Chelsea Market in that area is another successful example of industrial turned commercial. In 2005, much of West Chelsea was rezoned to allow the reuse of High Line and to encourage the residential development and the use of former industrial spaces as art galleries, while maintain the mix of residential, light industrial and retail uses.

NYC 2016 (29) muok.jpg520 West 28th is advertised to the strollers on the High Line.

The success of the High Line and other projects has attracted high-end architecture and investments in Chelsea-Meatpacking District area. Back in 2010 there were already shiny new buildings surrounding the High Line, such as the world headquarters of IAC by Frank Gehry and the residential building “Vision Machine” by Jean Nouvel. Now I noticed the well-advertised Zaha Hadid design, which is a luxury apartment building, and Thomas Juul’s new double apartment complex. Many residential or commercial buildings, often designed by big names, are yet to be finished. Everybody is trying to ride the High Line wave. But with the visitor numbers like these, who wouldn’t? The cityscape around the High Line is mixed and puzzle-like and tolerates well different types of buildings. The big object-like buildings are observed from an elevated level, which makes the scenery far more interesting than observing from the street level.  The starchitect designs are changing the High Line more like an architecture outdoor gallery though, adding the hype and making prices skyrocket.

NYC 2016 (48).JPGIAC headquarters and the Vision Machine seen from the High Line.

At the southern end there is the new building of Whitney Museum of American Art. It is designed by Renzo Piano, and includes approximately 50,000 square feet of indoor galleries and 13,000 square feet of outdoor exhibition space and terraces facing the High Line. I think that along the outdoor architecture gallery the museum fits in the place perfectly. Coming from the north, it frames the view elegantly.

NYC 2016 (148)_muok.jpgThe terraced building of Whitney Museum of  American Art.

NYC 2016 (21)_muok2.jpgWhitney’s main entrance creates a pleasant plaza in the front.

Hudson Yards development

The third section of the High Line opened in September 2014. The part seems to be still very much in progress, especially because there is a large construction site next to the railyard. I found out that this site is the largest private real estate development in the history of the United States, the Hudson Yards. When completed in 2024, 125 000 people a day will work in, visit, or live in Hudson Yards. I was surprised to find out that the High Line is barely mentioned in their site although one third of it literally wraps around the development site. The High Line is featured as “a neighbouring park”. Curious!

P1070146.JPGHudson Yards site.

Success attracts everybody

The smell of success attracts the most imaginative projects to hop on the High Line train. Recently, a project called the Lowline, an underground park, got New York City’s official approval. Although this project is not connected with the High Line as far as I can tell, just the name alone connects it with its predecessor. The Lowline Lab is yet to be visited, hopefully there is time for it next week.

More reflecting on the High Line following soon in an another post!