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The Lessons Learned In Creating Hudson River Park

by Carter Craft, Dec 29, 2003
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A dump truck heading north crashed through an elevated highway at Gansevoort Street, accompanied by a 60-foot slab of highway that came tumbling to the ground. The accident was a shocker, and it set off a chain reaction that has resulted, almost exactly 30 years later (the accident was on December 16, 1973), in communities throughout the city seeking to reclaim their waterfront from the highways that had cut them off from it.

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Out of that movement has come the Hudson River Park. The waterfront transformation embodied in Hudson River Park was the largest physical change in waterfront land use since the early days of the Industrial Revolution when the machine age ran roughshod over agriculture and never looked back. Now thirty years and hundreds of millions of dollars later, what have we learned?

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1) Dramatic and even positive change doesn't come without a fight. In this case, an entire generation has fought over the future of the west side of Manhattan. The construction of what was officially called the Miller Elevated Highway during 1929-1932 launched 40 years of waterfront highway expansion between the tip of Manhattan and the Upper West Side. The first stretch ran between Chambers and West 46th Street. Over the next two decades extensions were made to West 72nd street and south to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. Based on the current proposals for the western edge of Ground Zero that would spend as much as $1 Billion on a short tunnel you might say that the Highway Age is alive and well.

After three decades of organizing, advocacy, and lobbying, the Hudson River Park is being pieced together over some 400 acres spread out downtown. Some would say the highway, with three lanes southbound and as many as five northbound, still won the fight. But in looking at where this traffic comes from and where it goes, the giant traffic generators such as the Passenger Ship Terminal or Chelsea Piers illustrate lesson two

2) Don't let private interests take over.

Nothing is as simple as "development" or "not." Rather, the unique environment of the waterfront suggests that all development that happens along the river should directly relate to the water itself. Cruise ships, sure. Film studios and exhibition space, why here? Sure, the park is more than 400 acres -- on paper. But considering the fact that nearly 80 percent of the area consists of submerged land, it becomes clear that there is not a lot of space to begin with. As with any public space issue, once there are fees imposed, and one must pay to play, then that becomes physical space that will always have a price tag attached to it. And these prices are not affordable to most New Yorkers.

3) The river should be seen as the center of the park, not the edge.

Fortunately, the waters have been discovered by a new generation of stewards who want to protect the river, but also want to use it. Even in the coldest weather, rowboats called Whitehall gigs and kayaks (some hand-built) are launched from Pier 40/ Houston Street or Pier 63 Maritime. In the warmer months, its not unusual to see swim caps turning up to catch a breath anywhere along the shore.

The re-awakening to the river is just the latest stage in our society's forty-year effort to clean up the environment. Finally, we are seeing how a river reborn can become a central part of a community's recreation and open space diet for daily life. At the River Project on Pier 26, the touch tanks are filled with real Hudson River critters, fish crabs and seahorses show the next generation of Tribeca denizens that most of the action in the park actually occurs beneath the surface of the water.

The feeling of openness at the water's edge can have a tremendously refreshing impact on stressed-out city dwellers. Take one look out across the river during the height of Seasonal Affective Disorder, otherwise known as SAD (or the Holiday Blues), and you'll feel better.

Governor George Pataki recently signed a law making the entire Hudson River a no-discharge zone (meaning boats cannot flush their toilets into the river) and now the challenge is how to enable a park to create as many on- and in-water opportunities as possible. After all, it's not simply a park it's a river.

Now, thirty years into this waterfront transformation it is clear that when the time is ripe, communities must come together to roll back the highway and the railroad to reclaim what is rightfully theirs, the waterfront. The improvements happening along the west side of Manhattan are striking, sure, but we shouldn't wait before we make strides that are equally dramatic in underserved areas such as Sunset Park and the South Bronx. We've made a good start with the Hudson, but we can't forget that it's just that, a start.

Carter Craft, an urban planner, is program director of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance.


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