Riverside South, like so many of Donald Trump’s projects, is not particularly known for its architecture. Beginning in 1997—after decades of plans, deals, and legal wrangling—the first of nearly a dozen faux-Park Avenue towers began to rise above the West Side Highway. In 2005, Extell Development bought the final undeveloped parcels at the southern tip of the project. But instead of more bland luxury, Extell announced last fall that Pritzker Prize-winning French architect Christian de Portzamparc would be designing the project, which was unveiled earlier this year as Riverside Center, a soaring, crystalline complex spanning four city blocks.
COURTESY REspective architects
And yet Portzamparc’s plan is already facing skepticism from locals, and not only because it is 800,000 square feet larger than previously allowed. Ever since NBC abandoned Trump’s plans to build new studios on the southern most plots, planners and community groups have been devising alternatives. While Extell is in no way required to embrace these plans, it must now contend with them, as was the case during a September 30 roundtable at the Center for Architecture.
While the half-dozen medium- and high-rise towers crafted in Portzamparc’s sculpted style are the most notable piece of the plan, the architect insists the most important part is what happens at the street. Working with landscape designer Signe Nielsen, Portzamparc has broken the predominating superblock and carved it into quarters. The idea is to incorporate the project with the city’s street grid and create view corridors through the project to the river.
The designers draw 60th Street into the project, heightening access and street activity. But the street terminates halfway through the site, where it is met by a 1.5-acre park. This is partly practical—the grade change is 28 feet, rather steep for a roadway—but also a public gesture. To create visual continuity with the street, a shallow reflecting pool runs the length of the park. “It was a way not to create an enclave and also to flow with the Manhattan grid, which allows a variety of architecture,” Portzamparc said. He added that the open space, which reaches 3.2 acres when plazas surrounding the buildings are included, is larger than that at Lincoln Center.
The buildings themselves will contain some 3.1 million square feet of development, and though their exact configuration remains to be determined, Extell has been promoting a school, grocery store, and movie theater as lacking public amenities that could find a home in the base of the towers. Above them would be a mix of luxury apartments, hotel rooms, and possibly affordable housing. “We see it as an exclamation point to the rest of Riverside South,” Nielsen said.
Like Portzamparc, his interlocutors focused considerably more attention on the ground than the towers above them. The Riverside South Planning Corporation, a non-profit that oversees the original master plan for development, also advocates the continuation of 60th Street, but it proposes a wall of towers on the north side with the creation of a public park on the block to the south. Not only are they skeptical of how public the park at the center of a major development would be, but Paul Elston, president of the corporation, said it would be less stifling on McKim, Mead & White’s old IRC power station on 59th Street. The corporation has proposed transforming the Con Ed-owned building into a cultural institution akin to the Tate Modern.
The Coalition for a Livable West Side proposed an approach similar to that at Gramercy Park. A public park would be created first running north-south in the middle of the site, with four development plots surrounding it—two east of the park, two west. Finally, Paul Willen, one of the architects of the original plan, abandoned the corporation’s plan for something he said was more reasonable. He proposed leaving Portzamparc’s plan intact, except eliminate a mid-size tower at the middle of the complex, thus reducing its overall balk and opening up the IRT station.
Nielsen said these approaches were unfeasible, however, because they ignore issues such as creating a certain critically New York density and that 59th Street is a major Department of Sanitation route, to which the park should not be exposed. “These were things we were aware of, but we could not consider them,” Portzamparc said.
What shape the project takes will begin to be decided this winter, when the developer said it would initiate the public review process—it needs a special waver to deviate from the original plans for a studio, as well as to seek greater density. While the local community board has yet to take a position on the project, Page Cowley, an architect and co-chair of the board’s land-use committee, said the considerable community outreach undertaken by the developer has been heartening.
As for the designs, Cowley said that while they are impressive, many questions remain. “Schools, parks, and cars are probably bigger concerns than the architecture here,” Cowley said. “Because it’s bound to put a strain on other resources in the neighborhood.”
A version of this article appeared in AN 17_10.21.2009.