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09.07.2010
No End to Miller Time at Riverside South?
Extell tunnels onward in long-waited bid to bury West Side highway, but project may still take decades
Construction is underway for a tunnel under Riverside South (center right) to replace the Miller Highway with an extension of Riverside Park.
Courtesy Thomas Balsley Associates

In recent years, New Yorkers have seen parkland burgeon along the Hudson River, nowhere more expansively than at Riverside Park South, where boardwalks, overlooks, and marsh grasses wind along the water’s edge. But the beauty of this new landscape between 59th and 72nd streets is blighted by an elevated stretch of the West Side Highway that spews noise, fumes, and debris onto the park below.

Unbeknownst to passing rollerbladers, Extell Development, which is completing the new park as part of its Riverside South complex, has quietly been building a whopping chunk of infrastructure to bury this noxious stretch of road: a $60 million tunnel shell between 61st and 65th streets. It is one of the first pieces of a decades-old plan to sink the elevated structure, known as the Miller Highway, and extend the park from Riverside South’s dozen-odd new towers to the river in a monumental, 3/4-mile-long public space.

The removal of the highway, which would be topped with park from roughly 61st to 70th streets, has been a dream of planners and community advocates since the project’s 1991 masterplan, led by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and based on a plan by Paul Willen and Daniel Gutman, with landscape design by Thomas Balsley Associates. That plan, devised for the Trump Organization, the original developer of the 77-acre Penn Central railyards site, calls for the highway to be buried below Riverside Boulevard, a new access road that runs west of the towers.

Balsley's rendering of the park with the highway still intact. (Click to zoom)

At the time of the project’s 1992 approval, it was understood that the highway relocation would ultimately require public transportation funds. But there was a catch: In order to secure certificates of occupancy for the first towers at the north end of the site, the developer had to deliver the waterfront park as called for in the masterplan. So instead of waiting around for public funds—and a public process that could drag on for years—Trump began building Riverside Boulevard and the new park.

Enter Extell, which acquired the remaining undeveloped land from 65th to 59th streets in 2005. To continue building its new towers, Extell needed to build the first section of tunnel—hence its $60 million investment. The developer is also working on an upland section of park stretching north from 65th street to be built atop a southbound portion of tunnel. Final plans for that segment are being completed by Thomas Balsley, who has designed all of the 26-acre waterfront park in a series of complicated maneuvers around the hulking Miller Highway.

“It’s a chess game,” explained Balsley of the design. “The point is not to build anything that would get ripped out later. So we had to design the upland park and design the waterfront park, knowing what would happen between those two things when we take the highway out of the equation. It was crystal-ball design work.”

The park after a stretch of the highway from roughly 61st Street to 70th Street has been buried and covered over with stepped parkland.

A prime impediment was the 35-foot elevation change from Riverside Boulevard to the river, at the base of which the highway now runs. Balsley’s solution is to split the park into three distinct spatial experiences. On the upland section, a narrow ribbon of landscape overlooks the water. The riverfront segment is more adventurous, with naturalized riparian edges, lush plantings, and a variety of overlooks and coves. Connecting the two is a big, sloping lawn with wooded edges in the tradition of Riverside Park, creating a transition between the community-scaled upland and the more civic-scaled waterfront.

Completion of that middle segment, however, remains contingent on the Miller’s re-routing. Though an environmental impact statement for the highway relocation was finished in 2002 by the state Department of Transportation, and the move was subsequently authorized by the Federal Highway Administration, the Miller teardown still awaits engineering and design work, not to mention the estimated $400 million needed for the relocation, a sum certain to require federal assistance.

It also remains to be seen how Extell’s plans for the southern portion of the site between 59th and 61st streets, where it has proposed a cluster of towers designed by Christian de Portzamparc, might affect the highway’s fate. The project is currently undergoing public review and recently drew opposition from Borough President Scott Stringer.

Visitors recline at one of the new waterfront park's pavilions.

According to Daniel Gutman, the Miller’s predicament can be traced to the 1991 agreement between the city, state, developer, and civic groups, which called for the highway to be relocated concurrently with development of the new park. But it never stipulated who would fund the new highway, and the state Department of Transportation takes the position that the road has at least another 25 years of life left in it. “There’s no way this highway is going to get moved in the near future unless some other source of funds is found, and so far none is available,” Gutman told AN.

Other supporters of the project are also prepared for a long wait. “I don’t know if it will ever happen,” said Cheryl Huber, deputy director of New Yorkers for Parks, a member organization of the Riverside South Planning Corporation. “It seems like one of these debates that will possibly go on forever.”

Jeff Byles