Once the world’s largest landfill, Fresh Kills is on its way to becoming the city’s newest playground. Aric Chen reports on how a concept becomes a master plan.
In late 2002, the landscape architecture and urban design firm Field Operations publicly unveiled its schematic entry, alongside those of five other finalists, in a competition to transform Staten Island’s Fresh Kills landfill into New York City’ssindeed, the country’sslargest urban park. Back then, the office (which moved to New York from Philadelphia last year) was criticized for describing its plan in obscure language, for example, explaining it as not a loose metaphor or representation [but] a functioning reality, an autopoietic agent.. However, last month, at a city-sponsored community meeting to review Field Operation’s winning submission, called Lifescape, the enigmatic lines (threads),, surfaces (mats),, and clusters (islands)) gave way to more proletarian propositions as attendees suggested everything from dog runs and boathouses to windmill farms and, oddly, a working cattle ranch for the master plan now being cobbled together for the sprawling, 2,200-acre site.
Held at Holy Trinity-St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in the Bulls Head section of Staten Island, the March 24th gathering, also attended by city officials and Field Operations principal James Corner, brought together more than 300 members of citizens groups and enthusiasts of apparently every conceivable inclination. Representatives of local bicycling, tennis, and other amateur sporting interests, nature buffs, and family members of World Trade Center victims chimed in on the activities, amenities, and (yes, another) 9/11 memorial that will eventually occupy the site. Their proposals ranged from the odds-on tennis courts, ball fields, and bike paths to a less-promising horticulture school and a landfill museum that would enshrine the earthmovers that have sculpted Fresh Kills’ topography for the past half century. The key to the success of Fresh Kills’ transformation is the engagement of the community,, said city planning commissioner Amanda Burden, whose agency is overseeing the master planning process. A lot of people showed up to the meeting and I was delighted with the range of suggestions..
Indeed, Corner’s original planna collaboration with Princeton architecture dean Stan Allen, whose involvement is now subsidiaryyhas already taken on a more accessible vocabulary, broken down to the neatly understood categories of habitat, circulation and, especially, activity. With housing specifically precluded, the finished park will be some combination of wildlife preserves, roads and trails, and recreational and cultural facilities. And while it’s easy to imagine that many of the ideas put forth at the recent forumma cemetery for New York state servicemen, for example, or the inexplicable cattle ranchhwon’t be realized, it’s likely that many others will. There is, after all, plenty of space.
At more than two and a half times the size of Central Park, the proposed park will nearly double the size of Staten Island’s existing and adjacent greenbelt. At the same time, it will recast the world’s largest landfilllfamously visible from spaceeas the world’s largest landfill reclamation project. While Corner, who also chairs the landscape architecture and regional planning department at the University of Pennsylvania, cites several precedents for such a conversionnformer landfills around San Francisco, in Seoul, Korea, and Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queenssnone quite match the scale and scope of this one. It’s a big site,, he said, undaunted, and there are many challenges, both ecologically, politically, and in terms of implementation..
Fresh Kills, which takes its name not from its contents but the Dutch word for the creeks that meander through it, is, beyond its stigma, an ecosystem of woodlands and tidal marshes carved out by an Ice Age glacier. It was opened in 1948, intended as a temporary, three-year dumping ground. Despite over 50 years of accepting the bulk of New York’s household garbageea tenure that ended in March 2001 in a gesture by then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani to solidify the island’s conservative voting baseeit remains home to a diversity of wildlife and vegetation. Six sizable landfill mounds, ranging in height from 90 to 225 feet, comprise 995 acres, or around 45 percent, of the total site. All are, or will be, capped with an impermeable plastic liner and topsoil, as well as drainage and other systems to collect methane released from the decaying waste, which will be sold as heating gas. Public use of these mounds, however, will have to wait until such gases and other byproducts have dissipated and the decomposing heaps have settled. For the larger mounds, this could mean a reduction in height of up to 100 feet over as many as 30 years.
In the meantime, dry lowlands make up 35 percent of the site and much of it is available for more immediate use. In addition to the types of recreational functions already mentioned, these areas are being considered as potential homes for equestrian and other facilities in the city’s bid to host the 2012 Olympics. Concurrently, a central drive is in the works that will loop around the main fork in the Fresh Kills estuary. This artery, which will connect Richmond Avenue to the West Shore Expressway, will relieve existing traffic congestion while drawing people into the heart of the park just as a network of walkways, paths and ancillary roads disperses them throughout. In the original scheme, we had more centralized activity areas,, Corner says, and now they’re more widely distributed, which makes the plan easier to phase in, and in smaller pieces..
The veterans’ cemetery proposal notwithstanding, Fresh Kills in fact became a cemetery of sorts when it was temporarily reopened after September 11th to accommodate remnants from Ground Zero. A memorial is being planned as well. Corner has designed two earthworks, 40 feet high and in roughly the dimensions of both World Trade Center towers, next to the 48-acre area where the debris, and the victims’ remains within, are buried. The simple, poetic design has already been well received, though it’s still subject to debate and at least one group, the World Trade Center Families for Proper Burial, may see it as altogether unnecessary. Its members are arguing that the debris should instead be resifteddat what would likely be enormous expenseeand the separated remains reburied at a more appropriate site.
Though the feasibility of this request is questionable, it nevertheless points to the exorbitant complexity of the task at hand. Politicallyy and now emotionallyycharged, the site faces formidable obstacles in its own evolution from being a colossal, fetid eyesore to becoming a thriving, even idyllic, example of land reclamation. Further public meetings are being held this and next month (details are posted on the city’s Fresh Kills website, www.nyc.gov/freshkills), with a final master plan scheduled for July 2005. Small portions of the new park may open as early as 2007. However, even if the plan sails through the often-thorny processes of community and regulatory involvement, the park will take decades to phase in. There are the technical, environmental and even psychological challenges in turning a former garbage heap with poor soil into a verdant haven for picnickers, not to mention the fact that cost, funding, and final jurisdiction have yet to be determined. Indeed, Fresh Kills’ redevelopment will require a will matched only by an ambition that is as expansive as the site itself. ARIC CHEN LIVES IN NEW YORK AND WRITES FOR ID, METROPOLIS, GQ, ART & AUCTION, AND OTHER PUBLICATIONS.