The George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal is Italian maestro Pier Luigi Nervi’s sole New York building, and though thousands pass beneath it every day, it’s familiar to only a few. The Port Authority station sits astride the Trans-Manhattan Expressway, where it slips below grade between 178th and 179th streets, just east of the bridge’s Manhattan landing. With buses serving northern New Jersey and beyond, it is a transit hub whose commercial potential has never quite been met, and whose architectural character is easy to miss beneath 45 years of accumulated grunge.
The Port Authority is trying to change all that. In October they released a proposal for a major overhaul aimed at giving the terminal improved services and a lot more retail space. More recently, local political leaders, current retail tenants, and members of the preservation community have sought to influence the redesign, even as the Port Authority plans to begin construction late this year.
“Our aim is to provide a better retail experience for people who live in the Washington Heights area,” said Port Authority spokesman Steve Coleman. The plan as originally announced called for the relocation of several of the small retailers presently on site; after a mid-November meeting with community leaders, the Port Authority revised and clarified that plan, stating that rather than a single big box anchor, a number of new stores would occupy the renovated facility.
The Port Authority will fund a third of the $150 million budget, with developers P/A Associates and Arcadia Realty Trust responsible for the remainder. The developers have selected Robert Davidson of design/build firm STV as project architect, and the choice would appear to be a significant one: Davidson planned the new transit hub for Ground Zero, and he helped select Santiago Calatrava to build the PATH station there. Calatrava has cited the Nervi bus terminal as a major inspiration for his design.
That connection, however, offers no certain measure of how deferential the redevelopment will be towards Nervi’s structure. And P/A’s Carolyn Malinsky gave a qualified assessment of the building, saying that “the Nervi roof is not actually a historical structure,” while insisting the redevelopment would leave the award-winning concrete coffers intact.
That much appears confirmed by the renderings: Save for a realignment of the arrival concourse to provide for more buses, the upper portion, with its winged silhouette, is unchanged. The lower level, meanwhile, will be glassed in, with all buses arriving on the deck above. The Modern Architecture Working Group, a preservation advocacy organization, has been lobbying both city and state landmarks agencies to insure that the building remains true, in its entirety, to the original 1963 design. But as Group co-chair Michael Gotkin observed, “we’ve been pushing for them to landmark the building for ten years. It’s only since the reconstruction was announced that we got a real response.”
Nervi fans may be interested to know that the architect designed one other major public work on the East Coast, an arena in Norfolk, Virginia known as the Norfolk Scope. A near-replica of Nervi’s arena for the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, the structure, designed with local architects Williams and Tazewell, opened in 1971 and was awarded the 2003 Virginia Society of the American Institute of Architects’ "Test of Time" award.