Soft Landing

Soft Landing

The city’s waterfront once bristled with docks serving the commercial traffic that plied the Hudson and East Rivers. Today, mooring in Manhattan is harder to find—but that may be about to change.

Pentagram Architects and architect James Sanders & Associates have teamed up to produce Riverways, a practical and cost-effective design for a string of riverside boat landings to bring people and watercraft back to the city’s rivers. The scheme, still in its early stages, is in support of a new docks initiative from the Hudson-Fulton-Champlain Quadricentennial Commission, a nonprofit group sponsoring a series of programs to commemorate Henry Hudson’s voyage of discovery 400 years ago.

“This has been going on ten or 15 years—this idea that the river could again become an integrated transportation system,” said Sanders, who besides being a designer is also a noted author and filmmaker. He had in mind the increase in ferries around New York City over the last decade, including commuter lines and Water Taxis, as well as facilities like the Water Taxi Beaches in Long Island City and the South Street Seaport.

All these developments are viewed with pleasure by the Quadricentennial Commission. Its solution is so-called “Quad Landings”: the initial design, from Huntley Gill of Guardia Architects, calls for simple, stationary barges secured to the riverbed by twin poles and connected to the shore by narrow gangways.

Placed at intervals from Manhattan to Albany, the Quad Landings would give pleasure boats and ferries a new way to connect to riverfront communities along the Hudson. The commission has received an initial $750,000 from the state to pursue the project, and is committed to footing 75 percent of the cost of constructing the landings (estimated at $250,000 each) for qualified municipalities that agree to pay the remainder.

Sanders’ and Pentagram’s proposal dresses this concept up for a sophisticated urban audience. Riverways adds programming and a sense of event to the transmodal moment when the landlubber leaves shore, with an elevated plank that could play host to elements like cafes and newsstands, while barge poles become standards for canvas panels that block out the elements. James Biber, who headed up Riverways for Pentagram, claims the project fulfills a need for active public space where water meets the land. “We were looking around for this kind of urban amenity, and it just doesn’t exist,” said Biber.

Sanders sets the cost of a single Riverways pavilion at slightly less than $1 million, with a single “kit of parts” approach that could facilitate a variety of uses for each landing, from outdoor movie theater to floating swimming pool.

Neither group of designers will discuss efforts that may be afoot with ferry operators to make the landings a functional piece of infrastructure. President and CEO Tom Fox of Harbor Experience Companies, which owns the Circle Line Downtown and Water Taxi operations, had reservations about the concept, saying, “You can’t have the dock be the attraction—it has to provide access to the attraction.”

For his part, Arthur Imperatore, president of New York Waterways, indicated in a statement that a project like Riverways could increase commuter traffic on the river: “Waterfront development provides the customers for successful ferry service,” he said. For now, however, the project remains, as Gill called it, “basically a labor of love.”

A version of this article appeared in AN 18_11.04.2009.