Lower Manhattan boasts some of the city’s oldest parks, Bowling Green and the Historic Battery, as well as one of the borough’s leafiest neighborhoods, Battery Park City, but the area is best known for its warren of narrow, winding streets, corridors darkened by the blackening crowns from New York’s first skyscraper boom. This wonderfully eclectic area retains a sense of mystery while also evoking the quintessential Gotham City.
As the neighborhood diversifies to become increasingly residential, more places to stretch your legs, walk the dog, or play with the kids are needed. In the granite canyons of Lower Manhattan and along its eastern waterfront, new public spaces are being carved out or spruced up. The first phase of the East River Esplanade, from Wall Street to Maiden Lane, is taking shape under the shadow of the FDR. Designed by SHoP and Ken Smith, the stretch includes a dog run with a giant squirrel and tree, both of bronze. Several street furniture mockups, including a handsome High Line–like lounge/bench, have been installed near Pier 11. Phase One is scheduled to open by the fall, and the rest of the Esplanade should be complete by 2012. According to the Economic Development Corporation, which is overseeing the project with the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the project is being rolled out in much the same form as the original design. The number of kiosks, however, which will house cafes, restrooms, and storage facilities, has been reduced to four.
Along Fulton Street, a new string of pocket parks is meant to suggest a greater connection from West to East, connecting the World Trade Center site to the Fulton Transit Center to the Seaport to the East River Esplanade. The most notable of these is Burling Slip, designed by the Rockwell Group with the Parks Department, which features a so-called Imagination Playground with blue foam pieces that can be arranged and manipulated by children. Burling Slip is to open at the end of July.
A less well-known part of Lower Manhattan’s evolution is the complete reworking of the area’s street infrastructure, including all of the data, utility, water, and sewer lines, funded through a Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) grant following 9/11. According to officials at the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center, more than a third of the 100 miles of streets have been excavated and completely rebuilt. One of the last of those streets to be rebuilt will be Water Street, the focus of a new plan by the Alliance for Downtown New York.
Water Street: A New Approach calls for extensive tree planting and landscaped medians running up Water Street, one of the widest in Lower Manhattan. Created by landscape architects Starr Whitehouse working with FXFowle, the plan is conceived as a way of boosting the value of the street’s midcentury office buildings and retaining its commercial tenants by making what is currently a fairly barren nine-to-five streetscape into a more active and attractive place. “Bill Rudin came to us and said it was time for a new vision for Water Street,” said Nicole LaRusso, senior vice president for planning and economic development for the Alliance. “So we began a collaborative process involving building owners, residents, and city agencies.”
Robert Moses widened the street in the early 1960s, and it became the model for POPs, the new zoning allowance wherein developers were granted extra height as long as they included privately maintained publicly accessible plazas and arcades in their projects. One of the more complex issues addressed in the plan is what to do now with these under-performing POPS that dot the street. The plan calls for greater commercial activity, including restaurants and retail space to be built on the plazas, something that would necessitate zoning changes. In the short term, the Department of Transportation is planning an 8,000-square-foot temporary plaza at Water and Whitehall streets that will act as a gateway to the corridor. “There is a long history of Lower Manhattan being recognized as a special case,” LaRusso said. “We think unique zoning for Water Street could be a fine outcome.”