New York City history is fascinating from many perspectives. How it has expanded by building out into the surrounding waters is an evolving story, for it is still going on today.
At an excellent exhibit presentation at the City of New York Museum, author Eric W. Sanderson explained highlights from his volume “Mannahatta: A Natural History of NYC.” He showed striking illustrations, which overlay or “georeference” early maps with contemporary GPS street and building layouts. Beginning in Lower Manhattan and eventually extending the entire length of Manhattan, hills, valleys, streams and ponds were leveled, filled, and pushed to the watery edges of the island city.
Water Street and Greenwich Street were once skirting the estuary shores; today, all of the FDR Drive and West highways are built above what was once offshore, including all of Battery Park.
Battery Park City (BPC) is one of the latest,and certainly one of the most ambitious efforts to grow the city by adding to its buildable land area. The once vital shipping and distribution commerce at the waterfronts was well past their 1920s prime and new uses for these eyesore areas were needed, along with ideas to revitalize the famous Financial Center. Perhaps the germ for BPC began when a report, “New York City’s Renewal Strategy/1965,” was accepted by the new Mayor John Lindsey’s City Planning Commission calling for land fill around the lower tip of Manhattan for parks and luxury housing. Governor Nelson Rockefeller and his brother David Rockefeller of Chase Bank took major steps toward developing the Lower West Side in 1966 by proposing specific plans for infill land from Battery to Chambers Street.
When the twin towers of the World Trade Center were planned and built from 1966-77, part of that site was beyond the ancient shore, thus creating a need to build a concrete “bathtub” for the foundations, to keep the subterranean waters from flooding its lower levels. The excavations for those foundations were deposited at the decaying and underused wharfs on the west shore and those 20 acres of fill would be turned over by the Port Authority to the city for future development.
Author Charles J. Urstadt, in his book “Battery Park City: the Early Years,” explains that to bring the BPC into reality, the Battery Park City Authority that he headed had to fight bureaucrats at all levels, even the ones who first supported the idea. Plans constantly were altered to satisfy many constituents. State and city governments had to support bond sales and insurance policies, which they were reluctant to do, fearing a default. There was even a federal plan to build a new Westway express highway below grade in the space that had been occupied by piers out in the water! It took over a decade to get that changed to the present ongrade West Street so it wouldn’t run through the BPC structures.
By 1969, there was an agreement between the city and state to develop almost 100 acres of fill in the Hudson River and the work very slowly progressed over the next 40 years. Under this arrangement, the city is the landlord and BPC pays rent on land it must first create out of water, up to 35 ft. deep, pay for planning and administration, and then build all streets, utilities, parks and buildings, and find tenants to fill all that built space. Many demands were made of BPC regarding the housing mix, street layout and where commercial towers would go. The 1970s real estate meltdown almost put and end to the project. The first residential building, Gateway Plaza, wasn’t started until 1978, then halted and restarted in 1980, the same year that office construction started.
Part of the bargaining resulted in BPC requiring that developers would dedicate new storefront space to operating not-for-profit groups in the city at reduced rents. This adds diversity and quality of life to residents. One fine example is the Poets House on River Terrace, which provides a beautiful free library and meeting space for literary endeavors.
Of course, every new development has expenses to pay off – buy the land, design the work and build the building. The BPC is now self-sustaining, but to pay off the construction bonds and the land-lease rents (amounting to $1 billion to the city in 2000-2005 alone!), it has extra high monthly charges for apartment owners.
With BPC completed and considered a success, they consider it a model for future development of land, in a way that displaces no one, has passed environmental impact analysis and adds value to the city and community. Extending the infill northward from BPC to Pier 25, this time to add needed income producing facilities for Hudson River Park, would seem to be a logical step for improving Manhattan Westside quality of life.