By Barry Benepe
In 2006, developer Douglas Durst went with his Danish wife Susanne to Copenhagen where he met architect Bjarke Ingels. Mr. Ingels confronted Mr. Durst with the challenge, “Why do your buildings look like buildings?”
The Durst Organization had a ground lease for a site on the Hudson River at 625 West 57th Street from the descendants of Charles Appleby in whose hands the site had rested for generations. Durst considered a series of possible uses for the site zoned for manufacturing: data storage, school, medical facility, hotel and office. “Nothing penciled out,” said Jordan Barowitz, Vice President and Director of External Affairs for the Durst Organization. After careful consideration, the firm settled on residential as the most feasible use and a change in zoning was sought and received. There will be over seven-hundred rental apartments under an 80/20 split where 20% will be affordable under a 421a program, allowing an abatement of the real estate taxes for twenty years.
By 2010 the Bjarke Ingels Group, known as BIG, had established an office in Manhattan headed by partners, Beat Shenk and Daniel Sundlin. “The site presents beautifully from the north where the elevated highway reaches grade as a gateway into Midtown,” exulted Barowitz. “Its angles, surfaces, crevices form a dynamic access to views and light, especially looking south along the Hudson River. There will be a series of landscaped gardens, terraces and cockpits stepping down to the shore.” From the south this building does indeed not look like a building, but like a modern cruise ship which has pushed itself inland where its passengers can take in the North River from its tapering decks and rise to the mast at the 21st floor overlooking the city.
Across the highway the existing Department of Sanitation waterfront transfer station will be relocated downtown to Pier 56 opening up new design possibilities for the north end of Hudson River Park where it joins Riverside Park.
The site suffers what all the sites along the shore front park suffer to some degree, a noisy, high-speed eight lane highway with too few and narrow crossings and traffic signals, making the park and waterfront relatively inaccessible. From 52nd Street to 29th Street there is virtually no park at all. 29th Street is the first point of access for pedestrians to the waterfront. Clinton Park rises high over the highway where it has its gates closed and locked. The recently opened Whitney Museum has no crossings to the park.
Nevertheless, this magnificent building due to open next year is truly a triumph. It has a presence unique to Hudson River Park much in the same way the Guggnheim relates to Central Park. Every great artist shines when he has an inspired patron. Douglas Durst has moved our city forward and helped shape a dynamic and memorable urban cityscape which future generations will enjoy.