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A Phoenix Rises From its Own Ashes: Gantry Plaza State Park

By Leslie McGuire, managing editor

Gantry Plaza State Park, once a decaying industrial site, has been transformed into an urban waterfront miracle. The design team made an important decision to preserve and restore the gantries, and to celebrate their history throughout the park. This decision, along with the planting of native plants and restoration of the natural shoreline found on the site centuries ago, has helped to attract local school discovery tours and has re-built a sense of community pride in its railroad heritage. Railroad ties and rails form the curbs of the plantings, and lines of honed cobblestones have been added in the plaza to trace the railroad tracks. Photos courtesy of Betsy Pinover-Schiff and Thomas Balsley

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We've come a long way from the days of Robert Moses' oligarchy, which gave rise to huge public projects at the expense of small neighborhoods, cars at the expense of people and the big picture at the expense of the small. But nowhere is it written that we can't have it all. It is in the nature of pendulum swings - and power - that eventually a balance can be struck. Old and new can be blended, diverse communities can share a common ground, nature can co-exist with modernist structures and the art and theater of landscape architecture can tie it all together.

The pier, with its dark sky lighting fixtures and cafe style seating makes a perfect spot to contemplate the spectacular night skyline of New York City. The materials used go from rugged to elegant and poetic - steel railing and lampposts, various colors of lighting, rough wooden pilings, rich topical wood for decking, furniture and railing caps.

Gantry Plaza State Park is divided into three areas from north to south: the Peninsula, North Gantry Plaza, and South Gantry Interpretive Garden - a trilogy of park experiences. While the old piers, the restored gantries and their follies raise waterfront activity to the level of poetry, at the same time they remind people of the solid working class contribution that made New York City the most powerful, cosmopolitan port in the world. Each section of the park creates a stage for action, but the ruins of old New York against the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline create the inescapable inference that environmental and industrial decay can and will be brought back to life. The Phoenix rises from it's own ashes, yet again. Talk about great theater!

The paving is granite chips made up of filings from granite quarries. Also used for pathways in Paris, it is surprisingly stable. They are now using it regularly in New York City parks as well, and it requires no epoxy. The plantings are primarily native grasses such as spartina and miscanthus with some perennials such as iris and hibiscus mixed in to add some seasonal interest. Therefore it is not a pure native grass garden yet has that appearance. There are red maples, red oak, and spartina as well.

To visit the site today is to experience one of those rare urban miracles. A trash strewn rail corridor that once slashed through the Hunters Point community has been transformed into a linear community park also designed by the same design team and broad boulevard leading to the river, the first link and access to the waterfront ever afforded this community. ''There were many challenges,'' says Thomas Balsely, of Thomas Balsely Associates. ''Most importantly, we needed to find a way to really take advantage of this rare opportunity to design a park reflective of our current culture of recreation and environmental stewardship. It had to be a very contemporary park, which at the same time celebrates the history of the place without looking like a 'theme park'.''

We have managed to achieve a park of the present and the future, not of the past with the past literally inscribed in the ground and hovering above us. - Thomas Balsley

Unlike its corporate/high-end residential counterparts, this site is blessed with a shoreline and an intact light industrial/blue collar residential neighborhood whose diversity inspired its design. The principal construction materials for the structures, building envelope, and paving are granite, stainless steel, and bethabarra timber. ''It now feels like a river's edge, like a natural shoreline,'' says Balsley. ''We set out to create a new prototype for urban waterfront parks that would be an alternative to the landfill-based, bulkheaded parks in vogue at the time.''

South Gantry Interpretive Garden, from which the other two piers extend, takes form around two paths of gravel, one of which passes over a bridge across a small inlet. A second of gravel rambles through red maples purposefully weedy-looking vegetation and stone blocks.

''We inherited a diverse and interesting shoreline that consisted of coves and peninsulas and old decrepit piers, and that mess turned out to be one of the site's greatest assets,'' he continues. "Because using filling is now banned, we made an attempt to keep it as natural as they could while making certain provisions, such as getting close to the river.''

The fourth pier features a long wooden ''wave bench'' which terminates with an innovative fish cleaning table and stools, both attracting a diverse constituency whose synergy makes this the family pier. A reflective light fixture meets the dark sky standards.

''Another challenge when you do large phased projects such as this one, is the somewhat more often-times remote first phase,'' added Balsley. ''The community hadn't had access to its waterfront in 100 years. There was just a small community behind this park. We had to ensure that the first phase could protect itself from the realities of urban open spaces.'' They selected a whole palette and design vernacular of very rugged, muscular materials for the site that would be able to withstand those urban pressures and also be a reflection of the industrial site before it became a park.

The fog plaza is at the core of Queens West and the park and plans are being made with retailers for a ferry pier with cafe tables and chairs and retail all around the edges. The fog fountain was designed in anticipation of retail presence, however designers also imagined it as the setting for a future railroad worker's memorial in the center.

Balsley tells a story of how he came to choose the large square stone blocks as part of his ''rugged'' design. ''I loved traveling by train, and whenever the railroads came or went from any little community, the train tracks typically went underground or overhead. The walls that supported those bridges or tunnels were made of those huge stone blocks. For me, that was the symbol or icon of the intersection of railroad and community. We adopted that scale of stone blocks and we came up with many uses for them-walls, seating, stacks of them for edging, plant protection in the Interpretive Garden, and stacked at the shoreline. They're all throughout the park as reminders of the railroad's intersection with communities. The rocks were quarried from Stony Creek quarry in Connecticut which provided many of the great big abutment blocks for the railroads and buildings in NYC.''

A spiraling stainless steel cafe pergola with a raised, curving lunch counter and raised bar stools is a perfect place for eating. The raised seating makes it possible to see over the railing and get an unblocked view.

Now, the park has realized its potential as the beloved common ground for the local community that was previously divided over development and suspicious of its new residents and at last, has re-introduced the waterfront into everyone's daily lives. This is affirmation that an inclusive design process and creativity with deeper meaning can, in fact, heal wounds and build bonds.

This is the place in the park where people actually have access to the water of the East River for the first time in 100 years. Here there is actual access to the water in a landscape that looks as if it had been abandoned only yesterday. The large square stone blocks seem to have tumbled loose, naturally forming what appears to be an ancient amphitheater that stabilizes the shore. Yet they are arranged in a formation that has invited seating as well as steps.

''These kinds of challenges are becoming more and more common as cities around the country are about to turn their industrialized waterfronts into parks,'' says Balsley ''In the early years of industrialization, most cities in the country developed this way, but it was only a matter of time until they would begin to develop their waterfronts. With the loss of water related industry, the land could then be converted to the kinds of spaces that would stimulate other kinds of activities and a new quality of urban life.''

Oversized and sensuously contoured wooden chaises made of very heavy wood reinforced with steel, so heavy they cannot even be rearranged, are for stargazing or sunbathing. They were designed by the design team and are double width. Their wave-like contours stand in contrast to the stark architectural views of the skyline. The lights were purposely kept off that pier so you can literally stargaze out there.

Gantry exploits the natural shoreline of peninsulas, coves, and piers with rich layers of meaning: interpretive ecological, educational, recreational, cultural, historical and progressive expressions of the future. The subsequent design process which led to the final master plan was guided by this rational program and its commitment to the community's vision. ''The interpretive garden is where we chose to be a little bit more literal in the storytelling of the railroads, and also change the character into a contemplative sanctuary,'' says Balsley.

The elegant curving forms of the plaza mirror the curving shoreline. The principal plantings here include red oak, willow, native grasses and shrubs, spartina and perennials.

During the park's master planning process, the design team led the dialogue that negotiated the predictable tug-of-war between active and passive recreation needs. But that was just one aspect of the dialogue. ''We basically had four clients, the Port Authority of NY and NJ, the Empire State Development Corporation, the New York City Economic Development Corporation and the Queens West Development Corporation,'' says Balsley. ''Historians, ecologists and exhibit designers were added to the team to exploit the site's full potential in a way that would enrich its community and the lives of those who would come to visit. The final plan is grounded in the team's deep belief that a broad constituency, ballplayers, bird watchers, sunbathers and stargazers, the elderly and their grandchildren will determine the ultimate success of the park and guarantee its future.''

The most popular pier is the one that terminates with a big fishing table. Not only does it foster fishing as a social activity, it reminds people of one of the most important uses the river had 100 years ago. After a long period where industrial pollution made fishing a rather dangerous pursuit, now the water is clean enough to eat the fish.

''We have managed to achieve a park of the present and the future, not of the past,'' says Balsley, ''with the past literally inscribed in the ground and hovering above us.'' Furthermore, the narrative is enhanced with a rich and innovative detailing that will reward repeated visits: a range of materials and finishes from rugged to elegant and poetic (steel railing and lampposts, various colors of granite, rough wooden decking, rich topical wood for furniture and railing caps), traces of the old railroad tracks, a fog fountain, small blue lights (that mark where the barges docked), and throughout the park the lyrical rhythms of curved forms echo the river shoreline against the intersecting, orthogonal reminders of past industrial activity.

The Cove Bridge was staged for a dramatic passage from the plaza across the cove and into the garden with a gigantic historic relic. Blue lights on the pier edge mark the former barge berths. It is a very dramatic passage.

''This is a trilogy of spaces, with the piers as a fourth,'' says Balsley. ''The trilogy consists of the lawn peninsula - Peninsula Park, in center is the plaza itself and the third space is the Interpretive Garden. The piers are probably the most loved section of the park. Each was designed as a park folly and offers the visitor a truly unique urban pier experience that invites numerous return visits.''

We inherited a diverse and interesting shoreline that consisted of coves, and peninsulas, and old decrepit piers, and that mess turned out to be one of the site's greatest assets. - Thomas Balsley

At the outset, the designers were challenged with the following question: Can a park coherently celebrate history, reflect current culture, look to the future, educate, respect it's river ecology and serve a broad and diverse constituency, all within a compelling framework of space making and forms? The Queens West Parks Master Plan and its first phase, Gantry Plaza State Park, answers clearly in the affirmative. In a city known for its overly cautious approach to open space design, the Queens West Parks have now raised the bar. In his recent critique of Gantry Plaza State Park, New York Times critic Herbert Muschamp exclaimed, ''The curse has been lifted!'' More importantly, members of a community once divided over new development and their new neighbors have formed the Friends of Gantry Plaza State Park, affirmation that an inclusive design process and sensitive design can create and sustain public open spaces that delight and serve broader social goals.

The Peninsula is a great lawn promontory with a natural shoreline edge. It encourages a wide variety of activities, foremost of which is enjoying the stunning view of the Manhattan skyline. There is a large passive lawn for football, soccer practice or just flying a kite, which is framed by willow trees and gravel paths.


  • Grand Award - International Waterfront Center2001 Design Award - EDRA/PLACESHonor Award - ASLAArchitectural Award of Excellence - Tucker
  • 2004 Honor Award - NYASLA

Design Firm: Thomas Balsley Associates in collaboration with Sowinski Sullivan Architects and Lee Weintraub.Engineers: Mueser Rutledge Consulting EngineersGraphics: 212 HarakawaLighting: Domingo Gonzales DesignCivil/Structual Engineering: Vollmer Associates

A Long History

Gantry Plaza State Park was once a working waterfront teaming with rail barges, tugboats, rail cars, horses, and wagons. When there were no railroad bridges and tunnels, the only way to get raw goods to Queens was put it on a rail car and push it onto a rail barge, which would carry it across the river so it could get back on the rails again.

All the railroads, their yards and their workmen were very important in terms of the development of Queens and Long Island. The whole East River was covered with rail barges. You couldn't see the water. They went back and forth continuously carrying rail cars to similar locations on the Hudson including Balsley's recently completed Riverside Park South. But docking them was not easy because of tides, currents and rough water. Huge platforms were hinged to the land and lifted up and down by the gantries until they were aligned with the barge. That made it possible to get the rail cars off the barges and back on the rails without having to unload anything. The gantries were preserved as a reminder of that activity.

The Hunters Point shoreline slowly succumbed to the realities of the Post-Industrialist Age. As the last rail barge headed into the sunset of the New Jersey shoreline, this spectacular site lying in the shadow of the Manhattan skyline and one subway stop away from Grand Central Station was left to slowly degrade to a point of shame to the community it once supported.

Industrialization, too, intensified in Long Island City in the first half of the twentieth century. Heavy industry along the waterfront benefited the economy and financial living standards of many Long Island City residents. Yet, manufacturing had a heavy cost on the East River and subsequently the Long Island City population, as spills and leaks from petroleum, varnish, paint, and other chemicals polluted the River, causing water and soil to be saturated with toxins.

Now, the ruins of those iconic gantries, a symbol of Hunters Point and Long Island City's industrial past, have been preserved as a reminder of its working history.

By the mid 1970s, industrial decline led to a stock of empty factory and warehouse space. Artists, priced out of the housing market in Manhattan, migrated en masse to Long Island City. The sculptor Isamu Noguchi kept a studio in Long Island City. In addition, P.S. 1, founded in 1971 as the Institute of Art and Urban Resources, Inc., is now the second-largest non-profit arts center in the United States and an affiliate of the Museum of Modern Art. Originally devoted to the transformation of abandoned buildings into exhibition, performance and studio spaces, its current status as a defining force in contemporary art is an indicator of the artistic and cultural renaissance Long Island City has undergone in the past three-and-a-half decades.

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June 18, 2019, 6:44 pm PDT

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