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An Esplanade With A Difference

by Thomas Balsley, ASLA

The natural indentation in New York City's East River shoreline called Kip's Bay was long ago filled and developed as slaughterhouses, varnish factories, breweries, gas works, and other industrial uses, precluding public access to the river. The eventual decline of these industries and the ferry service at 34th Street brought more obstruction-highways, sanitation platforms, fueling piers, and parking concessions. This history of neglect finally prompted public outcry and new government policies fostering waterfront revitalization and open space recreation.

Fearing renewal of long-term leases, a hearty band of community leaders and their Landscape Architect, Thomas Balsley and Associates, gathered in 1984 to walk and climb their way among parked cars, fences and rotting piers stretching from 34th to 41st Streets for one purpose-to share a vision for their waterfront and strategize its implementation. Their collaboration, sponsored by Community Board #6 and the Parks Council, documented the dire need for parks and waterfront access, including a phased master plan that-informed by a process of participation and choice-reflected the community's dream for its greatest open space resource.

Seizing opportunity from apparent constraint, the design proposes an imaginative alternative to past "formula" esplanades and transforms an existing variegated edge into a ribbon of changing and distinct landscapes, each exploiting unique water edge and viewing opportunities. The park widens and narrows like a river, in a linear rhythm of active and passive episodes of surprise and discovery-lawns, gardens, tree-shaded seating areas, esplanades, floating recreation facilities, and open plazas. Cantilevered overlooks, fountains, concession stands, and interpretive kiosks provide focal points of information and services. Selected streets embellished with banners, pavements, and light poles offer neighborhoods safe, convenient access to park entry "foyers." Seamlessly stitched into the City's continuous esplanade at either end and again serviced with commuter ferries at 34th Street, the park integrates waterfront with upland networks of sidewalks, parks and plazas.

Recently completed Phase I testifies to its community's collective will and spirit. Despite structural obstacles and a two-year bureaucratic delay, an arched pedestrian passage was literally carved through the elevated FDR Drive's solid wall, providing dramatic river views and safe access from 37th Street and Murray Hill. An entrance plaza at 37th Street cantilevers beyond the bulkhead as an overlook, flanked with decorative granite fountains to mask nearby noises. A multi-level park provides upper seating areas under a double row of Whitehouse Pears, while a continuous esplanade with a combination of upper seatwall and ledge provides a variety of seating, sunning, and dining opportunities to complement conventional benches. An adult fitness station at 36th Street will serve joggers and complement future recreation barges, actively drawing New Yorkers to their river. LASN


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October 13, 2019, 7:16 pm PDT

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