Sunday, December 29, 2013

Hunter's Point South Park

by Robin Lynn

It takes more than a while to build a waterfront park, so it’s worth returning to see newly completed sections. More than fifteen years ago landscape architect Thomas Balsley created the schematic design for parkland along the water’s edge in Long Island City, Queens, and today he’s still watching over design and construction.

Hunter’s Point South Park (Center Boulevard between 50th and 54th Avenues) opened in August 2013, next to Gantry Plaza State Park, the older initial area designed by Balsley and Weintraub & di Domenico. (see Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes, p. 119). On October 9, 2013, I re-joined Balsley to see the new area. Why re-joined? In 1998 I was with him when I organized a Municipal Art Society tour of his then-new 2.5-acre Gantry Plaza State Park. I expect to be with him in the future, timeline unclear, when his final park section is built on a bluff south of Hunter’s Point South Park.

Tom led this Archtober tour with Michael Manfredi of Weiss/Manfredi, the New York-based architecture firm, whose work deftly integrates architecture and landscape. They are collaborating with ARUP, a global firm specializing in infrastructure, to create the landscapes, park facilities, and streets of the new residential developments along the Long Island City waterfront. Manfredi characterized the successive sections as “charms on a bracelet” with their own expenses, programs, and settings.

Hunter’s Point South Park is city-managed. (New York City took back this stretch of land from the state prior to the city's 2012 Olympic bid for an ultimately unbuilt Olympic Village to and from which athletes would be transported by the ferries that are the only part of that plan to be realized.) What the city park and Gantry Plaza State Park have in common are the same killer views: the United Nations Secretariat Building, the Chrysler Building, and the Empire State Building across the East River, and now the geometric contours of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island (see Guide, p. 139).

Against this amazing backdrop lies a great green elliptical space, sited between Long Island City’s streets and the East River, large enough for a regulation-size soccer field to fit within. The whole swirling mass is covered in green artificial turf, with natural grass on raised land around it. (The politics of green are interesting: The director of the City Planning Department wanted real grass, while the Department of Parks and Recreation, knowing that the area would serve the gym needs of a new public school across the street, did not.) The compromise: an altered topography, with active folks getting a flat artificial turf to play on, and parents and lovers getting grass. A lovely, continuous granite band divides the sections, and provides more seating.

What else? The Rail Garden, with rails in the ground, alludes to the area’s industrial past when rail cars arrived here and went by barge across the East River. Native grasses, which once populated the area, playfully sway among the rails. In the “foyer” area, there are appealing banquettes close to the street for visitors who don’t want to walk the full width of the Rail Garden to the water.

The covered canopy of the open-air pavilion by the New York Water Taxi dock (cafĂ© to come with the requisite movable chairs) has a nautical quality with pleated panels capturing rainwater. The Southern pine wood on the deck, treated in Scandinavia to alter its cellular structure to perform like a much harder wood—such as the scarce teak or ipe—was used here for the first time in a city park. Nearby there’s a dog park, really two parks, one for small dogs, one for large dogs. “Dog owners are the new parents of the city…and they need to make social connections,” says Balsley.” Maybe the animals enjoy the views too.

The area across the street from Hunter’s Point South Park is a whir of building activity. Following the economic downtown of 2008, and to spur development, the city decided to build its parks first and then issue requests for proposals for buildings. The new housing, in construction or being planned, will eventually have a mix of 5,000 units of affordable and market-rate housing. In the meantime, the parks are open for business, with one more section to come.

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