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Workshop yields suggestions for Penn Yards site.

Workshop yields suggestions for Penn Yards site

It's a whole new ballgame for one of the most controversial projects of the last decade. Donald Trump has joined forces with six community groups, his former opposition, to forge a brand new development for his massive Penn Yards site on Manhattan's West Side. The question remains, however, what should they build?

A dozen architects from all over the country, working pro-bono as a consulting group, recently gathered for four days of investigation and discussion and the result was recommendations for the 78.4-acre site, currently owned by Donald J. Trump.

Some of the new controversial suggestions for the proposed 8.3 million-square-foot project area included: reducing the density of the project by 16 percent, reallocating some of the volume, and setting aside 10 percent of the units as affordable housing with 4 percent for low-income and 6 percent for institutional faculty and students through the New York State Dormitory Authority. A suggestion was also made that more affordable housing be made available in other parts of the city by the recently formed development team the Riverside South Planning Corp.

The Penn Yards Urban Design Workshop team was made up of Michael John Pittas, HAIA, AICP; Arthur M Skolnik, AIA; Michael D. Meyer, Allan Mallach; David N. Kinsey; Donlyn Lyndon, FAIA; Carol R. Johnson, FASLA; Lamarr Kendrick; Galen Cranz; Darrell A. Fitzgerald; Francisco Behr; and Michael Brill.

The group interviewed over 70 residents, community activists and officials involved or concerned with the project in marathon sessions. During their three-day visit, they toured the site and looked at it from the ground, nearby buildings and from boats in the Hudson. The architects also toured the neighborhood to get a feeling for the people who lived and worked there.

Maintain Character of West Side

The architects made a public presentation at the New York Historical Society and also prepared written reports. The group stated they tried to extend the grid of the city streets into the site as much as possible while reducing the remaining "superblock" aspects by continuous courtyards. They also felt it was important to maintain the character of the West Side by keeping the heights of buildings no more than 12 to 15 stories along the Western edge at Riverside Drive South.

The team also proposed a remassing of structures and different heights at other locations.

As the project has already envisioned television studios, the architects proposed the construction of light industrial buildings for TV studios or commercial/industrial uses between 59th and 69th Streets near Lincoln Center, which would be shaped to relate to the Con Ed facility whose smokestack towers over the neighborhood.

During their stay, the architects examined transportation access and suggested discouraging the use of cars while carefully planning the movement of vehicles within the development. They recommend a commuter railway stop connecting to bus lines and a ferry landing at the marina. The architects were appalled by the overused 72nd Street subway stop and called for attention to this station while also suggesting the 59th Street IRT be made an express stop.

Move Highway

As something they understood to be quite costly but in discussing with engineers determined could be done, the architects proposed building the infrastructure of Riverside South to include a tunnel for the West Side Highway. The highway, which is currently undergoing renovation, they agreed, should in the future be moved in-land to provide uninterrupted access to the shore. The old highway would be used as a "canopy" until being torn down when its useful life was over, which the architects noted would be before the end of the development's expected lifespan.

In a proposal which seemed to spark the interest of all concerned, they advised taking advantage of the 23-acre park and waterfront with different levels, ramps, stair and elevator access leading to marinas, ferry landings, passive parkland and natural areas. They suggested working with the shoreland environment to create a salt marsh, wetlands, meadows and nature trails with an tive center for community ecology education. They also suggested exploring the development of on-site recycling and composting facilities for community gardens.

The architects stressed that environmental protection should be given top priority in park and urban planning.

Trump Impressed

Developer and owner of the site, Donald J. Trump said he was very impressed by one of the individual people that worked on assessing the proposal. "They had ideas that we will incorporate on the waterfront and the park," he said. Trump, who was not one of the sponsors of the workshop, also said he is looking at some of the various massings for some of the locations. "We give them credit for working hard and diligently on the site," Trump said. "We're going to look at it strongly and we think the job will be a tremendous success."

Trump also seemed unconcerned by the reductions in volume and density shrugging those comments off by saying they were only suggestions.

6.9 million square feet Proposed

Sources indicated the size of the project has never been made clear to the public since the drawings provided by Riverside South to the public and to the architects did not reflect the full 8.3 million square feet. The team determined the drawings showed approximately 5.8 million square feet and when they added onto the drawing to depict the full 8.3 million square feet, 6.2 million of which was to be residential, the visiting architects rejected it out-of-hand as being too big. When a slide of that enlarged project was shown during the presentation, there was an audible gasp from the audience.

Using volumetric criteria, the source said, the architects then illustrated what they call the Modified Plan, which incorporates 5.2 million square feet of residential development in a total development of approximately 6.9 million square feet. This was the plan they discussed.

The workshop was sponsored by Community Board 7, Borough President Ruth Messinger's office and the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Known as a "charette," these assessment programs are run throughout the country by the American Institute of Architects. In France, a wagon known as a charette would bring the architecture students to school and they would be furiously drawing all along the way. The team's involvement in Riverside South came about from the suggestion of Lance Jay Brown AIA, an architect hired by Community Board 7 to advise them on the development who also acted as coordinator of the workshop.

Ethel Sheffer, co-chair of the Board's Penn Yards Committee, said it took a lot of effort to convince people to give the idea a chance. "I think the process is wonderful," she said afterwards. Although Sheffer declined to comment on any specific aspects of the proposal, she did say there appeared to be some interesting and serious ideas.

Borough President Ruth Messinger said the architects were making many proposals which would have to be looked at carefully. In a prepared statement, Messinger said she was pleased about the suggestions to include affordable housing and dormitory space. She said the planners also provided clear guidelines for environmentally sound development.

Six community groups had opposed the original Trump City proposal but recently formed the Riverside South Planning Corporation together with Trump. The groups are the Municipal Art Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Parks Council, the Regional Plan Association, Riverside Park Fund, and Westpride.

Richard Kahan, chairman of the board of Riverside South Planning Corp., said it was a fascinating weekend out of which came some exciting ideas. He said the drawings the architects worked from came from the civic groups and nothing has ever been put forward from Riverside South. The plan that comes forward in the next few weeks from Riverside South Planning, he said, will incorporate some of the ideas proposed by the architects. Kahan was gratified that the group generally endorsed the current Riverside South proposal.

Frances Halsband FAIA, president of the New York Chapter of the AIA, said the Penn yards Urban Design Workshop was the second step of a process that began when the Riverside South Planning Corporation was formed. "After years of groups fighting, people are starting to coalesce," she said. It was the AIA's intention, she said, to gather everyone together, "so the project would be richer and could move forward."

The team, Halsband noted, supported the general direction of the Riverside South proposal while suggesting other points of refinement and development. "Everybody that came in to be interviewed and everybody who took part felt they were contributing and it was a wonderful atmosphere," Halsband added.

A slide presentation of the group's discoveries in the neighborhood included photos of everything from a naked child playing in the middle of garbage to the architects enjoying the breezes from a boat as they studied the shoreline.

For the most part, the photos and slides of what actually exists were much clearer than what the architects proposed. This seemed indicative of the entire process, which proponents said, was meant as a jumping point for further discussion more than a new project proposal cast in concrete.

One audience wag later suggested that a rough vote should have been taken then and there, with the idea of getting the project moving ahead. But another person began clapping when Allan Mallach, current director of the Department of Housing and Development for Trenton, New Jersey and the team member who handled the economics, cautioned that barring a significant and dramatic improvement in market conditions, the likelihood that the project would ever take place was remote.

Halsband categorized the workshop as being the "peaceful revolution of the public taking control of the planning process and moving forward with the process. But as much as the architects contributed, it also seemed the architects were urging the planner to step back and take another look before proceeding with the project.
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Author:Weiss, Lois
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Date:Jul 10, 1991
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