Public Tells Planning Commission They Want a Walkable Riverside Center

Image: Extell Development.
The drawings released by Extell Development don't draw attention to the blank walls and curb cuts that would disrupt the sidewalk at Riverside Center.

A hearing on the Riverside Center mega-development yesterday revealed a popular hunger for a more walkable West Side and perhaps some interest from the City Planning Commission in the same. Extell Development is looking to build a housing and retail complex, including 1,800 parking spaces, on this waterfront site equivalent in size to two Manhattan blocks. Public testimony called for a slew of urban design improvements to their plan, including reducing the amount of off-street parking, integrating the site with the surrounding streetscape, and working towards burying the elevated Miller Highway.

As chair Amanda Burden and the other commissioners now deliberate over the approvals the project needs, they have the power to determine whether this block on Manhattan’s West Side will be dominated by the automobile or develop into a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood, in line with the goals of PlaNYC.

Efforts to better integrate Riverside Center with the surrounding neighborhood and streetscape got the most play yesterday. In Extell’s plans for the project, retail faces the inside of the development and passersby would see largely blank walls rising from the sidewalk, with the streets sloping down to the waterfront and the buildings stationed on an elevated platform. That wall would be interrupted by a slew of curb cuts to enter Extell’s proposed 1,800-space parking garage and auto showroom and service center.

“The development turns its back on the street,” said Brian Cook, the land use director for Borough President Scott Stringer. “It systematically ignores the rich context of the area,” explained Community Board 7 chair Mel Wymore.

The City Planning Commission appeared receptive to this critique. “Does one see an auto showroom as something that enlivens the edge of the project?” Burden asked Extell president Gary Barnett after he testified. “What is going to energize the sidewalk and the street life at the front of this project?”

Other commissioners pressed the developers and architects about the effect of driveways, retail, stairways, and platforms on the pedestrian environment. The developer, in turn, outlined a few minor steps to address the issue, such as changing a staircase to 59th Street into a slope.

But one underlying cause of the streetlife-deadening platform is the excessive amount of parking that Extell is seeking to build, according to Ethel Sheffer, a CB 7 member and former president of the New York American Planning Association chapter. The platform “is there in large part because it satisfies an extensive request of 1,800 parking spaces on two levels,” she said.

The second level of Extells proposed 1,800 space garage covers the entire four-block site. Image: Extell Development.
The second level of Extell's proposed 1,800 space garage covers the entire four-block site. Image: Extell Development

Those 1,800 spaces, which require special permits from the commission, would create a development dominated by the automobile, perhaps to a degree unmatched by any project in the Clean Air Act zone below 60th Street. The community board and borough president each recommended against allowing 1,800 spaces at Riverside Center.

Parking received some attention from the commission at the very start of yesterday’s hearing. Commissioner Richard Eaddy cited the community board’s request for a smaller lot and asked Barnett why he didn’t agree with the board.

“We’re actually cutting out parking from the area,” said Barnett, arriving at that claim by adding the surface parking currently on the site to the number of spaces he thinks his tenants will demand. “We’re going to be down 800 or 1,000 spaces,” said Barnett.

CB 7 member Ken Coughlin laid out just how inflated Extell’s demands are. If the commission simply used the same calculations in effect at the nearby Hudson Yards project, he said, only 768 spaces would be built. “Should we be creating additional incentives to drive in an already congested and polluted urban environment?” he asked.

The commission has written that one of its goals for Hudson Yards was to “limit the amount of off-street parking… consistent with the objective of creating an area with a transit- and pedestrian-oriented neighborhood character.” Riverside Center could be the first large-scale development near Hudson Yards where the commission proves it is truly committed to that goal.

The elevated Miller Highway running in front of Riverside South. Photo: Riverside South Planning Corp.
The elevated Miller Highway running in front of Riverside South. Photo: Riverside South Planning Corp.

Other testimony focused on ensuring that the project furthers efforts to bury the elevated Miller Highway between 59th and 72nd Streets. According to architect Daniel Gutman, who helped design the original plan for the Riverside South complex, the 1991 agreement required that the developer build the northbound tube for a tunnel while the state would build the southbound tube. Some of that construction has already taken place. Actually burying the road, however, would require additional funding that isn’t available yet — the highway was renovated only 15 years ago.

Even so, many urged the commission to do what it takes to move the plan forward, whether by extracting more funds from Extell or simply not obstructing the current slow progress toward a tunnel. “The space is still marred and made dangerous and oppressed by the highway,” said former Municipal Art Society president Kent Barwick.

“The vision that drove that compromise was the relocation of the overhead road,” said Barbara Fife, a former Deputy Mayor for Policy and Planning under David Dinkins. She urged that the Commission require the developer to complete part of the southbound tunnel in order to gain approval.

Burden showed some attention to the potential of a buried Miller Highway, at one point asking Extell’s landscape architect how her plans would change if the highway were moved underground.

In addition to requests for design and planning improvements, testifiers made strong demands yesterday for Extell to build a new school and provide more affordable housing. To the extent that negotiations pit competing priorities against each other, the commission will need to fight that much harder to make Riverside Center a walkable place and not let sustainability fall by the wayside.