Meet the River Heads

SHoP ARCHITECT’S GREGG PASQUARELLI REINVISIONS THE EAST RIVER

The only thing missing is a ferry every 10 minutes

By LISA GABOR

If there were an architect laureate for the redevelopment of the East River, it just might be Gregg Pasquarelli. One of five principals of the New York-based SHoP Architects, Pasquarelli is working with JDS Development Group to design the American Copper Buildings at 34th Street and First Avenue, with Two Trees Management Company to reimagine the Domino Sugar refinery in Williamsburg, and with Howard Hughes Corporation’s revival of the South Street Seaport. As different as they are, the three projects taken together represent a new vision of New York City, one that is united by the East River, not divided by it. In this geography, New Yorkers who live on the Manhattan coast of the East River are neighbors of people in Long Island City, who in turn are neighbors with DUMBO and Williamsburg. In some ways, it is a return to the city’s earliest days, when the waterways were a vital part of daily life. UrbanCoast.nyc sat down with Pasquarelli to talk about melding New York’s past, present and future on the East River.

UrbanCoast.nyc: The East River, the Hudson, the Harbor. New York is defined by these amazing bodies of water, but historically, there were so few residential buildings built right on them. Why?

Gregg Pasquarelli: Rivers were the interstate highways or the railways of their day, so no one ever thought about them. No one would say, ‘Let’s front our home on an interstate highway.’  Because it was infrastructure. So it’s understandable that the city has this incredible port and turned its back on the rivers. Although there were times in the past when people did want to face the water—like River House, which is from the 20s.

UrbanCoast: But even more recently, there was opportunity to redevelop the waterfront. Who wouldn’t want to live or work on the East River?

Pasquarelli: The city was slow because of a myriad of political reasons, was slow to rezone certain areas, mostly manufacturing, into mixed use, commercial and residential. And — you know, we lost out — we lost out on a lot of building and development. You look over at Jersey City, and you see that skyline.  That should have all been done in Brooklyn and Queens ten and twenty years ago. Then, finally light bulb went off, and now it’s coming to fruition.

UrbanCoast: How do you create a new place in the city now?

Pasquarelli: Think about not even 100 years ago, or 80 or 90 years ago.  People didn’t want to walk Sixth Avenue from Fifth Avenue because that was such a gross neighborhood. And then Rockefeller Center got built. It showed that if we make this kind of fabulous mixed-use multi-layer harmonious, soaring, monumental, iconographic complex, it becomes safe to walk over that block to Sixth Avenue.

UrbanCoast: How does that example translate to say, the American Copper Buildings, which you are designing. They seem like an anchor to this new neighborhood we’re talking about.

Pasquarelli: The address is incredible. For us, it was about building a building that connected to the river and looked to the East at the sunrise, but then also had that view back into Manhattan. I think that’s pretty interesting.

UrbanCoast: Yes, you are also working on the Domino Sugar project, in Williamsburg. That becomes a neighbor to the Copper Buildings. It is re-contextualizing the city.

Pasquarelli: It is this hub and spoke notion of a daily existence. Like, I live here and I commute into the corridor of work and I commute back out at night. That’s going to change, because I think you’re going to have a lot of people that choose to live at Domino so they can work in Brooklyn. So they can work in the Navy Yard, and maybe they take a ferry to go out to dinner. If I’m at Domino and it’s a Saturday and I’m with my kids,  we’ll say, ‘Let’s go down to Brooklyn Bridge Park and let’s play and hang out, then let’s bop over to the Seaport for drinks and lunch, and then let’s go up to Roosevelt Island and then let’s go visit your aunt over in American Copper.

UrbanCoast: What’s the key to making this happen?

Pasquarelli: Getting the connectivity going. It is of the utmost importance. Every design and every project along the East River should have a ferry slip, multiples of them. Think about like Seattle. When you go into those grey ferry terminals, it’s like a train station. There are 12 ferries lined up going to different islands. Sydney, too. Those cities move on the water. New York needs the same thing—a continuous schedule with ferries coming and going every ten minutes.

UrbanCoast: So, it’s all about the ferries?

Pasquarelli: The most unbuilt parts of the city are out towards the edge. Well, you know, there’s a million people coming to live here. Where are we going to put them? If we put them on the edge, and we can’t afford to build subways anymore, we have to use the river as our cheap method of transportation. The river is beautiful. It’s like a Zen garden. If we can figure out all the zoning so the most number of people get a view of that river and commute and are on it every day, that takes a lot of the pressure off and actually makes people live a more healthy life.

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Looking for more things to do around the East River? UrbanCoast.nyc

“New York needs a continuous ferry schedule—with ferries coming and going every ten minutes.”

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