New York City's Robert F. Wagner, Jr. Park Listed as Nationally Significant Threatened Landscape

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New York City's Robert F. Wagner, Jr. Park Listed as Nationally Significant Threatened Landscape

New York City's Robert F. Wagner, Jr. Park Listed as Nationally Significant Threatened Landscape
Jun 04, 2017

Media Contact: Nord Wennerstrom | T: 202.483.0553  | M: 202.225.7076 | E: nord@tclf.org


"The threat to Robert F. Wagner, Jr. Park is part of a broader national problem - an open season on open space - that is resulting in the confiscation and monetization of nationally important cultural landscapes."

Washington, D.C. (June 5, 2017) - The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) today listed New York City's Robert F. Wagner, Jr. Park as a Landslide nationally significant work of landscape architecture that is threatened and at-risk.  Wagner Park, designed by landscape architect and project lead Laurie Olin (with Hanna/Olin), horticulturist Lynden Miller, and architects Machado and Silvetti Associates is a significant work of postmodern design located in Battery Park City in lower Manhattan.  The Battery Park City Authority (BPCA), which is responsible, according to its website, for "financing, developing, constructing, maintaining, and operating a planned community development of the Battery Park City," has released plans to redesign the park to address post-Hurricane Sandy resiliency issues, however it's also looking to "Provide better opportunity for food and beverage," because they're "not achieving [their] food & beverage potential."

According to TCLF president & CEO, Charles A. Birnbaum: "The threat to Robert F. Wagner, Jr. Park is part of a broader national problem - an open season on open space - that is resulting in the confiscation and monetization of nationally important cultural landscapes."

History

The 3.5-acre Robert F. Wagner, Jr. Park is located within Battery Park City, a 92-acre mixed-use community that was built on landfill created from New York Harbor dredge and the excavation of the World Trade Center site. Named after the adjacent Battery Park, the community houses numerous residential, commercial and retail buildings and nearly 36 acres of parks and open space. Stanton Eckstut and Alexander Cooper of Cooper Eckstut, with Hanna/Olin, created the master plan for Battery Park City in 1979. The plan’s 26 parcels were designed independently by different developers, creating a diverse neighborhood fabric that emulated the city’s mixed character. The collaboration on Robert F. Wagner, Jr. Park of project lead landscape architect Laurie Olin with Hanna/Olin, horticulturalist Lynden Miller, and architects Machado and Silvetti Associates resulted in a significant work of postmodern design.

Threat

The BPCA wants to replace Wagner Park with one that better aligns with resiliency measures following the impact of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which resulted in extensive flooding in lower Manhattan and sections of the East Coast. Significantly, while water did reach the park’s lawns, the buildings at Wagner Park did not flood during Hurricane Sandy because the park was built to withstand a 100-year flood – it did the job it was designed to do. By contrast, adjacent sites were flooded and critics of the proposed redesign, such as landscape architect Laura Starr, suggest that low-lying areas should be BPCA’s higher priority. According to Starr: “Topography is a fact – [Pier A] Plaza sits at a much lower elevation and should be addressed first. The solution of addressing that, which is a complicated situation, will likely generate a solution for the adjacent areas. The [proposed] integrated flood protection solution may not necessarily have to involve the most beloved areas of Wagner Park.” Starr, a member of the Battery Park City Committee of Community Board 1, said at the Community Board's May 2, 2017 meeting: “The solution may lie in elevating the street ... We need to see the whole design along Battery Place from Broadway to the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Until we have that, we don’t have a resiliency project.”

The proposals for Wagner Park are couched in terms of sustainability and resilience, but there may be other considerations. According to a May 4, 2017 article in the Broadsheet, the owner of Gigino’s restaurant “pays $85,000 per year for the 3,450 square feet. This comes to an annual cost of $24.63 per square foot. According the Cushman & Wakefield Marketbeat Manhattan report, the current asking rent for retail space in Lower Manhattan is $403 per square foot.”

In fact, among the top five "Objectives" listed on page two of the BPCA's plan for Wagner Park is: "Provide better opportunity for food and beverage."  This is reinforced on page five in the section labeled "Existing Building Issues": "Not achieving food & beverage potential."

According to Laurie Olin, the BPCA "see the Wagner park site as a place they could make a fortune in revenue with a giant restaurant - it's déjà vu of Werner LeRoi and his proposal for a giant restaurant in Bryant Park."  He added: "Wagner Park in the form it is in at this moment is a highly successful social space contributing greatly to the life of thousands in the city; to destroy it on the premise that it will solve the impact of climate change on lower Manhattan when all the streets and every building for a mile or more around it remain lower than it is dishonest."

Conclusion

When the park opened in 1996, Paul Goldberger wrote in the New York Times that the park is “one of the finest public spaces New York has seen in at least a generation.”The park, despite being less than 50 years old, is worthy of an assessment as an historic resource for potential listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Moreover, as part of the larger Battery Park City ensemble – which Paul Goldberger touted in the New York Times as “a national model of civilized urban planning” – this rare East Coast foray into postmodernist design is deserving of greater scholarly attention and evaluation for its careful integration of architecture, landscape architecture, horticulture, and public art. 

Consequently, TCLF is calling for the BPCA to: 

  1. Reject the proposal to drastically alter Robert F. Wagner, Jr. Park as it would have an adverse effect on this nationally significant work of landscape architecture;
  2. Support a strong measure to help guide future change; encourage the State and the Battery Park City Authority to pursue a Determination of Eligibility (DOE) for listing the Battery Park City landscape ensemble (for the period spanning 1979-1996) in the National Register of Historic Places. 

About The Cultural Landscape Foundation

The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit founded in 1998 to connect people to places. TCLF educates and engages the public to make our shared landscape heritage more visible, identify its value, and empower its stewards. Through its website, publishing, lectures and other events, TCLF broadens support and understanding for cultural landscapes.