Battery Park City - Birth of a New Urban Model

By Amanda Fung

Early next year, two luxury condominium towers—the Liberty Luxe and Liberty Green—will open in Battery Park City. The buildings, which will be 33 and 23 stories, respectively, and will feature similar brick-and-glass facades, are being developed by Milstein Properties.

More important, the two towers will bring to a close one of the largest and most remarkable development projects in New York City’s history: the transformation of 92 acres of landfill across the West Side Highway from the World Trade Center into a vibrant neighborhood.

Today, Battery Park City boasts more than 12,000 residents, 10.8 million square feet of office space—including the headquarters of American Express, Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs— three schools, 35 acres of parks and a 1.2-mile riverfront esplanade. It’s also a place where people want to work and live.

“In Battery Park City, you’re in a small town with neighbors who know each other and lots of parks,” says Anthony Notaro Jr., a community leader who moved there a dozen years ago. “You have every amenity you could imagine. There is nothing else like it in New York.”

Now, with major mixed-use development projects looming on the horizon—from the rail yards on the West Side of Manhattan to Willets Point in Queens to Atlantic Yards and Coney Island in Brooklyn—Battery Park City is also being viewed by planners as a potential model for crafting sustainable communities from scratch.


The most shocking thing about the neighborhood’s success is that it was shaped, of all things, largely by a committee: the Battery Park City Authority. That seven-person agency was set up in the late 1960s by the state to guide the site’s development. “I give credit to the people at the BPCA [for a remarkable job],” says Rick Bell, executive director of the American Institute of Architects’ New York chapter.

Having said all that, the process was ugly, especially in the early years. For openers, the original master plan created in the late 1960s under Gov. Nelson Rockefeller proved to be a nonstarter.

Described as “futuristic,” it featured separate, elevated streets for cars and pedestrians and was designed to be visually and aesthetically different from the rest of the city. It also turned out to be impossible to build, especially amid a recession.

By 1979, with the BPCA standing on the verge of bankruptcy, a new chairman was appointed, Richard Kahan, founder of the nonprofit Urban Assembly, who was also responsible for leading the design, financing and construction of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.

Brought in to shut down the project, Mr. Kahan ended up putting together a team that would eventually save it. In one of his first steps, he hired young architects Alexander Cooper and Stanton Eckstut to craft a new, simpler, less ambitious master plan.

“Richard was the hero of Battery Park City,” says Mr. Eckstut, who is now senior principal of Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn Architects. “It was his vision and his support that made the difference.”

For openers, the new plan was far more user-friendly, allowing more room for public spaces and streets that were not on a grid. Rather than standing out from the city, the new design included familiar elements from Central Park and other much-loved public places—from hexagonal asphalt paving blocks to stately lampposts and wood-slatted benches.

“We intentionally wanted people to feel like they were in New York,” says Mr. Kahan. The proposal included strict guidelines to ensure that plans for residential and commercial buildings included public space. The BPCA paired artists with architects and designers to raise those public spaces above the level of the ordinary. In the process, the Battery Park esplanade became the prototype for much of what is today the 5-mile-long Hudson River Park.

At first, luring developers to the empty windswept plain was tough. Complicating matters was that developers had to sign a 99-year ground lease, which even Mr. Kahan conceded was a risky bet early on for a developer. The first break came in the early 1980s, when The LeFrak Organization agreed to build a 1,700-unit residential complex called Gateway Plaza on South End Avenue. But it wasn’t until late in that decade that the deal came to establish Battery Park as a latter-day Rockefeller

Toronto-based Olympia & York agreed to build a four-tower, 8 million-square-foot retail/office complex complete with a marina, a sweeping riverside plaza and a glass-vaulted winter garden, all designed by renowned architect César Pelli. Within years of opening, what was dubbed the World Financial Center was home base for American Express, Dow Jones, Merrill Lynch and others.

With Olympia & York on board, other developers, including Milstein Properties and the Albanese Organization, rushed to build their own projects. Each had to comply with strict rules that specified everything from building heights and configurations to the color of facing materials. The idea was to get a reasonable degree of harmony without crossing the line to homogeneity. With each new project, park or other amenity, the odds of success increased.


“When you are picking brick, [the restrictions] are a pain in the neck,” says Steve Rossi, a longtime Battery Park resident and senior manager at Milstein Properties, which has developed six condos in Battery Park City since 1980, including Liberty Luxe and Liberty Green. “However, the payoff is greater, because you end up with better product.” The master plan is also credited with leading the wave of green buildings in the city over the past decade. In 2000, a guideline was added to the master plan to encourage developers to build green.

The Solaire, which opened in 2003 at 20 River Terrace, was the first product of that guideline. It was also the nation’s first LEED gold-certified high-rise residential building. According to Mr. Bell of AIA’s New York chapter, the environmental standards established in Battery Park City set an international standard for green building. The solar panels on the side of those buildings are “not clunky; they’re beautiful,” he notes.

Over the project’s long life, flexibility has been crucial, according to James Cavanaugh, who took over as BPCA’s president in 2005. As more families moved into the area, the master plan had to be tweaked to allow for more space for schools. The area’s third school, PS 257, will open in September.

Similarly, Teardrop Park, the dog run in the middle of North End Avenue, as well as the little-league baseball field, were not part of the original plan. Even the community center at the base of Liberty Luxe and Liberty Green was not initially envisioned. “Battery Park City is a lesson of evolutionary design, not revolutionary design,” says Mr. Eckstut.

Area: 26 acres on far West Side of Manhattan
Goals: Half of the space will be for apartments, cultural space and a new public school; the other half for office, hotel and retail space and public areas
Status: The Metropolitan Transportation Authority and The Related Companies recently approved a $1 billion deal to convert the land into a sprawling development. Related is required to pay $20 million when the contract is signed and another $21.7 million in the following 12 months, but the developer won’t have to close on the project or pay rent on the land until the market improves.
Developer: The Related Companies
Area: 27 acres in Brooklyn
Goals: Year-round entertainment district with 1.1 million square feet of amusements, 4,500 square feet of housing, 500,000 square feet of retail, more than 6,500 parking spaces, and a hotel.
Status: The city has assembled all the land it needs to proceed by finally buying 6.9 acres from developer Joseph Sitt. Project is awaiting state approval of parkland designation so the amusement district can be expanded and parking and housing can be developed.
Area: 22 acres in downtown Brooklyn
Goals: The Barclays Center, an 18,000-seat arena, will be home to the Nets basketball team. Future plans for 16 towers for mostly residential units, but project will also include hotel and office space.
Status: The foundation for the Barclays Center was recently poured.
Developer: Forest City Ratner Cos.
Area: 62 acres near Citi Field in Queens
Goals: Hotel, convention center, a school, 5,500 mixed-income residential units, eight acres of public spaces, community amenities and1.7 million square feet of retail
Status: Some Willets Point business and property owners are battling the city’s effort to redevelop the area. Building cannot begin until the private parcels on the site are purchased or condemned through eminent domain.

Crains New York Business, July 25, 2010