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Waterside Plaza, 30 Waterside Plaza

Between East 23rd Street & East 26th Street

84
Carter Horsley
Review by Carter Horsley
Carter Horsley Carter B. Horsley, a former journalist for The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune and The New York Post. Mr. Horsley is also the editorial director of CityRealty.com.
 

In the mid-1970s, the architectural firm of Davis, Brody & Associates came up with a new, high-rise, residential building prototype for New York City: an enclave of several slender, tall, chamfered towers.

The first was Waterside in Manhattan along the East River and it was followed by River Park Towers in the Bronx along the Harlem River and then Cathedral Parkway Houses on West 110th Street and finally the Ruppert Brewery project on the east side of Third Avenue between 90th and 92nd Streets in Yorkville.

Waterside, which was built in 1974, had four major towers. River Park Towers and Cathedral Parkway Houses had two. Ruppert's tower were as tall but no longer slender. All were faced in large red-brick masonry and had vertical fenestration patterns.

Waterside was built on a platform on the east side of the FDR Drive from 25th to 30thth Streets and was support by more than 2,000 pilings descending 80 feet into the bed for the East River.

The complex has 1,470 apartments in the towers and some offices and retail spaces and garages beneath a large, landscaped plaza at the south end of which is the United Nations International School, which was designed by Harrison, Abramovitz & Harris.

The four towers range in height from 31 to 37 stories high and because of the "pinwheel" plan their stepped and faceted profiles give each apartment spectacular views.

Steps lead from the plaza to the river s edge, a pedestrian bridge spans the FDR Drive to 25th Street and the complex's open two and a half acres are used as an outdoor gallery from changing exhibitions of large-scale sculpture. The architects' website proclaimed that "This combination of middle-income housing and extensive recreational planning energized the long neglected waterfront area while making a significant contribution to a previously unpopular area of architectural practice."

The development is just to the north of the sprawling and bland, red-brick, mid-rise residential enclaves of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village. The enclave is also just to the south of Buzzy O'Keefe's very popular Water Club restaurant.

Since its completion, Waterside has undergone very few changes and remains as originally envisioned by the architects. The only addition to the original structures is the pool annex, built in 1978. It received The Bard Award for Distinguished Architecture and Urban Design in 1975 and the next year an honor award from the American Institute of Architects. In 2004, the Municipal Art Society placed Waterside on its "30 Under 30", a watch list of future landmarks.

The Mitchell-Lama-Housing-Program-funded rental complex made up of the four residential towers, a row of duplex townhouses, and the school.

Richard Ravitch was the developer.

Waterside is accessible to vehicles only by entering from 23rd Street. Cars and trucks leaving Waterside can do so through 23rd Street or driving along a service road to 34th Street. A footbridge at East 25th Street allows safe passage across the FDR Drive. Waterside is also the last stop on the M16 bus.

In 2004 Waterside Management Company LLC launched a three-year capital improvement program with a cost in excess of $35,000,000. The capital improvement program included upgrades to all new apartments as they became vacant as well as all hallways and each building's reception and concierge areas. The plaza itself was re-waterproofed and repaved and extensive park-like landscaping added. The health club, parking facilities, and security system were also upgraded.

Waterside has year-round events that are free and open-to-the-public including outdoor summer concerts in July and the outdoor Monday night movies in August. In 2008 Waterside hosted the Make Music New York festival, during which 17 bands performed concerts on three different stages - on the waterside, in the gardens, and on the plaza. Other events include monthly playreadings, a short play festival, a dance festival, a spring flea market, and an electronic recycling day.

P. F. Chang's held a charity event on the roof of one of Waterside's high rise buildings on June 28, 2010, during which professional golfers Annika S¿renstam, Briny Baird and Don Vickery took turns driving golf balls at a target floating in the East River. The event raised a total of $100,000 for several charities including the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund.

The complex has doormen, a fitness center and swimming pool and storage units.

In an October 5, 2001 article in The New York Times, critic Herbert Muschamp provided the following commentary about Waterside Plaza, calling it "a model of urban design":

"People tend to overlook Waterside Plaza, the social housing project on the East River in the 20's. When the complex was completed, in 1974, it typified an approach to housing development - towers in a park - that had already fallen into disrepute. Jane Jacobs to the rescue! Changing taste aside, Waterside is a great urban composition. Davis, Brody & Associates, the architects, aspired to the stark geometric power of Louis Kahn's work, and guess what? Given the budget constraints, they hit their mark.

"Like Kahn's Richards Medical Building at the University of Pennsylvania, Waterside recalls the towers of San Gimignano, the walled medieval town in Tuscany. In place of walls, it has the East River and the F.D.R. Drive, and this deliberately restricted access is less than fully benign. Even so, the stark geometry of the design and the dark brick cladding of the buildings are artistically faithful to the urban concept. It is picturesque and historically informed. And if you drive along the F.D.R., the curve beneath the towers is awesome."

In their great book, "New York 1960 Architecture and Urbanism Between The Second World War And The Bicentennial," Robert A. M. Stern, Thomas Mellins and David Fishman devote a chapter to Waterside and provide the following commentary:

"By the 1960s, it was clear that the tradition of slum clearance characteristic of postwar urban renewal was no longer tolerable, or even desirable, and the search for alternative means for creating new housing began in earnest. Key to any strategy that sought to eliminate tenant relocation was the availability of empty sites, sites with abandoned buildings or outmoded commercial sites, or barring these, the creation of new sites by offshore landfill.

"As early as 1961, the developer Richard Ravitch, of the HRH Construction Corporation, had proposed an offshore landfill project to James Felt, chairman of the City Planning commission. According to Ravitch, Felt handed the proposal back, saying 'Don't waste your time.' In 1963, encouraged by a news report about the ideas of William F. R. Ballard, the new Planning Commissioner¿ who believed the opportunity was 'ripe to build middle-income housing to open up windows on the waterfront so that the public can enjoy water-oriented parks and recreational areas.' Ravitch revived his proposal, which he called Waterside. The architectural firm of Davis, Brody & Associates, working in conjunction with Ravitch and the Longstreet Corporation, an affiliate of the investment bankers Lazard Freres & Company, identified a potential site on the East River between Twenty-fifth and Thirtieth streets. Here development could replace abandoned city-owned piers by transforming the area between the existing bulkhead and pierhead lines into new land, as much as lower Manhattan had often expanded to the river during the nineteenth century (beyond the pierhead line the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers forbade any construction). Though the site was physically cut off from the streets and traditional Manhattan neighborhoods to the west by the superblocks of Stuyvesant Town, Cooper village, Kips Bay Plaza and the New York University-Bellevue Medical Center, as well as by the FDR Drive, it did enjoy sweeping views of the East River.

"Informally unveiled in 1965, though not officially unveiled until December 1966, when the new regime of John V. Lindsay expressed a commitment to its realization - Davis Brody's design for Waterside consisted of four towers totaling 1,470 apartment units and twenty-five duplex townhouses set on a platform built on pilings over the river. Key to the development was the organization of this platform, which was in effect two levels of parking for over 700 cars, surmounted by the townhouses and towers. The architects conceived of the resulting open space as an urban plaza. Samuel Brody stated that 'we want to make the area a 24-hour sort of place,' serving upland neighbors as well as Waterside residents. In contrast to Stuyvesant Town and Cooper Village, a school was to be provided, although it was not intended for Waterside's residents. Located at the south end of the plaza, the United Nations International School (Harrison, Abramovitz & Harris, 1973) was created for the children of United Nations employees.

"In order to foster social and economic integration in the Waterside neighborhood, one of the towers, containing 370 apartments, was to be financed under the FHA 221-d-3 program, which then made the apartments affordable to moderate-income families; 20 to 25 percent of these units were further subsidized to reach public housing levels. In addition, the rents for the remaining units were to be skewed in complex ways to assure the widest possible spread of tenant incomes. When the complex was actually built, these ideals were somewhat compromised, although considerable economic diversity was achieved.

"What at first seemed a relatively straightforward undertaking, providing new housing in a central location without tenant relocation, was, of course, immensely complex. Not all the blame for the project's long gestation - work began on the design in 1963 and construction was completed in 1974 - can be laid at the doorstep of the Wagner administration, which was frequently viewed as bureaucratic and insensitive to planning and architectural experimentation. Because federal law stipulated that the government would not have to pay any damages to the owner should it require the use of the navigable water at a future date, thereby making it impossible for the developers to obtain a mortgage, the water had to be declared non-navigable by an act of Congress. (Such an act was introduced by Representative Emmanuel Celler.) In addition, the community issues of access to the upland, the relationship to the New York University-Bellevue Medical Center complex and the search for a site for the United Nations International School all played their part in slowing the process. But by late 1966 Waterside at least seemed a realistic prospect, even though the City Planning Commission and the Board of Estimate had yet to consider it.

"When the plan for Waterside was announced, Ada Louise Huxtable was enthusiastic. It was, she said, 'trend-setting for New York in every sense of the term. It is an urban concept that utilizes the waterfront for housing and recreation in a distinctly urban way. The design is able, sophisticated and creative.' Huxtable also pointed out that the standard of amenities and design proposed for Waterside was remarkable for New York: 'This could be the city's first large-scale breakthrough from the norm of sterile housing clich¿s and arid open space that has been the bureaucratic or easy-profit formula. Waterside would be a standard-setting development for any waterfront city in the world.' Despite the serious communications problems associated with so isolated a site, and the lack of landscaping on the plans, Huxtable believed that the plaza and its amenities were not merely 'detached gimmicks with easy eye-appeal, but...sound instruments of the highest level of comprehensive planning. These stylish amenities are set into a solid functional framework of pedestrian and vehicular circulation, parking and servicing.' Contrasting the Lindsay administration's more enlightened approach to urban renewal with that of the Wagner administration, Huxtable said: 'Although New York has a clear score of zero to date in realizing its more progressive proposals, there is a good chance that this one can be more than paper planning.'

"Waterside was by no means perfect. From the beginning, the decision to accept the existing configuration of the FDR Drive, instead of taking a bolder position as had been earlier recommended in a plan prepared for the city by Whittlesey, Conkin & Rossant, doomed Waterside to a kind of half life as an isolated project: its only connection to Manhattan at large by direct access and egress was via the northbound FDR Drive, or by a pedestrian overpass at East Twenty-fifth Street. To the south, the United Nations school was built without continuing the pedestrian promenade past it to hook up with walkways further downtown. In addition, though the four towers were kept slender to protect the upland views to the river, the buildings, clad in brown 'jumbo' brick, had an aggressive sculpture force, in part because of the cantilevered upper floors that were necessary to accommodate the large apartments, but also because of the designers' preference for Brutalist aesthetics.

"In early 1971, ten years after the project was first proposed, Waterside's construction began. Even with Mayor Lindsay's enthusiasm, the going had been rough. Recalling the mayor's press conference announcing Waterside in December 1966, Ravitch confessed in 1971 that he had "to chuckle looking back on it, because I don't know what the Mayor was announcing. What he really was saying was, 'We have this cockamamie proposal that we don't have any money for, and we don't know if it's legal.' By the time Mayor Lindsay announced in late January 1971 that Waterside was to go ahead, he had a solid project behind him, with nine major commercial banks lined up to lend $72 million as a result of his personal intervention. According to an anonymous housing expert quoted by the New York Times, the banks had lent the money 'to ingratiate themselves with the Mayor, and there is a relatively small risk on this project.' Furthermore, the money was only a construction loan, and given the city's increasingly shaky finances and the absence of funds in various programs like Mitchell-Lama, which had sustained the city's housing programs in the 1960s, the project still had a cloudy future. But finally, on September 17, 1973, Mayor Lindsay and other dignitaries sailed to the site on a fireboat to start the dedication ceremony.

"In a 1975 assessment of Davis, Brody's impact on housing in New York, Paul Goldberger praised Waterside, the firm's best-known project, as being 'a visually exciting form, a powerful anchor to the skyline at water's edge.' Although he acknowledged that there were some problems with the complex, such as its isolation from the rest of the city, he felt that they were 'relatively minor liabilities in a city so used to mediocrity in housing that it accepts the appellation of 'luxury housing' for Third Avenue sheet-rock sheds. Waterside was conceived as something more than that, and it is a piece of architecture that, whatever its flaws, truly ennobles both the city and its riverfront.' By 1979, Goldberger's judgment was harsher, particularly with respect to the plaza, which he found psychologically cold on 'even the warmest summer day' and in 'desperate need for landscaping.' He again raised the issue of isolation: 'One feels all too much on an island, cut off from the very city these buildings presumably exist to enrich.'

These commentaries actually underplay the difficulties of a pedestrian getting to Waterside, especially at night when the escalators to the plaza may not be working.

To remedy some of the isolation, the complex offers free shuttle service to its residents Monday through Friday with multiple morning and afternoon departures.

The current schedule, not available on weekends and holidays, is available to residents through the Tenant Portal. The Union Square route goes to Irving Place between 14th & 15th Streets and the shuttle loads on Level A (street level) in front of Building 10 and makes pick-ups in front of the Con Edison Building on Irving Place at 15th Street and at Gramercy Park South and 20th Street.

The Grand Central route goes to 2nd Avenue and 42nd Street and loads on Level A in front of Building 30 and the shuttle goes to 2nd Avenue and 42nd Street. The shuttle loads on Level A (street level) in front of Building 30 and has has pick up locations at 2nd Avenue and 41st street and 42nd Street and 1st Avenue and 44th Street and Third Avenue.

The MTA's M-16 bus departs from the southerly and northerly end of the Waterside complex at designated bus stops. Departing at very short intervals, the bus travels north to 34th Street, west on 34th Street to Eighth Avenue, north on Eighth Avenue to 43rd Street and west again to Ninth Avenue. On its return trip the M-16 travels south on Ninth Avenue to 34th Street, east on 34th Street to Second Avenue, south on Second Avenue to 23rd Street, and finally, east on 23rd Street directly to Waterside.

The Wall Street Express Bus (X25) stops at the 23rd Street intersection with the F.D.R. Drive, leaving approximately every fifteen minutes, weekday mornings from 7:20 a.m. until 10:10 a.m., with the last stop at Battery Park. The bus returns to Waterside beginning at 3:15 p.m. until 6:20 p.m. The MTA bus information phone number is (718) 330-1234.

The 23rd Street (M-23) crosstown East/West, and the First Avenue uptown and Second Avenue downtown buses (M-15), are all within walking distance of the community.

The (1) subway line is located at 7th Avenue and 23rd and 34th Streets, the R line is located at Broadway and 23rd Street and the (6) subway at Park Avenue South at 28th and 33rd Streets.

Waterside also has a private car service which is available to residents and visitors at competitive flat rates to any destination in the Metropolitan area, as well as to all airports. The DMC Limousine Service (212) 481-6365 is open seven days per week and located on the street level in 25 Waterside Plaza. It is not affiliated with Waterside Management LLC.

Zipcar offers Waterside residents the convenience of renting a car onsite, by the hour or day. Zipcars are conveniently parked inside the Waterside Plaza Garage and available on-demand at very reasonable rates. Waterside residents receive a reduced Zipcar membership and after joining Zipcar, may reserve a car in a matter of minutes on the internet or over the phone. For more information, visit Zipcar.com/waterside or call 866-4Zipcar. It is not affiliated with Waterside Management LLC.

The city has changed dramatically since Waterside was erected and now substantial and attractive, albeit relatively modest skylines are emerging on the Queens and Brooklyn sides of the East River.

It is extraordinary that one architectural firm could have designed so many major projects in the city at about the same time and Waterside remains the best looking because of the slenderness and fine proportions of the towers and their relatively spaciousness on their site.

In their fine book, "The A.I.A. Guide to New York City, Third Edition," Elliot Willensky and Norval White said that Waterside's "cut and carved cubism" was mounted on a platform "tucked in a notch on the East River."

In the same book, the authors noted that the Cathedral Parkway Houses by the architects are two "enormous zigzag towers" occupying "opposite corners of this hilly midblock site: between them a private, terraced- open space leaps from level to level, street to street. The towers, cousins to Davis, Brody's Waterside, Yorkville, and Ruppert and Riverpark in the Bronx, are here more self-consciously articulated in plan and massing to minimize their impact upon the adjacent, smaller-scale community."

10, which is the southernmost, 20 and 30 Waterside Plaza are each 37 stories high.

40 Waterside Plaza is 31 stories high and is the northernmost tower in the complex.