The backers of the proposed East River Skyway are expanding their plan to include a phase that would connect Battery Park with Governors Island, and Red Hook, Brooklyn.
The project is the brainchild of Daniel Levy, president of the CityRealty website, who first proposed in mid-2016 to build a cablecar network with large gondolas that would connect the South Street Seaport and the Lower East Side to sections of Brooklyn and Queens, along with the new Cornell University campus on Roosevelt Island. This plan surfaced against the backdrop of Downtown’s exploding residential population, which has civic planners taxing their imaginations to the limit in trying to reverse-engineer the infrastructure of what was once an office district into facilities that can support use 24 hours a day. That struggle has brought Lower Manhattan new schools, parks, and health care facilities, a burgeoning retail sector, and a slew of cultural institutions.
But the toughest piece of this puzzle may be transportation. The recently announced expansion of East River ferry service may be a step in the right direction. Lower Manhattan also has two beautiful new train stations, but they serve largely as better organized shelters for transit lines that have existed for decades. The Second Avenue subway will eventually reach Hanover Square, but perhaps not for decades.
The Port Authority’s plan to create a “single-seat” ride from the World Trade Center to Newark Airport will likely be realized sooner, but not before the mid-2020s, in the most optimistic scenario. Each of these plans speaks (in a different way) to the same, fundamental challenge: It is fiendishly expensive, dauntingly time consuming, and logistically near impossible to create new transportation facilities in an urban environment that is already densely overbuilt. Even parks are easier, because they can be created almost anywhere space is available. All of which raises the forlorn question: What can we do right now?
Mr. Levy’s plan would begin with a link between the booming Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg and Delancey Street, on the Lower East Side. This could largely offset the disruption that will be caused by the upcoming closure of the L Train, which is anticipated to strand 300,000 riders each day. The planned capacity for this first phase of the East River Skyway would be 100,000 riders per day, with gondolas carrying 40 people arriving every 30 seconds during rush hour. Additionally, the East River Skyway’s projected commute time between Williamsburg and the Lower East Side is five minutes, which compares favorably to the subway.
The aspect of the plan mostly likely to make urban planners salivate, however, is its estimated cost: less than $150 million, or about 15 percent of the $1 billion anticipated cost of merely repairing the L train tunnel under the East River, and less than one percent of the estimated $17 billion budget for creating the Second Avenue subway. And politicians will like the planned source of the funding: private investors. But the price that the public are most likely to care about is the cost of a ride: Mr. Levy says that the project can turn a profit charging $25 for an unlimited ride monthly pass, which is less than one-fourth of a similar MetroCard.
Another plus is that gondolas (which require only a few towers, linked by cables) can be built relatively quickly, meaning that the first phase (serving Williamsburg) could be ready for riders before the L train is taken out of service, in 2019. Subsequent phases of the East River Skyway would link the South Street Seaport to Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood, and run north along the East River to Fort Greene, Greenpoint, Long Island City, and Roosevelt Island, where New York’s lone existing tram has operated for decades.
Although the scheme is clearly ambitious, it is not without precedent. London and Singapore have built similar trams in recent years, along with cities in Germany, Portugal, and Brazil. It also echoes an idea floated in 2006 by architect Santiago Calatrava for an elevated gondola that would bring visitors to Governors Island from both Brooklyn and Manhattan. (This widely praised idea never gained traction.)
“Cities around the globe are recognizing the viability and efficiency of urban gondolas to overcome serious transportation challenges,” says Mr. Levy. “An aerial transportation system would be a relatively inexpensive and quickly deployable solution here in New York.”
Mr. Levy’s project gained momentum in December, when three local elected officials (U.S. Congress member Carolyn Maloney, City Councilman Stephen Levin, and State Assemblyman Joseph Lentol) co-signed a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio, urging him to conduct an in-depth review of the proposal.
Now, Mr. Levy has expanded the breadth of his proposal, earlier version of which contained four phases of construction, slated to reach as far north as Roosevelt Island and south to the South Street Seaport neighborhood. But a revised version of the proposal, presented at Community Board 1’s March meeting, sketches out a fifth phase, which would created a gonolda linking Battery Park to Governors Island, as well as to the Red Hook and Industry City sections of Brooklyn.