The proposed redesign of Wagner Park is drawing both criticism and support from a broad range of Lower Manhattan stakeholders. At Tuesday’s meeting of the Battery Park City Committee of Community Board 1 (CB1), a spirited exchange between members of that panel and representatives of the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA) aired a series of reservations about the plan.
The BPCA’s preliminary outline for reconfiguring Wagner Park to withstand flooding during future extreme weather events calls for demolishing the pavilion that currently occupies the center of the park (and houses Gigino’s Restaurant and the public rest rooms), replacing it with a larger structure, and erecting on either side a series of columns that will support deployable walls to hold back rising waters. The proposal also incorporates numerous other features, such as new landscaping, a “cultural dock” where education vessels can tie up, and a new outdoor performance stage alongside the nearby Museum of Jewish Heritage.
After Committee chair Ninfa Segarra conducted a detailed review of the plans, Tammy Meltzer, co-chair of the Committee, observed that the proposed new building, “fails in its public accessibility for the function of free, open space. The structure that there’s now is open, public space.”
CB1 member Wendy Chapman said of the building design, “it’s very unfriendly. This has a private-party feel to it. When I think of the amount of money that’s going to be spent on this, and it goes down to bathrooms that are too small — my kids use these bathrooms all the time.” (This was a reference to the design feature that shrinks the size of the current public restrooms in the Wagner Park pavilion.)
Laura Starr, a CB1 member who is also a landscape architect, pointed to the presence of a storage facility for parks equipment in the new building, and asked “why would you put composting in the number one view in Manhattan, right here by the waterfront? It makes virtually no sense.” (This was a reference to the most popular feature of the current structure: an archway that provides sweeping views of the Hudson River and New York Harbor from the Battery Place side of the building, framing the Statue of Liberty in its center.)
Ms. Starr also raised broader questions about the Wagner Park plan, noting that the park itself is relatively high ground, flanked by much lower elevations nearby — at Pier A Plaza and on Battery Place, between Broadway and West Street.
“What are you trying to protect?” with the sustainability features, she asked. “Are you trying to protect a piece of architecture, or trying to do an integrated design? Because until you raise a the low point on Pier A Plaza, you’re always going to have water gushing in there as it rises.”
“If the BPCA, the City, and the State want to do the right thing for resiliency,” she continued, “we should be addressing Pier A Plaza first and not taking away a beautiful piece of architecture that’s on relatively high ground, which the community really loves.”
“The solution may lie in elevating the street and not necessarily in Wagner Park,” she noted. “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. We have a restaurant project that we didn’t ask for.” (This was a reference to the fact that, under the design for the new building, space for the restaurant would grow from the current 3,450 square feet to as much as 10,000 square feet.)
Ms. Starr also expressed concerns that, “we don’t know what they deployables look like. We don’t know if Pier A plaza has the footing capability to hold these things. We don’t have any site analysis or engineering studies. We have virtually no information to know if we can even do this.”
The BPCA’s design director, Joe Ganci, replied, “that’s part of the detailed design review that is upcoming in next phase,” adding that, “the current plan is conceptual.”
Battery Park City Committee member Robin Forst (who is also a former vice president of the BPCA) said, “I think the building is massive and ugly,” and proposed another form of sustainability measure: “Wouldn’t it be possible to create a grassy knoll with trees and landscaping that would provide necessary flood protection, rather than create a building? You could bury the storage and rest rooms on the Battery Place side. That would increase the amount of beautiful land that could be used by the community and visitors.
Mr. Ganci replied, “up to a certain scale and certain height, I would agree. But when you start to push ten feet or more, you’re taking away any water view, unless people go to the top and look down.”
Ms. Forst added that the overall design, “will sully the landscape with this building and the dock. These will diminish Wagner Park. It’s silly.”
After the discussion had concluded, CB1’s Battery Park City Committee voted on a resolution that says (in part), “a significant part of the plan for Wagner Park is focused on the pavilion building and would replace the current structure with a new building that would be more enclosed and bulkier with more programmed and fewer open areas,” and “it has not been made clear to members of the Committee why the existing structure, which was built in 1994, must be replaced by a new building or why the new building is necessary.” The same resolution notes that, “the Committee is concerned about the expansion of the commercial elements in the proposed building, given the character and nature of Wagner Park, which should be preserved in any new design, particularly with a sprawling commercial space nearby at Pier A.” And the measure concludes, “CB1 requests that the BPCA work closely with the committee as it develops and revises its plans for the entire Battery Park City waterfront, including Wagner Park and the pavilion building, and includes input from the Committee throughout the process, until a final plan is produced.”
BPCA spokesman Nick Sbordone replied that, “Hurricane Sandy was a stark warning about the perils of sea level rise and the susceptibility of Lower Manhattan, including Battery Park City, to its effects. In response to a threat we know is increasing, it is imperative to take concrete action now aimed at protecting the community and infrastructure we rely on. The clock is ticking.”
He continued, “what we’ve done to date — informed by substantial community feedback at multiple public sessions — is complete an assessment of Wagner Park. This effort contemplates using the property to provide greater resiliency protection, increasing green space and gardens, adding a new, publicly-accessible pavilion, and preserving sweeping views of lower New York Harbor.”
“The next step is detailed engineering and design, entailing the development of a Request for Proposals [RFP] to be released over the coming months,” Mr. Sbordone added. “Additional rounds of public input will follow once a firm is selected through that RFP, during which we’ll invite additional dialogue with the community about the types and kinds of amenities they’d like to see the pavilion offer. But what’s clear today is this: Public space and access to the new pavilion is guaranteed, and ideas about how best to enhance Wagner Park’s food and beverage options to meet the diverse needs of the community are welcome.”
“As BPCA proceeds with its resiliency efforts at Wagner Park and throughout Battery Park City,” he concluded, “we will also continue our work with the Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency Task Force as a plan for the balance of Downtown is developed. We’re all in this together, and we look forward to continuing this necessary work with a wide range of neighborhood stakeholders — including the community board, elected officials, and State and City partners — for a better, stronger Lower Manhattan.”
A few hours before the Tuesday meeting, the BPCA released a statement attesting to support for the Wagner Park plan from a broad range of stakeholders. Former CB1 chair Catherine McVay Hughes, said, “from my two decades serving our community, I know that the most pressing issue of our time is protecting the place we live, work and play from extreme weather events and sea level rise. Battery Park City is a leader in turning these urgent plans into reality. Making Wagner Park more storm-resilient is absolutely necessary for the future, and represents an unmissable opportunity to improve integration with the wider Downtown community at the same time. The Authority’s forward-looking and realistic stance is an example that all levels of government should follow.” Ms. Hughes now serves on the Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency Task Force, and is a widely acknowledged expert on local resiliency measures. According to a source directly familiar with the situation, Ms. Hughes is also being seriously considered by Governor Cuomo for an appointment to the board of the BPCA.
Warrie Price, president & founder of the Battery Conservancy, which oversees Historic Battery Park, directly adjacent to Wagner Park, said, “working together is the only way we truly make Lower Manhattan’s landscapes sustainable and resilient . We are working with BPCA to make our common border a seamless transition for all our users. The new design concept for Wagner Park is a very positive step in making the waterfront more green, more responsive to tidal surge, and proactive to the environmental needs of the future . It offers an expanded lawn space, a wetland stepping down to the water’s edge and better connection to Pier A and to the Battery. I welcome this plan and believe all of Downtown will be served by its implementation.” The Battery Conservancy has a decade-plus history of collaboration with the BPCA. As recently as 2012, the Conservancy was receiving $40,000 in annual contributions from the Authority.
Michael Glickman, the president of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, said, “I thank the BPCA for including us in these conversations about how we can be a better neighbor and a more impactful and meaningful destination. One of the things that most excites us is how we can make better use of outdoor space — especially the space adjacent to the museum — to be more distinct and direct about better engaging with our neighbors. I really appreciate the efforts being made in Wagner Park for the benefit of the entire area.” The Museum is a tenant of the BPCA, occupying more than 100,000 square feet of publicly owned space for a nominal rent of $1 per year.
Phil Suarez, the owner of Gigino at Wagner Park restaurant (which occupies the current pavilion) said, “we’ve been in Wagner Park for a wonderful 18 years and this plan is perfect for us. We have watched Wagner Park grow over these years and know this will be yet another step in that growth — a growth we want to remain part of. Right now we have a stunningly small kitchen, yet on weekends we serve lunch and dinner to well over 300 people a day. The size of the restaurant itself is about 1,800 square feet, so something like this expansion would be of great benefit. We love being part of this community and want to provide it with a world class trattoria. With the planned enhanced facility, we will be able to keep our present affordable menu, while broadening it to include takeaway with fun, kid-friendly items like pizza, paninis, and gelato — and possibly delivery as well. And so we declare our endorsement of this project to be one-thousand percent!” Mr. Suarez is also a tenant of the BPCA. According to his most recent lease (approved by the Authority in 2015), he 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. The lease for Gigino’s Restaurant has been extended without competitive bidding at least three times, in 2011, 2013, and 2015.
Paul Lamas, a partner, at the Pier A Harbor House restaurant, said, “we think the whole plan is fantastic and we’re very excited about it. We’re particularly excited about the connection between the end of Wagner Park and Pier A. Every week, I meet people who live in Battery Park City and it is hard to believe, but they still don’t know Pier A is there. And if they know Pier A, they don’t know it’s open. We love the tourists and corporate events, of course, but we really judge our success by how we help the local community and how the local community accepts us. And the connectivity between the park and the pier we think will really go a long way to helping us do that.” The restaurant at Pier A is also a tenant of the BPCA.
Kate Ascher, one of the primary designers behind the Make Way for Lower Manhattan initiative, which seeks to streamline the Downtown streetscape, said, “as Lower Manhattan continues burnishing a model of residential, educational, and cultural excellence, resiliency plays a role that’s hard to overstate. Wagner Park’s redesign helps advance that promise for this and the next generation of Downtown dwellers, and I commend BPCA for its forward thinking on how we can make one of Downtown’s great public spaces more integrated and navigable for all.” Ms. Ascher is also a partner at the firm of BuroHappold Engineering, which counts the BPCA among its clients.
Reggie Thomas, a member of CB1, said, “as someone who’s served in and close to local government for my entire career, I know the importance of smart planning and taking the initiative on matters of pressing public concern, especially when it comes to making our community more resilient and sustainable. I applaud the BPCA’s efforts to harden a vulnerable point of Lower Manhattan and look forward to continued engagement on this initiative.” Mr. Thomas is also a registered lobbyist with the firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, among whose clients is Asphalt Green, which operates the athletic facility on North End Avenue, as a tenant of the BPCA.
Dr. Mike Gordon, a Battery Park City resident who is also a member of CB1, said, “I’ve spent a lot of time studying Hurricane Sandy and its effects, and I know a smart approach to resiliency when I see one. While this is clearly still a plan in development, I think the fundamental concept is strong, and something that needs to be pursued as soon as possible.”