As essentially a brand new, atypical and large-scale environment for New York — one which offers an optimistic alternative for families who might otherwise abandon the city altogether — any new living space or residential area is nothing short of a blessing to the city by its success.
As the critics suggest, Battery Park City may not appear at first glance to be the ostensibly middle-class family and suburban/ hybridized neighborhood of the other cases studied here. Still at a different extreme from the situation in most American cities anyway, it represents the distinctly Manhattan version of a suburban-hybrid family neighborhood. More importantly, this development stands alone as the newest middle to upper-middle income neighborhood in the context of dense, desirable, and highly-priced residential New York. Its overall design and amenities serve as a kind of “closest-in” suburb and functions — or has the potential to — in much the same way as do the other cases studies here.
As urban scholar Richard Plunz notes: “Manhattan’s edges are its ‘suburbs’. Battery Park City seems destined to follow this mode; a suburban edge for Manhattan, and a target for suburbanites from farther out, who want a reduced version of what the interior of Manhattan is, and the pleasures of a two-minute walk to the water.” 3 Dominating these features is the open space and the public streetscape. The Plan of 1979 and others have boasted that 70% of the Battery Park City site is made up of open space.4 The actual breakdown of spaces is not only of plazas and park land. The Esplanade quite rightly makes up a generous 30% of the site, while 21% of the site is dedicated in the form of building courtyards, plazas and residential parks. However, 19% is comprised of streets, avenues and right-of-ways and their associated street art structures and street arcades. Needless to say, the sheer degree of openness in any form that is equally accessible to all residents of the neighborhood is unusual in Manhattan’s high-priced real estate market. The layout of the site itself, suggests that the residential neighborhood is “edged” to the sides of the business neighborhood, in a microcosm of suburb to city. This is strengthened by the overall landscaping scheme, designed to be moved along as a set of experiences. From North to South, these parks follow a continuum from lesser to greater formality to the Central commercial plaza, and then again from formal to informal moving southward. The cumulative effect of this landscaping is not only to link the neighborhood’s residential buildings and gathering spaces, but to infuse these elements with a pattern of shared gardens: formal, informal, and recreational — which offer the range of suburban and urban settings that are collectively, superior to the high-maintenance backyard. Typical of the formal garden is the center of the neighborhood, in the commercial area surrounding the World Financial Center. A broad, paved plaza looking onto a marina leads into a vast, glass-enclosed forum. Here the elegant Winter Garden with its seventeen, forty-foot palm trees, is a gathering place – a year-round, climate-controlled “mixing chamber” for residents and visitors. It is the setting for frequent, public arts and entertainment programs.
At the far end of the spectrum is South Cove, a naturalistic landscaped pier at the southern tip of the development. Adjacent to the old Battery Park, the rocks and wildflower landscape is a “secluded place deliberately set apart from noise and activity”. Finally, Hudson River Park at the north end, is an 8- acre recreation area designated for more active uses. Here, open to light and air, are basketball courts, a softball field, two large sunny lawns, public boating facilities, a picnic pavilion, and a children’s playground. Throughout the neighborhood, there is an emphasis on providing outdoor living, Orientation of streets and provisions of arcades protect pedestrians from winter winds while permitting summer breezes from the south to circulate along the avenues. Streets are tree-lined to create a shady, park-like atmosphere in the summer. On one side there is an all weather arcade, and on the other, a 40-foot wide linear park, to provide for both winter and summer movements. Finally, there are seating and play areas for river vistas from pocket parks and plazas all along the 1.2 mile Esplanade course. One of the things that makes Battery Park City feel like the suburbanized edge to the city is its physical separation. West Street, the compromised site of the notorious West way battle, is an at-grade, 8-lane expressway, Because the highway once marked the edge of Manhattan to the expressway, Battery Park city landfill was create beyond that edge. For better or worse, Battery Park City is physically isolated from the continuity of the regular street pattern of New York, which is “connected”, really, only on the map. But the impact of the highway as a psychological barrier, in turn creates a separation from the rest of the city which makes life there unique. Sigurd Grava of Columbia University writes of this isolating feature: “The West Street chasm is enough to deter all but the most purposeful passerby… so that Battery Park city is an enclave. The major issue, in the opinion of most urban analysts, is the current exclusivity or isolation of the development. This is the case in a physical as well as in an social sense.” 5 Such a specialized and separated character from the larger city has had its advantages for the families who settle here.
As Grava points out, “there are attractions for the outsider in Battery Park City, but once the Esplanade has been walked, there is little to keep him here.” 6 And yet this is precisely its appeal for family residents. Privacy and a retreat from the crowded city streets of New York is expensive and usually unattainable for residents of any social class. However much of Battery Park offers these very amenities as part of its public space, and in turn provides an alternative for living in the city. Battery Park city actually has the feeling of being a “new town”. There is the freshness of the new planted landscaping, and there are the sights of health enthusiasts doing daily jogs along the river front, and of young parents watching over small children in the parks. The children in the neighborhood are especially indicative of this new town quality. Battery Park City’s designers originally underestimated the appeal that the neighborhood would have for families with children, so that many of the facilities for them are being added now, years later.
This was due to the fact that planners had conceived of the homes for busy downtown workers, but they had not been optimistic that these residents would remain to raise their children there. Part of their skepticism, was that New Jersey’s suburbs directly across the river from Battery Park City, had been made more accessible with the PATH commuter trains leading directly to the World Trade Center. Given the option, planners presumed, most families would leave when the first child was ready to begin school. Ironically, the Wall Street financial crises of the late eighties proved them wrong. Many of the professional couples who had moved to Battery Park City to be closer to their jobs, found themselves with less than sufficient security to move out to the expensive suburban towns they had anticipated. So as their apartment babies of Battery Park City were starting school, some families decided that they would stay.
Today, there are nearly 600 children in the neighborhood, although the facilities for them are lacking. Most of the children attend Public School 234 in TriBeCa which is perhaps the closest existing city neighborhood to Battery Park City. This school was never intended to meet the need of Battery Park’s children, and is now experiencing unexpected overcrowding. In 1994, for example, more than 90 students over the 500 student capacity were attending classes there. Moreover, the projected enrollment for the start of 1995 school year is for 700 students. Children must also leave the neighborhood for junior high school. There are two high schools in Battery Park City, but they do not serve the typical student. One is Murray Bergstrom, a technical school, and the other is the elite Stuyvesant High School, which relocated to its new “campus” in Battery Park City in September 1992. It was the first new high school to be built in the city in a decade. However, as the city’s magnet school for students gifted in math and the sciences, entrance is by city-wide examination and is highly competitive. It was therefore, not intended to be a solution to the needs of the new neighborhood. Schools have increasingly become one of the largest issues in the neighborhood, intensifying with the arrival of more people with young children. The Battery Park City Parents Association has been asking the city to address the problem, and discussions are underway to find a location for new schools within the neighborhood.