Reimagining Red Hook as the Most Bicycle Friendly Community in New York City:
A Three-Part Design Competition Sponsored by The Forum for Urban Design
Some design competitions are meant to be an exercise of the imagination (for example, White House Redux, spearheaded by the Storefront for Art and Architecture). The Forum’s first design competition, however, was consciously grounded in reality while still allowing for bold statements. Because of this, throughout the planning and execution of this competition, people naturally asked if any of these proposals might come to fruition. We certainly hope so, at least in part. But as the late great New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, urban planning is not for the short-winded.
At the very least, the Forum saw this design competition as a way to introduce the concept of the bicycle garage to New York City (which is already working well in Chicago, Washington, D.C. and many west coast cities). But rather than call it a “garage,” which is not terribly sexy, we called it a “loft,” to reflect not only the ideal New York apartment, but the garage’s proposed location: near the elevated Smith and 9th Street train stop – at 90 feet in the air, it is the highest train station in New York. The Forum also wanted to challenge urban designers to imagine how a neighborhood might be shaped if bicycling were elevated from its current status as an “alternative” form of transportation to the predominant one.
Because amenities such as bike lofts and bike paths are usually developed in wealthy neighborhoods first, which already tend to have multiple transportation options, we challenged designers to focus their attention on Red Hook. Sparsely populated and isolated from the rest of the city due to a lack of public transportation, most New Yorkers have never been to Red Hook and cab drivers can’t find it. The Smith and 9th stop on the F line is a mile from the heart of Red Hook and bus service is notoriously slow and frustrating. While this situation has contributed to the unique character of the community, it has resulted in sporadic economic development despite its close proximity to Lower Manhattan.
So, while the Forum is primarily concerned with urban design, the not-so-hidden agenda of this design competition is to propose a new economic development model. Red Hook has a genuine need for both transportation and sustainable development, and bicycling could very well be the key to both. Not only could bicycling connect residents to the rest of New York City, it would create recreational activities in an area underserved by well designed public space and parks, and draw people to Red Hook from around the city to enjoy bicycle-related activities and neighborhood amenities, particularly the waterfront. Making Red Hook more convenient and attractive to new residents and recreational visitors could spur infill housing and small business creation all within the appropriate scale of the neighborhood. In other words, transforming Red Hook into the most bicycle friendly neighborhood in New York would usher in a uniquely sustainable development pattern that would be applicable to any isolated waterfront neighborhood adversely affected by the decline and consolidation of port activities.
In keeping with the Forum’s mission of encouraging a multi-disciplinary approach to urban design, the competition had three components: architecture, urban planning, and development. Entrants were charged with 1) designing a comprehensive bicycle locking station, or “loft,” near the elevated Smith/9th Street F/G train station, which might include retail and recreational opportunities, 2) connecting this bike loft to the neighborhood via dedicated bike lanes and other bike amenities throughout Red Hook, and 3) conducting a feasibility study and development timeline.
The Forum received 60 submissions with roughly half coming from urban designers based in New York City and the rest from Italy to Korea to California. Each submission included 10 images, a video and a statement, which were judged by a distinguished jury (see below). The Forum and the jury were genuinely impressed with the high level of thought, research and detail that went into these submissions. So much so, we decided to feature six finalists (instead of five) and to include 10 honorable mentions in the exhibit and website.
Back to the original question, however: Might any of these great ideas ever get built? It’s hard to say. But we do know that Brooklyn’s Community Board 6, led by district manager Craig Hammerman, supported the competition in hopes of seeing good street design ideas to propose to NYCDOT for lower Columbia and Van Brunt Streets, as they are slated to be torn up for sewer repairs. What’s more, as many of the submissions proposed, a bike loft with supportive retail and recreational activities is certainly a viable development program, particularly if land costs are minimal. The proposed site of the design competition’s bike loft is in fact on land owned by the New York City Park’s Department, once proposed to become “Under the Tracks Playground,” which never came to fruition. Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway continues to make progress, which will bring people into the neighborhood on their bicycles. And despite the current economic situation, development plans in Red Hook keep coming, from a beer distribution center in Atlantic Basin to a large shopping mall next to IKEA – catalysts for residents, small business owners and community activists who are seeking sustainable development proposals they can embrace.
Lisa Chamberlain takes a look at selected competition entries on page two.
Lisa Chamberlain is the Executive Director of the Forum for Urban Designand lives in Red Hook. Previously, she studied urban planning and Columbia University and covered real estate for the New York Times.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.
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