In 2001, Long Island City underwent a significant rezoning to encourage office, retail and residential development in an area known for its industrial and distribution centers. The City saw potential in the area, due to its proximity to Manhattan, good bridge and public transit access and supply of undeveloped land. But alongside those benefits came some disadvantages — the area is notorious for its traffic, many of the subway lines that intersect in the neighborhood run above-ground and rumble noisily overhead, and the industrial focus of the area didn’t exactly call for attractive streetscapes, community parks, or even proper crosswalks. So, the rezoning effort was accompanied by an assortment of revitalization efforts to appeal to residents, business owners, passers-by and transit riders.
This week, we had an opportunity to check out one of these neighborhood improvements: a former commuter parking lot at the east end of Queens Plaza that has been transformed into the public space now called Dutch Kills Green. The Urban Omnibus team joined the Design Trust for Public Space to host a potluck and conversation with key players from the team behind the project. Luckily, the dreary weather subsided long enough for a crowd of architects, landscape architects, urban planners, lighting designers, artists and other assorted urban enthusiasts to gather in the park and hear what it takes to turn an infrastructural tangle into a lovely neighborhood oasis.
Penny Lee, a senior planner at the NYC Department of City Planning, began with an overview of the project, how it began, and some of the unusual challenges of the site (her visual aids included a photo of the corner street sign showing the nexus-of-the-universe intersection of 41st Avenue and 41st Avenue, a signage confusion that has since been remedied). She then handed things off to the other speakers: Tracey Sayegh Gabriel from the NYC Economic Development Corporation (NYC EDC); Linda Pollak, one of the principal designers of the space (whom we interviewed about the Queens Plaza renovations here on UO back in 2009, along with her partner at Marpillero Pollak Architects Sandro Marpillero and landscape designer Margie Ruddick); and lighting designer Leni Schwendinger of Light Projects Ltd.
Artistry and collaboration were the emphases of the night. From the beginning, said Penny Lee, the team wanted to bring an artistic quality to the design, from the pavers (designed by artist Michael Singer) to the benches to the lighting to the planting to the flow of the space. Linda Pollak called the project a testament to collaboration between designers, artists and clients, one that allowed them to “attach art to everything and everything to the art.” Pollak also spoke of the layers of experience at the site, and how the design engages passers-by from all points of view: pedestrian, cyclist, driver and subway passenger. As the sun began to set, and the lighting of the park appeared, Leni Schwendinger discussed both her lighting design and the ways that the surrounding light, of the subways (the “jewelry of the trains”), the cars, and the nearby buildings, influence the experience of the park at twilight and after dark.
|Clockwise from top right: Penny Lee shows a photo of the now-transformed commuter parking lot; Tracey Sayegh Gabriel and Penny Lee; Leni Schwendinger; Linda Pollak.|
Jerry Walsh, the president of the Dutch Kills Civic Association and a 37-year resident of Long Island City, spoke up at the end of the conversation to praise the project and to vouch for its success as a neighborhood destination. Tracy Sayegh Gabriel admitted to a nagging fear that the space would not be used to its full potential due to the surrounding traffic and the noise of the trains running by — a problem that was made painfully obvious at Wednesday’s event with every passing N/Q train — so the group was heartened by Jerry’s enthusiasm, as well as by the size of the crowd that showed up for the potluck. So, thank you to everyone who came out to join us! If you missed this event, be sure to sign up for our email list, become a fan of Urban Omnibus on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter to be notified about more field trips coming up this summer.
Varick Shute is the managing editor of Urban Omnibus.