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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.
The jury reviewed the submissions (blind) and selected a handful of favorites from a webpage that we created. The jury then met to review and debate the proposals, and, in the context of the overall goals of the competition, the jury made a final selection of their top five and the votes were tallied. The winning submission appeared on six out of nine jurors’ top five; the second place winner garnered five votes; the rest of the finalists tied for third place with four votes each. Honorable mentions received between one and three votes. All submissions in their entirety can be seen here.
Jonathan Rule of Morcillo + Pallares Arquitectos, #24137
Perhaps it is no surprise that the winning entry was designed by a Brooklyn native, Jonathan Rule, especially since his architecture master’s thesis focused on discarded land sites along industrial waterfronts. This is precisely the current condition of Red Hook. What is surprising, however, is that he is a newly hatched architect, having graduated from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in 2008. What’s more, working independently, he beat out very experienced teams from such notable firms as HOK Sport and H3 Hardy Collaboration.
The jury chose this proposal even though Rule consciously eschewed the idea of presenting a street design to better accommodate cyclists, choosing instead to focus on bicycle activity nodes throughout Red Hook and the issue of connectivity. As he put it in his own statement: “Red Hook’s limited connectivity as a result of the BQE [an elevated highway] both helps and hinders a future bike network. While this lack of connectivity is responsible for less automotive traffic it also leaves cyclists and pedestrians little opportunity to enter the area. Before a network of bike lanes can be successful it is necessary to first establish a clear means of connectivity to cross this barrier.”
Two jury comments sum up why this proposal won the day: “Very comprehensive but at its heart practical,” and “simple but flexible plan, somewhat scalable with potential to be unique and recognizable.”
HOK Sport, #28941
Interestingly, the second place finalist by HOK Sport stands in stark contrast to the winning design, indicating that the jury was of two minds about the competition. While practicality won the day, razzle dazzle also garnered lots of votes. In addition to offering a street design study, which the winning submission did not, the second place finalist proposed an iconic wheel as the bike locking mechanism, as well as a dramatic “Bikescape” recreational facility with space for extreme BMX events, and a velodrome track for racing and casual users. The team’s statement made clear the importance of bold strokes: “[The Bikewheel’s] iconic form and scale demand attention be paid to the changes occurring to Red Hook catalyzed by the humble cycle.”
A few juror comments sum up why this submission received so many votes but didn’t win the competition: “Very urban,” “Beautiful execution,” “Innovative – if unpractical bike storage,” “This is what architects do to be eye-catching and win competitions but don’t address the basic issue: connecting Red Hook to the rest of the city.”
3rd PLACE FINALIST
Heather Aman Design, #14345
Heather Aman Design submitted a proposal that caught the jurors’ attention with the team’s superior marketing and branding skills, as well as a “Rembrandt-like” aesthetic. Architectural images often have a uber-polished computer graphic look, which – while impressive as stand-alone presentations – taken together can start to look the same. Jurors also noted this proposal’s bike station façade design and material made of recycled shipping containers, the invention of which led to the decline of Red Hook as a major working port. Finally, this proposal’s feasibility study is noteworthy for its detail. But perhaps the weak link of this plan was the decision to be particularly bold with regard to the bike paths. The jurors were welcoming of bold architectural statements but seemed to apply a more practical standard to street design and bike path planning.
Jury comments: “Excellent branding,” “Impractical bike path jutting out into the water,” “Loft design is one of the better ones,” “’skin’ concept over existing structure has a lot of potential.”
3rd PLACE FINALIST
Route Peddlers, #37546
Every finalist’s submission had a particular strength, and in this case there were two impressive aspects: the street design and the detailed community level research undertaken by Route Peddlers. The Route Peddlers team included a crew of New York-based transportation planners, engineers, and urban designers at Sam Schwartz Engineering, which explains the impeccable street cross sections, as well as the detailed recommendations for connective bike lanes in the team’s statement. The team exceeded the others in another important way: going into the community – including the Red Hook Houses, the largest public housing complex in Brooklyn – and asking people what they wanted and incorporated those comments into the proposal. While the jurors liked the bike station’s façade made of recycled bicycle wheels, the bike station’s architecture lacked a level of detail required to win the competition.
Jury comments: “Street design is amazing,” “Inventive façade,” “Shows intent to make better connections”
3rd PLACE FINALIST
H3 + EWT, #51030
This team – comprised of architects and transportation consultants — put forth practical street and bike loft designs, yet did not shy away from proposing a major intervention; the elevated bicycle and pedestrian bridge across Hamilton Avenue. As the team’s statement put it: “There are three primary interventions we feel are necessary to reinvent the bicycle experience in Red Hook: The bike loft at the new Smith and Ninth Street Station; the bike-ped bridge crossing over Hamilton Avenue beneath the BQE; and a bikescape which will establish a comprehensive way-finding system to major Red Hook destinations … ” Why the team did not garner enough votes to win, however, is revealed by what the jury did not say about this proposal. While this is a very strong, well-balanced submission, it lacked a creative spark or an iconic statement: “Addresses major obstructions like the Gowanus Expressway,” “really elevates bicycling to the dominant mode of transportation,” “detailed bike station without fussing it up,” “good vision; good linkages.”
3rd PLACE FINALIST
Jordan Parnass Digital Architecture, #86845
Not surprisingly, a firm that specializes in digital architecture, retail and experience design submitted a well-branded and thoughtfully programmed proposal. “BiKe Brooklyn” proposes a 24 hour loft/village, plus a partnership with Brooklyn Brewery. “Twenty-four hour program can include bike storage, access to the subway, a full service laundromat, post office, bar and a grocery store. … By allowing half of the block to be occupied by their brewery operation and the other half the loft/village, a process of neighborhood revitalization will be set in motion …” The jury noted the programmatic detail, even if that came at the expense of a detailed bicycle network and a more fleshed out architectural design: “Great feasibility study,” “Really creates a destination.”
JURY (*indicates Red Hook resident)
Vishaan Chakrabarti, Executive Vice President of Planning and Design, Related Companies
Judith Kunoff, Chief Architect, New York City Transit
Jonathan Marvel, Principal, Rogers Marvel Architects
Aaron Naparstek, journalist and community organizer, Streetsblog
*Philip Nobel, Architecture and Design Critic, Metropolis magazine
Ryan Russo, Director of Pedestrian and Bicycle Programs, NYC DOT
Oliver Schaper, Senior Design Associate, Gensler
*Alexandros Washburn, Chief of Urban Design, City of New York
Andrea White, Executive Director of Bikestation
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.