MTS casts shadow on West Harlem Piers Park

The sun beamed through broken cloud last weekend on the ribbon-cutting ceremony of the West Harlem Piers Park, at 132nd Street on the west waterfront. But even as Mayor Bloomberg kicked off celebrations in his famously shaky Spanish, inclusively welcoming all communities to Harlem’s newest riverside spot, the dormant 135th Marine Transfer Station lurked at the edge of the park. A relic of the city’s waste disposal infrastructure, and arguably of environmental racism, the fate of the MTS is undecided – a raft of ideas floated for repurposing have not received any serious political backing. The long awaited opening of a new green space, however, is great news for local residents, bikers, pedestrians and particularly fishing hobbyists, who have been returning to this spot through thick and thin.

West Harlem Piers Park

Linking Riverside Park, which begins at 72nd Street, to Riverbank State Park, from 135th to 145th Streets, the West Harlem Piers Park is the last jigsaw piece in a now unbroken strip of publicly accessible waterfront running all the way up from Battery Park. A safe, continuous and dedicated bicycle path now extends along the west side of Manhattan, allowing a no-dismount ride from the Battery all the way to Dyckman up at 200th Street – a bright feather to the city’s cap, or bike helmet.

Over ten years in the making, the West Harlem Piers Park has been the laborious fruit of many stakeholders and the subject of discussion at every level of government. The site exists where several different neighborhood initiatives intersect: the West Harlem rezoning, the 125th BID westward expansion and Columbia University’s Manhattanville expansion. The complex consultation process brought in many parties, evidenced by the long succession of assemblymen and community leaders who took the stage to thank their colleagues. Congressman Charles B Rangel, who procured federal funds (including still-to-come stimulus dollars), and Assemblyman Herman “Danny” Farrell reminisced about the ferry to the Palisades Entertainment Park in New Jersey and trolley cars which rattled into the area when the West Harlem Pier was still functioning (indeed there were plans to rebuild the pier as an additional stop on the Manhattan Circle Line). Others grimly recollected the site’s seedier and more dangerous recent history: the milk bottles of the erstwhile Borden Milk Factory gave way to crack vials, broken glass and prostitution during the recession of the seventies. Today the park has been transformed into a highly usable and attractive addition to Harlem’s public spaces. Hope Knight from the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, and Pam Jones from Community Board 9 both spoke of the site’s proximity to 125th Street, a major east-west connector, and of the ongoing developments planned for the area as being strategic to the park’s popularity.

W Architecture & Landscape Architecture and Archipelago Architecture and Landscape Architecture, who design exclusively for New York City, worked with the EDC to come up with a design for the space on this rather awkwardly shaped sinew of land. Several narrow lawn areas are neatly dissected by north-south pedestrian and bike paths; the southern end of the park has an ample number of benches and reclining areas, facing the water or the green spaces within the park. A triangular void in the decking separates the lawns from a pier-like strip of walkway running parallel to the park over the water, and increases the feeling of proximity to the river as it sparkles and spits underfoot. The strip allows fishermen – who have been provided with cleaning tables – and spectators of the growing kayaking community to be closer to the river whilst being undisturbed by the park’s other users. The park has also been landscaped to allow for small performance spaces, as demonstrated during the park’s inaugural ceremony by the company of the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Patience Higgins Trio of jazz musicians.

Local artist Nari Ward was brought into the mix by Percent For Art, which ensures that one percent of public project funding is given over to the arts on site. His three metallic sculptures, derived from the shapes of fishing hooks, punctuate the lawns of the Piers park, while a walkway on the sidewalk edge of the park attempts to weave in spatial memories from the local community and from the history of the site.

Marine Transfer Station at 135th Street

Now relatively benign on the northern fringe of the Piers Park, until 2001 the Marine Transfer Station at 135th Street received 95 truckloads of garbage every day, all of which was largely transported by barge to Freshkills Landfill in Staten Island; the air pollution caused by the garbage and idling trucks exacerbated the locality’s already high asthma rate. The protests against seeming environmental racism gained weight as the negative effects to air quality were compounded by the local bus depot and the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant just behind the MTS, which processes sewage from all of West Manhattan, as well as the Riverdale area of the Bronx.

Two parties who are highly concerned in contesting the future of the 28,000 square foot space of the defunct Transfer Station are WEACT and Community Board 9, both of whom have been fundamental in the collaboration to develop the park so far. While WEACT, headed by the Jane Jacobs Medalist Peggy Shepard, sees the structure as playing host to further leisure activities such as kayaking, boat trips and a visitor center, Community Board 9 suggests that the creation of local green jobs is of paramount importance and so proposes long-term aquaculture and hydroponic agriculture projects, as well as promoting tourism and cultural activities. Having promised never to reopen the MTS for waste disposal, the Mayor’s office has commissioned WEACT to organize a broad-based steering committee and community-based charette process that would work to find the best possible use.

We want to hear from designers about precedents and lessons learned from relevant experiences elsewhere, and from users and stakeholders about what they think should be considered too – let us know in the comments section below, and stay tuned to Urban Omnibus for updates. Though the park looks set to become a much-loved spot over the summer months, the MTS will remain ‘hot’ for some time yet.

Shumi Bose is an architectural writer and researcher. She is currently working between London and New York, and lives in Brooklyn.