Civic Action Charrette

Residential context | Image courtesy of Gans Studio
Residential context | Image courtesy of Gans Studio

Last October, Urban Omnibus featured an ambitious project called Civic Action, a multi-year effort by the Noguchi Museum and Socrates Sculpture Park to advance and expand the conversation about the accelerating development of their shared corner of Long Island City. Just as Isamu Noguchi and Mark di Suvero deeply influenced the area by creating these two major cultural institutions close to where both maintained studios, four contemporary artists would lead collaborative efforts at proposing speculative interventions that might foster a sense of transformative possibility about the neighborhood today, as it faces massive change. Starting last fall, those artist-led visions were exhibited at the Noguchi Museum, and currently installed at Socrates Sculpture Park are large-scale prototypes of elements of these artists’ proposals. According to Alyson Baker, the former executive director of Socrates Sculpture Park, the project is an attempt to honor the “tremendous legacy of two artists shaping a significant section of New York City and … to make sure that legacy is not only acknowledged, but becomes part of the future.”

To support this proactive process of creative thinking about urban change, the Noguchi Museum recently asked the Architectural League to bring some design and urban planning expertise to bear on the key question at the root of this project: how to sustain neighborhood vitality by capitalizing on distinctive characteristics rather than succumbing to the often homogenizing effects of mainstream real estate development. In this case, those distinctive characteristics certainly include a unique mix of cultural and demographic forces — including the prevalence of artistic and artisanal production, the concentration of owner-occupied industrial enterprises, the confluence of several ethnic enclaves, the proximity of three large public housing complexes, and, of course, the presence of a diverse range of cultural institutions. But they also include a unique set of environmental and infrastructural conditions: much of the waterfront is in a floodplain, public transit access is limited, many of the adjacent neighborhoods have recently been rezoned to permit residential high-rises.

With these constraints in mind, the Architectural League, under the direction of Special Projects Director Gregory Wessner, convened architects, landscape architects and urban planners to engage in an intense few hours of design thinking and discussion. The Civic Action Charrette participants were organized into three teams: Waterfront, Neighborhood / Community, and Transportation / Connection. The short video below documents the afternoon.

Team: Joelle Byrer, Belinda Kanpetch, Susannah Drake, Neil Logan, Claire Weisz

The charrette issued the following design challenge to the Waterfront team:

Zoned entirely for residential uses, the area along the Queens waterfront in the vicinity of the Noguchi and Socrates is in reality a patchwork of public parks and private commercial or industrial uses. How could the community gain full access to its waterfront and protect it in perpetuity from future development? What impact might climate change have on this stretch of the East River and how could any of those impacts be mitigated?

The team responded with design recommendations that emphasized the need to create linkages, in ecological as well as recreational terms, between the waterfront and upland areas. Suggestions made use of existing zoning and financing mechanisms  — such as land banking, tax incentives and a manufacturing land use designation — to protect the shoreline from residential development that would be particularly vulnerable to storm surges, to envision the additional public space as a “productive landscape” that accommodates both passive recreation as well as the active making and displaying of art, and to consider the open space on New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) properties as opportunities to create green connections between the waterfront and upland areas.

Neighborhood / Community
Team: Bob Balder, Andrew Bernheimer, Denise Hoffman Brandt, Deborah Gans, Penny Lee

The Neighborhood / Community team was tasked with interpreting the legacy of Noguchi and di Suvero’s “vision of living and working as artists in a context of small industrial buildings and businesses [as] important to the future of New York for both its economic and its physical fabric.” Rethinking the roles of the two institutions at the neighborhood scale “provides a context for understanding and resolving development demands and potentials including public open space and social infrastructures such as schools and libraries as well as housing.”

The team’s design response focused on the incubation of small businesses. The group identified the forthcoming Cornell Technion campus as a potential breeding ground for startups and suggested a variety of strategies to cultivate light industry and art production businesses in the neighborhood, including upzoning 21st Street, creating an industrial land bank, and establishing loan programs and seed money to help connect people with affordable housing and workspaces. The Community team, like the Waterfront group, encouraged a stronger connection between upland and waterfront that could simultaneously draw the community down to the water and serve as a tactic for stormwater management.

Transportation / Connection
Team: Stella Betts, David Leven, Astrid Lipka, Margaret Newman, Lyn Rice

The Transportation / Connection team was asked to think about enhancing “both the perception and the reality” of the Noguchi and Socrates’ location and accessibility. In addition to considering the transit modes of subway, bus, ferry and bike, the team was also encouraged to speculate about “soft infrastructures such as the mapping of cultural/public institutions, meeting places and parks.”

To address the connectivity challenges, this team considered both the immediate area and its larger context. Suggestions prioritized multi-modal transportation networks that improve flow through Long Island City and to Roosevelt Island and Manhattan, emphasizing the possibility of a connection to Manhattan’s 79th Street corridor as well as expanded ferry service, a “LIC Loop” bus route, and improved way-finding for both pedestrians and vehicles. In order to make the neighborhood’s size and breadth more understandable and penetrable — the team noted that the area known as Long Island City is equivalent in size to all of Lower Manhattan below 14th Street — the team recommended a complete rethinking of the street name scheme, and a system of nodes along Vernon Avenue that highlight the neighborhood’s connection to the waterfront.

The ideas of the three teams overlapped in productive and illuminating ways. The shared focus on improving upland and waterfront linkages demonstrated the extent to which all of the participants took the neighborhood’s underutilized assets as the point of departure, instead of focusing exclusively on strategies to arrest urban change. But the commonalities also extended to specific tactics and mechanisms, thus offering not only big ideas towards a holistic, culture-led vision of what the neighborhood might become, but also concrete suggestions of what tools are available to cultural institutions that choose to act as responsible and creative stewards of neighborhood identity and proactive agents of change.

Cultural institutions — especially organizations with a tradition of harnessing and applying the creative energy and ideas of artists, designers or planners — have a unique and active role to play in advancing the conversation about where they fit in their communities, and how they might contribute or influence how those communities change. The Architectural League’s own institutional legacy derives in large part from its longstanding tradition of fostering an active network of innovative, socially engaged designers, and bringing that cumulative expertise to bear on issues in the public interest of New York and New Yorkers. Through long-term design studies or intensive one-off charrettes, the League has worked with municipal agencies, advocacy groups, community-based organizations and, of course, other cultural institutions.

The Civic Action charrette only lasted half a day, and comes towards the end of several years of thinking, producing, displaying and discussing on the part of the Noguchi and Socrates and the many people (including many more individuals beyond the four artists who led the original teams) they have invited to reflect on these complex issues. The intensity of the exercise, and the wealth of good ideas it produced, affirms both institutions’ commitment to consistently reinterpreting and advancing the legacy of their artist founders: two men who saw opportunity in a corner of New York City that most would overlook. The architects, landscape architects and urban planners invited to participate in the charrette identified still more opportunities — for retaining manufacturing space, for developing green infrastructure, for providing additional affordable housing, for reimagining the role of cultural institutions in community planning processes — that, taken together, have potential benefits far beyond the boundaries of western Queens.

Civic Action Charrette participants:
Bob Balder, Executive Director, Cornell University College of Architecture in New York City
Andrew Bernheimer, Bernheimer Architecture
Stella Betts, Leven Betts Studio
Denise Hoffman Brandt, Hoffman Brandt Studio
Joelle Byrer, Queens Team Leader, NYC Department of Parks and Recreation
Susannah Drake, dlandstudio
Deborah Gans, Gans Studio
Belinda Kanpetch
Penny Lee, Senior Planner, NYC Department of City Planning
David Leven, Leven Betts Studio
Astrid Lipka, Rice + Lipka Architects
Neil Logan, fernlund + logan architects
Margaret Newman, Chief of Staff, NYC Department of Transportation
Lyn Rice, Rice + Lipka Architects
Claire Weisz, WXY Architecture

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Gus June 28, 2012

Great to see the ideas that can be incubated when designers, artists and planners come together. Hope to see the projects realized in the future!