By Joy Bergmann
“We require from buildings two kinds of goodness,” the 19th century art critic John Ruskin once said. “First, the doing their practical duty well; then that they be graceful and pleasing in doing it.” He didn’t say it would be easy.
Aligning form, function and funding is the crux of debate around a proposed new dock house at the West 79th Street Boat Basin, part of the NYC Parks Department’s $90 million total reconstruction of the marina complex.
Since WSR broke the story, we’ve heard from multiple stakeholders and received additional information from Parks and the project’s managing agency, NYC Economic Development Corporation [EDC]. Here’s our update.
The proposed two-story structure will be approximately 6,000-square-feet, with a roof rising 28 feet above the Riverside Park esplanade at its highest point. Why so high?
“The building has to be elevated above the design flood elevation to comply with building code, which requires the bottom of the building to be elevated a minimum elevation of 16 ft over mean high tide,” an EDC spokesperson told WSR in an email. “Taking into account the roofing system, structural framing, and mechanical systems, the roof height was established so that the interior spaces at the low point of the sloped roof have code compliant and usable ceiling heights.”
Could the dock house instead be built on a single-level floating barge?
“A barge design was not considered as a permanent replacement for the dock house given maintenance and inspection requirements, security considerations, and complexities with utility connections for providing dock house services,” EDC said.
Given that the current dock house is an 815-square-foot shack, why go so big?
“The new dock house is being designed to meet the operational and site safety requirements for the 24/7 year-round facility, with space for customer service, maintenance, security, and administrative functions,” a Parks spokesperson emailed WSR, noting that, contrary to rumor, the NYC Parks Marine Operations team is not planning to move to 79th Street from their current headquarters in Queens. “The project will also make the facility ADA-accessible for the first time in its over 80-year history.”
If Parks’ original plan is fulfilled, the marina will have capacity for 193 vessels versus the previous 116 spaces. The first phase of construction will include 157 slips, EDC said. “With the full increase in the number of boat slips, we anticipate an increase of about $1 million in revenue annually,” said Parks. “All revenue goes to the City’s General Fund.”
Beyond the boating community, what will the revamped complex offer the general, park-going public as part of the “full expanded facility program” mentioned in slides presented to Community Board 7 in June and November?
“The new dock house would have publicly accessible restrooms and customer service space that can be used to accommodate public programming,” said Parks. “The marina will include a public dock and picnic tables, along with access for educational programming, charter sails and cruises, boating safety classes, kayak launches, competitive swim events, and more.”
However, as Parks officials told CB7 members in June, there will not be a public kayaking program similar to the one that was available at 72nd Street a few years ago. People who own paddleboards, kayaks and other human-powered vessels will have a space to launch them at the new complex.
All that being understood, we turn to the proposed dock house’s aesthetics, which have been panned by many who’ve seen the current design.
One interested party that had not reviewed any of the plans prior to WSR’s reporting is Riverside Park Conservancy. They subsequently tweeted displeasure with the process and the design:
We are deeply concerned about the proposed design of the 79th Street Dock House. It is boxy & dense, and incongruent to the surrounding area of the Park. We were neither briefed nor consulted on this design, and we are making our views known directly to the @NYCParks Department.
— Riverside Park Conservancy (@RiversideParkNY) December 6, 2021
Sean Khorsandi, executive director of Landmark West!, had a similar reaction. “It’s not going to win any beauty contests,” he told WSR in an interview.
Typically, Parks engages with stakeholder nonprofits early in the process, Khorsandi said, giving their experts the opportunity to ask questions and inform designs before they are seen by CB7 and the ultimate deciders: the NYC Public Design Commission. He called the lack of collaboration on the dock house “very curious.”
However, Khorsandi empathizes with the challenges faced by the project team. “They have to take something that’s 85 years old up to modern standards for extreme weather and ADA compliance,” he said. “But there are lots of ways to meet the standards and still make it aesthetically pleasing. This is an opportunity to inspire people. Why not make it something that gets people excited, or is at least innocuous?”
Last week, CB7 sent a letter to EDC outlining the Board’s thoughts on five aspects of the Boat Basin project.
In it, CB7 recaps concerns expressed by residents about the dock house’s proposed size, style and blocking of sight lines from the park. CB7 said it had been “hopeful” more of those issues would’ve been addressed in the current design, “but it appears that only very minimal changes have been made.” The letter did not make specific requests for revisions to the design going forward.
But, as mentioned at a recent meeting with Councilmember Helen Rosenthal, people will still have an opportunity to provide feedback on the evolving blueprints.
The project team will present again to CB7 in spring or summer 2022 before going to the Public Design Commission for final approvals. In the interim, the public may email Parks at: email@example.com
“I think we’ve sparked a major outcry from the community and my hope is that it continues to grow,” said Gail Dubov, president of the West 83rd Street Block Association, in an email to WSR. “The design doesn’t work for the landscape and it doesn’t work for New Yorkers who see Riverside Park as their backyard.”