New York firms envision ways for the city to absorb 9 million residents

In his four-plus decades as New York City’s “master builder,” Robert Moses oversaw the construction of 13 bridges, 416 miles of parkways, 658 playgrounds and 150,000 housing units. In the decades since, even as city planners have done well “building back” much of what time, neglect and, in the case of the World Trade Center, terror had laid low, they have been hard-pressed to approve, let alone complete, any major infrastructure projects on the scale of what Moses accomplished. But as the city’s population surges toward 9 million, the time for thinking small is now past. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of big ideas to fill the void—which is why we asked a group of leading architects, designers and real estate experts to offer up some of their visions for the city’s future. So as we examine Moses’ complex legacy, and its impact on how things get built today, we also glimpse some possibilities to come, and take comfort in the prospect that we can make it here. 

Gensler's idea for a light rail from Jackson Heights to Brooklyn Army Terminal

BIG IDEA: Repurposing existing track beds to allow light-rail commuter lines and commercial development

With subway ridership bursting at the seams, Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed creating a light-rail line to run from Astoria, Queens, to Sunset Park, Brooklyn. 

The folks at architectural and design firm Gensler want to take that idea a step further, proposing a high-powered, multimodal, 15-mile rail line from Jackson Heights to the Brooklyn Army Terminal by repurposing existing freight lines. By leveraging current infrastructure to support emergent commercial activity, the below-grade transportation corridor would effectively create new land to develop. The key is getting the tracks’ owner, the Long Island Rail Road, to share them.

“All the track you need for this project already exists. Economics wouldn’t be an obstacle.” 
—Oliver Schaper, Gensler director of planning and urban design

FX FOWLE's Halo Line that would provide suspended tram service

FX FOWLE's Halo Line that would provide suspended tram service

BIG IDEA: Suspended tram line encircling the five boroughs and parts of New Jersey

With an estimated 83% of new residents expected to plant their roots in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens during the next 25 years, the need for more transportation options to distant parts of the city will grow. FXFOWLE has devised an ambitious plan to create an entirely new transit system: a suspended tram that would encircle the city, connecting the five boroughs and the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. The 57-mile “halo line” would pass over several bodies of water by running along existing infrastructure, including the George Washington, Bayonne and Verrazano bridges. The tram’s construction would be less disruptive than subway expansions and provide a mode of transportation that is operable in the event of widespread flooding, which is becoming increasingly likely. Crucially, it would provide new routes to LaGuardia Airport, Hunts Point Market and other hubs and spur development in far-flung areas such as St. George, Flatbush and East New York. The system would be within a half-mile of 1.7 million residents.

“If you look at New York City and other cities around the world, they’re investing in transportation infrastructure that really spurs growth and development.”
—Jack Robbins, FXFOWLE principal

South Bronx development proposed over Metro-North rail line proposed by Curtis+Ginsberg

Curtis + Ginsberg
Develop airspace above Metro-North rail beds to increase housing and unite neighborhoods
$780M per mile, $5B to $6B for maximum development

Back in the 1970s, the New York City Housing Authority helped champion an innovative development in the South Bronx. Using air rights over the Harlem Metro-North rail line, three buildings known as Morrisania Air Rights housing were built on steel-lattice frames over the sunken rail bed. As the number of new residents strains the city’s housing stock, Curtis + Ginsberg Architects proposes continuing to build over the remaining seven miles of that same Bronx rail cut. The 60-foot-wide railway is easier to span than the massive layout Hudson Yards is building over, and the prefabricated buildings would absorb the sounds from trains, unlocking the potential for commercial and green spaces on the surrounding underdeveloped land. The 16,000 potential units could house 46,000 residents, and the development would bridge the neighborhoods that have been separated by the train tracks for more than a century.

“A lot of major infrastructure projects create divisions and boundaries. This can help stitch neighborhoods together.”
—Matthew Melody, Curtis + Ginsberg senior associate

BIG IDEA: Rezoning Newtown Creek area for “makers”

Newcomers are flocking to New York for jobs in the creative and entertainment industries, with Brooklyn seeing a 23% growth in information-sector jobs last year. The city’s current residents need good jobs close to inexpensive housing. Perkins+Will proposes converting 50 million square feet of heavy-industrial areas around Newtown Creek, which forms part of the boundary between Brooklyn and Queens, to light-industrial use, with workshops housed in mixed-use developments that include affordable housing. Freight barges and trains would transport goods out of the area, with a streetcar or bus line along the commercial corridor for residents and visitors. Flood risks would be mitigated through a combination of raised berms and “sponge” zones designed to absorb storm surges. Robert Goodwin, New York design director at Perkins+Will, says new cycling and pedestrian paths would be installed on top, making the nine miles of new waterfront space reminiscent of Dutch dikes.

“Heavy industry really isn’t job-supplying. If you put a lot of oil tanks there, it uses a lot of land and doesn’t provide many jobs. So use that land for starting up businesses.”
-Robert Goodwin, New York design director at Perkins+Will’s New York office

BIG IDEA: Shrinking the city’s highways in advance of impending automation, and reclaiming surplus space for public use and commercial development

If the future really is one full of self-driving cars, computer-directed trucks and sky-riding drones, doesn’t that mean there will be a lot less need for the city’s choked highways? The designers at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill are preparing for that future with a radical reimagining of one of Robert Moses’ least-loved legacies: the invariably jammed Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Envisioning the world’s first “autonomous electric superhighway” that generates its own power to propel vehicles, the designers call for burying the portion of the roadway that slinks past Cobble Hill and covering it with new housing. The remaining elevated portion would be shrunk to three lanes—half its current width—and replaced with at-grade boulevards, parks and commercial and residential development. The unused roadway surplus would provide a 400-acre windfall of new open space.

BIG IDEA: Extend the No. 1 subway to Red Hook, Brooklyn

Red Hook has long been underserved by public transit, and as a result, the Brooklyn neighborhood has not grown as much as many nearby communities. But its waterfront real estate has real value, and AECOM has a plan to get more out of it. For roughly $3 billion, the No. 1 train could be extended across the East River, with stations popping up at Atlantic Basin adjacent to the container terminal, at the Red Hook Houses and at the Fourth Avenue connection to the F, G and R subways. That would open the way for 45,000 more residential units. Ancillary benefits include acres of parkland, a revitalized industrial port and flood protections to guard against the kind of damage the neighborhood sustained during Superstorm Sandy.

“This is a canvas where we can create tens of thousands of housing units without pushing people further to the periphery of the city.”
—Christopher Ward, AECOM senior vice president

BIG IDEA: Converting waste-transfer stations into eco-friendly fuel producers

In his OneNYC plan, Mayor Bill de Blasio set a target of contributing zero waste to landfills by 2030. Right now, this goal seems distant, as the city recycles or composts just 25% of its solid waste. Much of the remainder gets sent to out-of-state landfills via four waterfront transfer stations located in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn. To make the process more sustainable, Dattner Architects suggests outfitting the stations with plasma arc technology, a process that converts solid waste into synthetic gas and other materials that can be sold for industrial and construction uses. Better yet, the process doesn’t release harmful combustion emissions into the atmosphere. In all, Dattner estimates that building the plasma infrastructure would cost $150 million to $200 million per location. But the potential impact of the project would be massive: If the system were instituted at the marine-transfer station in Manhattan and the land-based stations in the Bronx and Staten Island, all city residents and workers could participate in eco-positive waste disposal.

“The tech is at a point where it becomes realistic to consider it. The time to start discussing it is now.”
—Daniel Heuberger, Dattner principal

BIG IDEA: A hotel, residential, convention and park complex to bring the Javits Center to its full potential

A nearly five-acre pier jutting into the Hudson across the street from the Jacob K. Javits Center currently houses an NYPD tow pound that William Wachtel, founding partner at law firm Wachtel Missry LLP, said holds around 200 cars at a time. “It’s the world’s most expensive parking lot,” he said. Instead, Wachtel and architecture firm Kohn Pedersen Fox say the pier could feature nearly 1 million square feet of park space woven into Hudson River Park and the High Line, ballrooms and meeting rooms that could augment the Javits Center as well as a hotel, residential and retail complex. The whole thing could be connected via a footbridge that would run over the West Side Highway and connect to a point in the existing convention center that was originally designed with a pier extension in mind. The pier itself would be strong enough to support development of the mixed-use base and the hotel or condo towers and could be paid for in part by some form of partnership with a private developer. The project could integrate seamlessly with an expansion announced this year by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“This could be a natural extension of Hudson Yards.”
—A. Eugene Kohn, KPF chairman

BIG IDEA: Transforming unused space under elevated infrastructure into public plazas

Hundreds of miles of elevated highways, bridges, subway and commuter rail lines cut across New York City neighborhoods, and the areas beneath them are often poorly lit and unappealing—and sometimes dangerous. But rather than gritty barriers that divide neighborhoods, like the Brooklyn Queens-Expressway in Sunset Park or the elevated No. 2 and No. 5 lines in the Bronx, the Design Trust for Public Space sees these millions of square feet of publicly owned land as an enormous asset. The nonprofit envisions green, brightly lit pedestrian plazas that would knit neighborhoods and residents together. Storm-water runoff from highways could feed lush plantings below—which would have the dual benefit of absorbing CO2 pollution from the traffic passing above. The trust has already tested out its idea with several pilot projects, and is currently working with the city to develop a municipal El-Space Program that would help communities across the five boroughs replicate their results.

“The possibilities are endless.”
—Ozgur Gungor, DTPS communications manager

BIG IDEA: Adding multiuse buildings  to underused schoolyards
ESTIMATED COST: $50M per project

Many of the city’s public schools are low-rise buildings adjacent to big open spaces.SLCE Architects proposes to build multipurpose structures in their courtyards. Unused areas and air rights could be sold and leased to housing developers, with building heights limited per neighborhood norms.

“If you go into districts in Queens and Staten Island with private houses, saying you’re going to build a 40-story building, it’s never going to happen,” says Saky Yakas, a partner at SLCE. “You have to consider the neighborhood and its scale. These would be mid-rise buildings rather than high-rise buildings.”

With about 850 New York City schools ripe for such development, SLCE estimates that the new buildings could house 255,000 people, with many of the units devoted to affordable housing. The new developments could be a boost to schools, too. At P.S. 40 Edward K. Ellington in Jamaica, for instance, student capacity would be increased by 37% without sacrificing much playground space.

“This could be a win-win situation if you can get the bureaucrats to sit down and figure out some way to implement it.”
Saky Yakas, SLCE partner

BIG IDEA: Enhancing private developments with more public space

Gentrification often creates a divide between new and old residents, but it doesn’t have to be that way. ODA New York envisions a new type of development rising in trendy Bushwick, Brooklyn—a multifaceted apartment complex that doubles as a public space. Set on the former site of the Rheingold brewery, the new structure would house 1,500 to 2,000 people while accommodating many more. Nearby residents of Bushwick and Williamsburg could use the site’s ample public facilities including park space and coffee shops.

“The old formula for large residential projects was luxury by segregation,” said Eran Chen, executive director of ODA. “Dead-end boxes with amenities available only to the people living there. People today are interested in buildings that are connected to their environment and neighborhoods.”

Chen estimates that construction will cost $360 million. ODA has already submitted plans, including rezoning requests, that are in the early public-review stages.

“Not only do I think it’ll be less disruptive to the neighborhood, it’ll be a place of engagement, a place to be.”
—Eran Chen, ODA New York executive director

BIG IDEA: Turning subway stations into places to linger
ESTIMATED COST: $10 million per station

Traditionally, the sole purpose of a subway station is for riders to hop on and off trains. But Perkins Eastman envisions subway stops as destinations. At the Bowery–East Houston Street intersection, for instance, a sunken amphitheater and rotunda could be built to minimize the congestion at the nearby Second Avenue F stop. Plus, diverting cars into a roundabout would make the streets safer. The company figures the Bowery/Houston rotunda would cost at least $10 million.

If enough subway stops are adapted into destinations, many New Yorkers would benefit. More than 5.8 million riders used the Second Avenue stop last year, and many more pedestrians passed through the area. A new hangout there could lead to additional development and heightened property values.

“I don’t think anyone thinks private automobiles will dominate the public realm in the next 100 years. There’s an emphasis on quality of life in the public realm, and the goal is to repurpose the transit system.”
—Jonathan Cohn, principal at Perkins Eastman


BIG IDEA Rediscovering the forgotten borough

Through New York’s building boom, Staten Island has largely been left on the sidelines. But CetraRuddy Architecture sees wide opportunity in the borough, and has a multifaceted plan. Residents could find new homes when a community—Staten Island City—is constructed on the west shore near the Goethals Bridge. With the installation of 150,000 units in this new neighborhood, Staten Island’s housing stock would increase by 38%. Moving eastward, CetraRuddy proposes a tech campus and cultural hub within the renovated Fresh Kills Park. As far as transportation, a rail line along the northern and western parts of the island could be revitalized, increasing density along station stops. And with increased ferry service, Staten Island could start to feel more like an integral hub than New York’s forgotten borough.

“Staten Island is a borough that hasn’t been looked at in a visionary way. But it can be more than a community of residents. It can be a place to live, work and play in the future.”—Theresa Genovese, principal at CetraRuddy

Correction: Ozgur Gungor’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this article published online Oct. 30, 2016.

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