Park ‘n’ Learn

With a modest park and an environmental education center, a little bit of Manhattan waterfront is reclaimed.

Despite its plant life and waterfront breezes, Stuyvesant Cove Park, a two-acre strip of land on Manhattan’s East River, is not exactly a pastoral refuge. Cars whiz by on the FDR Drive overhead, and the scenery includes a Con Ed power plant and a parking garage. The incongruity culminates at the north end of the park, where a solar-powered building hosts environmental workshops while motorists fill up at the Gulf gas station just yards away.

Such juxtapositions don’t ruffle the Community Environmental Center (CEC), the Long Island City—based nonprofit responsible for this green wedge on the city’s waterfront. Project director Jonathan Cramer recalls a meeting in which “a donor said, ‘I’d like to give you money, but you’re in a stupid location.’” However, Cramer considers the site an asset: “It’s emblematic of waterfront development in New York City. It’s the perfect location in its perverse way.” This ethos—engagement, not denial, of the surrounding environment—shows in every facet of the project, from the park’s sustainable landscaping choices of native species to the center’s classes, which use the site to illustrate urban and estuary ecology.

The project grew out of the neighborhood community’s involvement in the site, which was under control of the Economic Development Corporation (EDC), a nonprofit that works with the city to oversee the development of some city-owned properties. The site had been slated for a high-rise apartment complex, but community opposition defeated these plans and in 1993 won a commitment from EDC to turn the land into a park instead.

As plans unfolded, two concerns emerged. Because the park isn’t under the auspices of the Parks Department, it was unclear who would provide maintenance. EDC also decided it needed some kind of entity to draw visitors, and neighbors resisted a commercial enterprise. So the community and EDC together settled on the idea of an environmental learning center, suggested by Joy Garland, president of the Stuyvesant Cove Association. Under this plan EDC would rent the site for $1 a year to a nonprofit, which would maintain the park in exchange for use of the land for a learning center. The winner of the ensuing request-for-proposals process was CEC, whose other services involve implementing energy-efficiency measures in low-income housing throughout New York state. The park was completed in March 2002, and the final learning center—a two-story structure of concrete and glass—will go up in about four years. Meanwhile a highly energy-efficient 500-square-foot solar pavilion, erected this spring, will serve as the temporary classroom. Both buildings are by architecture firm Kiss + Cathcart, designers of the photovoltaic system on the Condé Nast building, in Times Square.

CEC has enlisted a consortium of organizations to teach the classes at little or no charge. For example, EDEN, an afterschool program, will introduce high school kids to environmental-justice issues; and the Clearwater sailors, who run educational programs from their sloop on the Hudson River, will conduct workshops on marine ecology.

The final building will contain a prototype “eco-apartment” outfitted with such systems as low-flow faucets, thermal-pane windows, and a heat pump. “A lot of system choices we make will be based on how realistic they will be to suggest to New Yorkers,” Colin Cathcart says. “This is not science fiction. These are realistic choices that would make economic sense.”

This pragmatic spirit mingles with a romantic idealism. Cramer’s enthusiasm is clear when he discusses the project. “The idea is that the waterfront becomes an active, open, welcoming space where people can gather.” The only dissenting voice has come from the solar classroom’s neighbor, the Gulf gas station: its owner complained that the building blocks views of his sign from the FDR.

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