Recharging The Battery
By Beth Franz
Dramatically sited at the southern tip of Manhattan where the East River and Hudson River converge into New York Harbor, The Battery is where New York City began. With its views of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, the 25-acre park is a threshold between land and sea, a gateway to symbols of our national identity, a major transportation hub, and a neighbor to the Financial District. The park welcomes 7-million people a year—from neighborhood, city, nation, and globe—who come to this oasis of lush plantings and centenarian trees to catch a ferry, ride the SeaGlass carousel, hear a concert, or simply gaze at the water.
The park wasn’t always so agreeable. Anyone who was there in the 1980s (along with Madonna, in Desperately Seeking Susan) will remember holes in the seawall fence that small children could fall through, expanses of collapsing, patched asphalt without a blade of grass in sight, rusty barrels, seat-less benches, and arid fountains.
Today, thanks to 22 years of effort from The Battery Conservancy and the City of New York, that area is only a memory. Landscape architecture firm Quennell Rothschild & Partners led a team including Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners on the design of the most recently completed elements, including the Perimeter, Bikeway, Oval and Woodland. These culturally rich, environmentally responsible landscapes pay respect to nearly 400 years of history while accommodating the needs of 21st-century New Yorkers and visitors.
The Dutch settled here in 1622 and erected a “battery” of defensive cannons that gave the place its name. As early as the 1700s, New Yorkers flocked to its promenade and magnificent vistas. Castle Clinton, the circular brick fort, was built in anticipation of the War of 1812. A decade later, the military moved out, the musicians moved in, and the area became the city’s premier concert hall.
As has been the case with so much of Lower Manhattan, The Battery has grown over time, thanks to a succession of landfills. By 1855, the park encompassed Castle Garden, which the state had transformed into the first immigrant receiving center in the nation. When the United States government took over immigrant processing in 1890, the Castle was again transformed—into the first New York aquarium.
Restored to its fortification appearance by the National Park Service in 1975 and designated a national monument, the Castle currently houses the ticket office for the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
Residents and visitors have Warrie Price, Founder and President of The Battery Conservancy, to thank for the park that is enjoyed today. Her dogged commitment to realizing her vision of a world-class park persisted through 9/11 and SuperStorm Sandy. The conservancy worked hand-in-glove with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), which owns the land, to develop and implement the design.
Because of its reputation for sensitive restorations of historic landscapes, including New York’s Greenwood Cemetery, the Central Park Zoo, and Princeton University, Quennell Rothschild & Partners was selected to lead the design team. Given the size, complexity, and significance of the site, the project was a broad collaboration. Landscape architects Starr Whitehouse, along with WXY Architects and Tillett Lighting Design Associates, were invited to participate, given their previous collaboration with the conservancy on The Battery Bosque. Horticulturalist Piet Oudolf—who had been engaged by the conservancy in the early 21st century to develop a horticultural master plan for The Battery, and who later went on to fame for garden design at the High Line, designed the gardens that intertwine with the bikeway.
Goals And Strategies
The architectural team, refusing “little plans which have no magic to stir men`s blood,” had one overarching goal: to create Lower Manhattan’s premier open space.
Goal: Attract more New Yorkers
Yes, the park is open to 7-million visitors a year, but most are tourists. The architects wanted New Yorkers to see it as their park, too. One approach was to strengthen the connections between the park and the neighborhood. To draw people in, several new entrances were created, as well as a new east-west path to connect the Financial District with residential Battery Park City. A bike lane through the park was added to connect existing greenways on either side of the island. A renovated comfort station provides shade, water, and even air for tires. And the creation of The Battery Oval, a new 2-acre lawn shaded with mature trees, allows for large-event programming to encourage locals to rediscover their new park.
Goal: Celebrate history
This place witnessed the earliest days of the republic, so highlighting some of those stories was a priority. Ten monuments honoring the nation’s defense, explorers, inventors, and immigrants—which were previously overlooked—were restored and moved to the perimeter of the park, where they indicate the entrances to the park at every downtown avenue.
Goal: Improve circulation and wayfinding
The creation of a monument walk achieved another goal: streamlining perimeter circulation so pedestrians could walk around the park without getting trampled by tourists. The sidewalk was widened, and a central band of trees and benches were added to divide tour-bus loading zones from east-west circulation.
Goal: Increase sustainability
Quennell Rothschild excels at the integration of historic preservation with sustainability. Substantial areas of paving and mown lawn were replaced with swathes of native grasses that absorb and cleanse storm water. Those involved in the project agreed that the 1980s park had too many redundant paths. Removing many of them improved circulation, made way for larger gathering areas, and reduced runoff. Mature trees were also preserved, and their tree pits were expanded. Reducing mown lawn decreased the use of pesticides, fertilizers, and maintenance costs.
The total cost for the so-called “Battery Bikeway/Perimeter project”—for which a more accurate title might be “Total Transformation of Half of The Battery”—was approximately $17 million. The project included the bikeway and gardens, perimeter transformation, restoration and relocation of ten monuments, and construction of The Battery Oval and The Battery Woodland, as well as all of the subsurface infrastructure work—including installation of irrigation systems for the lawns and gardens. Major funding sources include the Federal SAFETEA program ($1.6 million) and New York State Department of Transportation grants for the bikeway and its beautification ($4.9 million).
The Battery is a New York City public park, whose maintenance and operations are largely handled by The Battery Conservancy, DPR’s non-profit partner. The conservancy’s employees pick up litter, bag trash, mow grass, clean graffiti, and maintain the public restrooms, as well as perform the advanced gardening tasks The Battery’s sophisticated horticulture requires. As renewed swathes of the park have emerged from construction fencing, demands on the conservancy’s private fundraising have increased significantly. The installation of irrigation systems, along with implementation of a variety of technological tools, has eased the need for some manual labor—allowing the full-time park workforce to stay steady at nine. Since 2014, the conservancy’s seasonal workforce has grown from four to 10. And as the park attracts more and more visitors, more basic maintenance—and additional shifts—will be needed.
How will future generations of New Yorkers extend the life of The Battery? Sea levels will continue to rise; storms like Sandy will come again. How will this place, where the city may drop into the ocean, contribute to resiliency? What will survive, who will come here, what will they do here? Keep your battery charged … and stay tuned.
Beth Franz, RLA, is a Senior Associate at Quennell Rothschild & Partners in New York, N.Y. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.