Willets Point to Rise from Ashes

East, Newsletter
Tuesday, April 3, 2012
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The city's plans for Willets Point took a giant step forward with federal approval of highway ramps (Courtesy NYCEDC).

The city's plans for Willets Point took a giant step forward with federal approval of highway ramps (Courtesy NYCEDC).

In Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby the billboard eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg kept watch over the ash heaps near Willets Point. For the past four years Mayor Bloomberg has had his eyes steadfastly fixed on the site and it looks as though he may realize his vision of the area as a mixed use development. Today Crain’s reports that a key part of the redevelopment plan, ramps connecting to the Van Wyck Expressway, was approved by the Federal Highway Administration.

The eyes of Dr. TJ Eckleburg overlooking the ash heaps in the 1974 film, "The Great Gatsby." (Coutesy Paramount)

The eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg overlooking the ash heaps in the 1974 film, "The Great Gatsby." (Coutesy Paramount)

In Gatsby, the area served as a brutal reality check between Gatsby’s West Egg fantasy and the glitz of the Plaza Hotel.  For urbanism buffs a trip to Willets Point is a must. The many auto repair shops, junk yards, and recycling plants provide an unfettered look inside the belly of the urban beast. But like so many other dirty bits of business (see Fresh Kills), the city seems intent on exporting the unattractive aesthetics that come with it. “It may not look pretty, but its work that needs doing,” said Roberta Brandes Gratz, author of The Battle for Gotham and Jane Jacobs protege. “If it’s not clean work, does that make it blight?”

Gratz compared the city’s plan to Robert Moses’ neighborhood clearance projects.  She questioned the elimination of businesses that pull in more than $1 million in real estate taxes, despite being unconnected to basic services such as sewer and waste water systems. “It costs the city nothing, yet its collecting tax revenue,” said Grantz. “Where are those businesses going to? Jersey, Connecticut, Nassau?”

There’s no questioning that the city has begun to appreciate its decayed industrial aesthetic, so lovingly and nostalgically preserved on the High Line. The city has even found ways to reclaim former trash heaps (see Fresh Kills again).  A statement from New York City Economic Development Corporation frames  the Willets Point project in similarly ambitious terms:  “Building upon the off site infrastructure work on which we broke ground last fall, today, we are literally laying the foundation for the site and unlocking its long-term potential for future generations of New Yorkers.”

But the gritty industries that created the sites may not be as welcome in future plans. Instead, $3 billion worth of hotels, residences, and retail along with nearly  80,000 vehicle trips a day will take their place.  ”Adding new highways is no longer considered reasonable and an off ramp will increase traffic,” said Gratz. “What ever gets built there would car oriented. I thought the city was trying to be green!”

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