Located at the southern end of Manhattan Island, it has been called one of the most significant major developments built in the United States during the past 100 years. It is not the World Trade Center, where two new skyscrapers, a 9/11 museum, and throngs of tourists have attracted all the attention of late, but Battery Park City, the 92-acre (37 ha) mixed-use “new town” that won the 2010 ULI Heritage Award. Battery Park City has gained worldwide recognition for its success over the past 30-plus years, becoming a linchpin of New York City efforts to revitalize the downtown. It has grown to become one of the city’s busiest enclaves, providing housing, offices, stores, and open space.
Just ten blocks from the World Trade Center, Battery Park City has a commanding waterfront site along the Hudson River—a prime location with great views of the city and the New Jersey shoreline, as well as salty breezes wafting in from New York Bay.
The location has a long history as a strategic site. Battery Park City takes its name from a battery of cannons placed there in colonial times, providing a strategic vantage point for defending New York’s vital port. Industrial uses long dominated this part of the city, but in the early 1960s a vision began to emerge to revitalize the area known as the Hudson River shipping terminals. In 1966, Governor Nelson Rockefeller announced his “comprehensive community” idea for Battery Park City, and two years later the state legislature created the Battery Park City Authority to oversee the development.
The other major project downtown at the time, the World Trade Center, played a role in creation of Battery Park City, providing 1.2 million cubic yards (917,000 cu m) of soil and rocks from its site for use as fill at Battery Park, taking the concept of construction-site recycling to a new level. Though the project is now hailed as a triumph of urban design and a model for successful large-scale planning, nothing was built on the site for more than a decade after the first master plan was approved, and the redevelopment agency even flirted with bankruptcy.
Finally, in 1979, the Battery Park City master plan was formally adopted and eventually facilitated the private development of 9.3 million square feet (864,000 sq m) of commercial space, 7.2 million square feet (669,000 sq m) of residential space, and nearly 36 acres (15 ha) of open space in lower Manhattan.
“Battery Park City’s streets and traditionally massed buildings and public squares are a conscious attempt to reject modernist antiurbanism and return to urbanistic values within the city core,” Paul Goldberger, a Pulitzer Prize–winning architecture critic, formerly of the New Yorker and recently named contributing editor of Vanity Fair, said in a 2001 lecture to the Congress for the New Urbanism.
The ULI Heritage Award given to Battery Park City in 2010 is given periodically to developments that have demonstrated industry excellence and made substantial contributions to the greater community’s well-being for at least 25 years. It is ULI’s most prestigious honor and the only one requiring a unanimous vote of the jury.
In their 2005 book Battery Park City: The Early Years, authors Charles Urstadt and Gene Brown called the development one of the most significant “new towns” ever built in the United States. Battery Park City, which has contributed to the revitalization of New York City’s downtown, was built by private developers and financed by the sale of bonds by a state-created public-benefit corporation.
The project was designed in 1979 by architects Alexander Cooper, of Cooper, Robertson and Partners, and Stanton Eckstut, now with Perkins Eastman. In fashioning a cohesive yet sprawling development, they created design guidelines followed by many architects from that day forward. They shaped a city within a city, says Goldberger, with buildings set close together, design consistent from building to building, traditional streets, parks and public spaces, and, thanks to the design guidelines, architecture that owes much to the older apartment houses of Manhattan.
Apart from its layout, one of Battery Park City’s greatest assets is that it captures nature, says Cooper. Beautifully sited, the project best conveys its charms to a person on foot. The master plan stipulated that one-third of the development be composed of permanently protected open space. With its gardens, parks, and plazas, Battery Park feels like a suburb within a great metropolis. The plaza, which Goldberger considers one of its best features, was a collaboration among artists Scott Burton, who designed the seating; Siah Armajani, who created the fountains and reflecting pools; architect Cesar Pelli; and landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg. A 1.2-mile (2 km) esplanade stretches the project’s entire length and provides uninterrupted views of the river.
Changes continue downtown. Although downtown has long fought the reputation of “rolling up the sidewalks after dark,” the steady growth of dining and shopping options in Battery Park City has brought a more full-service lifestyle to the area. Battery Park City and the area surrounding the World Trade Center towers took a big hit after 9/11, becoming a no-man’s land when for a time the only people allowed in or out were residents. But, in the aftermath of the attacks, Battery Park City helped breathe new life into the area.
With the One World Trade Center building, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, recently topping out as the city’s tallest building, the World Trade Center site is the second-most visited place in New York City after the Metropolitan Museum of Art, according to the Real Estate Board of New York, with 200,000 people a day stopping at the site and another 300,000 traversing the nearby Fulton Street corridor. This growth in tourism plus an influx of new downtown residents has also fueled spending in lower Manhattan, now estimated at nearly $5 billion a year, according to the Alliance for Downtown New York. And, according to the alliance, more than 90 new retailers took up residence in the World Trade Center/Battery Park City area in 2011, and 20 more are coming soon.
Battery Park City also boasts some of the best public schools in Manhattan, including prestigious Stuyvesant High School.
Even with its tree-lined streets and pedestrian-friendly corridors, Battery Park City will not be mistaken for suburbia. But being in one of the most densely populated cities on earth, it qualifies as a master of mixed-use development that balances scale and livability—a strong heritage for any major urban project to emulate.