Ghastly Bridge, Hopeless Rail Plan Leave New York Cheated

Where the gorgeous Hudson Highlands meet the rock-faced Palisades of the lower Hudson River in New York, one of the ugliest bridges in America could get built.

Renderings by Tappan Zee Constructors LLC, the team selected to design and build the bridge at a cost of $4 billion, show a structure crowned by 400-foot-high towers that look like insect antennae waving aimlessly in the wind.

Four pairs of masts tilt outward, from which cables splay to support the road deck. The towers are intended to form an iconic image, but they are just stumpy.

This is a site that deserves the magnificence of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The 3-mile span, a replacement for the existing, decrepit Tappan Zee Bridge, will link the suburban New York counties of Westchester and Rockland. Its curving approaches could have drawn a long elegant line above the water. Instead a hefty bridge deck is interrupted at awkward intervals by flabby piers and heavy crossbeams with knobby ends. No design intelligence whatever has been applied.

Downriver in Manhattan, four architect teams unveiled concepts on May 29 intended to jump-start the project of replacing New York’s Penn Station, a nightmare of filth, confusion, gloom and overcrowding. Daunting political, technical and financial complexities have long stalled the project.

Pipe Dreams

Three of the teams (Skidmore Owings & Merrill, Diller Scofidio & Renfro, and H3 Hardy Collaboration) presented exuberantly unbuildable pipe dreams. They at least deserve thanks for offering long-missing inspiration.

A fourth team, led by ShoP Architects PC, made a powerful argument for unleashing the latent value in surrounding blocks through a revitalized rail gateway. The design would tear down an underperforming block to the south to accommodate high-speed rail. It would free the existing station of the oppressive presence of Madison Square Garden and the Two Penn Plaza tower, a grim 1960s relic.

An obsolete full-block postal-processing site nearby would accommodate a new Madison Square Garden as well as money-spinning towers that would help pay for the station.

There is theoretical potential for tens of millions of square feet of development near the station site, and millions of square feet have already been proposed, but tenants won’t come if they’re afflicted with the old Penn Station.

The bridge and rail-station megaprojects share a lack of strategic vision and technical capacity as well as inadequate management.

Tight Budget

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is pushing hard for a new Tappan Zee span built on a tight budget to allay warranted fears of budget overruns. Of course that’s the mentality that resulted in the current bridge, which needs to be replaced thanks to corner cutting when it was built in the years 1952-1955.

The billions would buy only a slight increase in capacity, rearranging traffic jams because the bridge project fits into no strategic transportation vision.

The best bridges marry utility and economy with a flair for proportion and scale. They can be marvelous gateways, and beauty yields economic benefits: People are willing to pay to own a beautiful bridge view. The Golden Gate and the Brooklyn Bridge are important tourist attractions.

Catalog Parts

Unfortunately, a more appealing span would probably cost much more because American road builders have lost the technical capacity to build anything not slapped together from catalog parts.

With a wildly expensive transit hub yet to be completed at the World Trade Center site, the same fear of overruns afflicts the Penn Station project, even with an upside that dwarfs that of the Tappan Zee. And there’s no political push for Penn at any level of government.

New York can’t dawdle forever on major transportation investments, and it can’t afford to keep on mismanaging them either.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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