For 20 years, New Yorkers battled over the development of the west side waterfront. With the structural failure of the elevated highway over the shipping docks in 1968, New York undertook planning for its own “Big Dig” – an 8 lane highway to run under the Hudson’s piers with a park on top. However, the environmental movement, convinced that buildings rather than a park would be built above, steadfastly opposed the project. The plan finally collapsed in 1988. After this defeat, Tobin was hired in 1992 as part of the Hudson River Waterfront Conservancy, vowing to finally get the five mile long park construction underway.
Just Get Started
Fortuitously meeting Rebecca Robertson, who had turned around Times Square to public acclaim, Tobin borrowed the strategy of “Just Get Started.” The existing west side of Manhattan Tobin termed "the park," in contrast with the future site which she termed "the park the park." "The park" consisted of rotting and broken piers and asphalt, chain link fences, garbage trucks and graffiti, teenage runaways and homeless encampments. The new park, "the park the park," would have bikeways, recreational piers and access to the Hudson River. It would be worthy of its name.
But to get there, a great deal of vision, grit, and cleverness was needed. Tobin was one of the leaders of a merry band of warriors who strived mightily to get the project going. Starting with three picnic tables, 10 summer interns, and 10 fishing poles, the Conservancy asked the local city councilman, Tom Duane, to cut the lock on the chain link fence at Pier 62, and “the park” was born at that moment, hosting summer day camps, fishing and playing.
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
A New Park in Process
Since the Conservancy was already running "the park," it had working knowledge of the site. The design team included shade structures, wind breaks, and designed docks to accommodate prevailing currents. Kayaking was both safe and possible and temporary boat docks were built. The Conservancy teamed with environmental groups to educate New Yorkers about the Hudson River, including pushing restaurants to stop dumping grease down sewer drains.
The staff developed a one mile temporary bikeway/walkway called the Temporary Public Safety Zone to avoid possible legal environmental review issues. By designing it cost effectively, Tobin was able to persuade NY State Department of Transit to not only pay for the paving, railing, and benches for the bikeway, but also to relocate the existing parking lots away from the waterfront while maintaining revenue. And the railing could be relocated up and down the waterfront as the project proceeded. It is still in use in the midtown section.
Bartering the Bikeway
Meanwhile, in 1993 and 1994 New York State DOT was pushing ahead with the highway design. Due to federal funding, DOT was to build the bikeway as part of their project. Due to another round of environmental lawsuits, the park’s design was falling behind.
Tobin studied how and what DOT needed to do to proceed, and worked to shape the bikeway so that it would work for all the competing users. She organized field trips for the engineers to see how New Yorkers interacted with bikers, pedestrians, cars and buses. She studied the engineering, and had new studies completed which analyzed roller blading and biking. By forming a cohesive group of engineers and park advocates and users, she was able to persuade DOT to eliminate the parking lane on the downtown side of Route 9A, and fold that land into the bikeway, increasing the width from the Federal standard of 12 feet to a necessary New York width of 18 feet. Additionally Tobin created a retaining wall to the west, allowing for the future park to have graded lawns and plantings which absorb sound from the highway, and make the park more attractive.
Importantly, Tobin foresaw that pedestrians crossing Route 9A from the east would conflict with the bikers and rollerbladers moving north/south. She insisted on looking for places where such conflicts are naturally solved by design. She took the engineers to Grand Central Terminal where pedestrians flow across the floor in a mixing bowl pattern of random movements, but don’t collide. And so DOT agreed to create a wide median as a pedestrian refuge area, and to swing the bikeway west, and to widen it to nearly 30 feet so that everyone slows down, proceeds cautiously, and avoids collision.
At the time, the common response to the westside waterfront was, “but it's so far away.”` Today, the Hudson River Park bikeway is widely used by thousands of New Yorkers and tourists, at all times of day, for commuting, exercising, and relaxing.