At the base of the Manhattan Bridge is a nameless wedge of land with an unprepossessing history as a tent city and maintenance area. Next year, this triangle — a valuable open space in the dense bustle of Chinatown — will be returned to its community. Respectful of its context, Quennell Rothschild & Partners’ design for the NYC DDC will weave elements of the traditional Chinese garden with the sustainability, openness, and toughness that a 21st-century urban plaza demands.
At a heavily used confluence of bike lanes, traffic, and shopping, the isolated plaza is high above street level and enclosed on two sides by granite walls and balustrades that date from the original construction of the bridge, completed in 1909. The design breaks through the wall at the corner of Forsyth and Canal Streets, and creates a grand curved stair that doubles as a seating terrace: the perfect spot to enjoy the buzzing activity of the neighborhood. Because the bike path that wraps around the plaza is too steep to meet accessibility requirements, the designers made a second breach in the wall to provide access for wheelchairs and strollers arriving via a new ramp. Below the ramp is space for sidewalk produce vendors.
The plaza is paved with porous bricks in a subtle zig-zag design that alludes to stylized water patterns found in traditional Chinese gardens. In another reference to China, where poetry is integrated with the landscape, renowned Chinese artist Xu Bing has engraved lines from a 9th-century Chinese poem on the grand stairway and stone benches lining the perimeter. The poem is in “square word calligraphy,” a style of writing devised by Xu Bing; English letters rendered in a Chinese form.
Shaded with new honey locust and weeping cherry trees, reclaimed granite block seats line the plaza. The trees also serve to buffer the bridge traffic. Plantings of tall grasses and bamboo add softness; moveable chairs and tables provide additional seating options; bike racks encourage cyclists to pause on their journey between boroughs.
Quennell Rothschild and Partners has transformed this long-abandoned place into a welcoming amenity for its diverse community. The design for the plaza integrated the input of the local community and multiple public agencies, and was prepared in collaboration with prime consultant and lead engineers, URS Corporation/AECOM.