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East River Drive in New York

The construction of a parkway/boulevard combination along the East River was an interesting piece of co-operation between engineers, architects, lawyers and real estate experts

First published in AR December 1944, this piece was republished online in August 2015

The East River Drive is intended to run all a long the east side of Manhattan from the Battery to East 125th Street where it will be continued by the future Harlem River Drive. It is the pendant of the Hudson River parkways. Except for the short stretch through Down Town between Battery andMontgomery Street it is now complete. The road is wide enough for six lines of traffic. In places where not enough space was available to have these side by side, the three downlines were carried on top of the three uplines. This applies especially to the stretches by 58th Street and between 81st and 84th Streets. Occasionally there is even a third deck for parkland or private gardens. In one case a playground is actually on a fourth level.

The early settlers of Manhattan possessed in the Hudson and East Rivers - the two streams which surround this cigar-shaped island - their principal longitudinal highways. They therefore laid out Manhattan with one cross street for each 200 feet of its entire length to relatively few, though somewhat wider, longitudinal avenues.

With the coming of traffic, this street system has been a handicap in that the avenues have been seriously overcrowded. The East River Drive was built for the purpose of taking passenger vehicles, which were making a run of a mile or more, off the adjacent avenues. The Borough already possessed a similar improvement along the west side for the entire length of the island. The East River Drive has been completed up to the Triborough Bridge at 125th Street, whence it will connect with its extension known as the Harlem River Drive, which will take traffic up to the northern tip of the island. This section is now under design and will be built as the first post-war highway project in the Borough.


Building of the Department of Sanitation at 90th Street. A ramp leads up to it across the Drive

The East River Drive is a seven-and-a-half-mile vehicular express highway restricted to passenger cars. It is intermittently flanked by a commercial marginal way. Where sufficient room existed between the established building line and the line of maximum encroachment into the river, known as the United States Bulkhead Line, the north and southbound lanes, each thirty-three feet wide and separated by a continuous planted strip, are placed on the same level side by side. This part of the Drive consists of a relieving platform on piles. The principal elements of the relieving platform are a horizontal slab supported directly on the piles and a vertical cantilever river-wall which forms an L with it and rests upon it. Along the landward edge of the horizontal platform is a continuous row of interlocking steel sheet piling. The lagoons formed behind this steel sheeting are filled with sand pumped from ships which dredge it from the· ocean bottom. This fill is carried to the high water mark. Above it, ordinary earth fill is placed from the land side. To counteract the unbalanced thrust created by the fill against the sheet piling, batter piles are driven which makes a semi-rigid structure of the relieving platform. In addition to this, a continuous rock fill is dropped among the piles before the platform is in place. Ties consisting of-structural steel members encased in concrete and anchored in the original soil of the island occur at unequal, intervals according to the extent of the fill.

The East River Drive is different from most others in that there are two stretches, respectively about a quarter and a half-mile long, the construction of which is conditioned by the fact that there is insufficient room between the established bulkhead line and the property line, marked by large and valuable buildings, to place all traffic lanes at one elevation. For these stretches a structure built out into the deep water which occurred there carries the three northbound lanes of traffic at the lower level, the three southbound lanes at the next level, pedestrian esplanades on the third level and in one case a playground on a fourth level.

The method of construction consisted of circular open caissons made with interlocking steel sheet piling driven to rock. Soil and boulders were then excavated with clam shell buckets while the rock at the bottom was carefully levelled into horizontal planes by divers. The caissons were then filled with concrete placed through tremie pipes. The inshore side consisted generally of a continuous wall, and the inner and outer supporting members were connected by clear span of 30-inch reinforced concrete flat slab. The result is a box, with closed top, bottom and side, but continuously open along the river where intermediate supports are pairs of steel H-beams encased in oval aluminium shells, The effect thus gained is one of a continuous dark strip between bright concrete fascia girders. The undesirable cellular effect that would have resulted if broad concrete columns had been used, is avoided.

The residents whose properties flanked this Drive can neither see, hear nor smell the motor vehicles. The electric traffic counters indicated that before the petrol rationing, which has cut down motor travel to a small fraction of its pre-war volume, they had quickly reached a rate of about ten million vehicles per annum although the Drive does not go down to the Battery yet. It was realized by those in charge of this project that they were presented with the opportunity to save the East River shore from its heterogeneous development which had placed coal pockets and high-class blocks of flats in close juxtaposition. Therefore, continuous and intricate negotiations were carried on between the City and the upland property owners. The result is that the waterfront has been rigorously allocated either to residential uses or unrestricted industrial uses. Furthermore, the City urged the property owners to negotiate the conditions under which they would sell their riparian rights, land under water, lack of access to a street and, in some cases, loss of light and air, in lieu of the City’s obtaining them in condemnation through eminent domain. The City proposed the following theory. If the property owner agreed to limit his claims for consequential damages to $1.00, the City would try to liquidate his direct claims, as listed above, which were subject to negotiation, by building for him at the City’s cost something that would improve his property in a distinctive way and which neither he nor anyone else could ever again secure. As a result of this some property owners received upper decks (where they were not needed for public park purposes) on which they could have “hanging gardens ” and which would protect them from sight and sound of the traffic. It gave to abattoirs means by which animals could be led to the slaughter houses from the barges by which they had always been delivered. These were private tunnels which connected the marginal way at the-riverfront with the private property and passed directly under the entire Drive. It gave to the public utilities means for bringing in feed water, coal, oil and ashes under and over the Drive. It gave some blocks of flats which had possessed piers for yachts private pedestrian overpasses to the waterfront.


As a result of these agreements the City saved huge sums of money which would have been paid in consequential damages; and the upland owners, on their part, owned properties at least as valuable as they were before the Drive was built. In those few cases where the City was unable to offer anything useful to the property owner, or where the owner desired money rather than improvements, the entire matter was tried before a Condemnation Court; while even the cases where the settlements had been made out of court were reviewed and in every case approved by the court. All of this part of the work took place during the period in which the East River Drive was being designed and was an interesting piece of co-operation between engineers, architects, lawyers and real estate experts representing property owners and the City of New York.

These notes were written for THE ARCHITECTURAL REVIEW by Walter D. Binger, the Commissioner of Borough Works of the Borough of Manhattan.They emphasize the engineering and the economic problems, but say nothing of the aesthetic aspects of the architecture. Yet looked at from over here they are very interesting too. There is no question but that a specifically American idiom is developing. It appeared clearly in the housing estates illustrated last August and in the T. V.A. structures illustrated in June, 1943. There is more contrast between domestic and industrial than in Britain, and as for the industrial style the similarity between T. V.A. and E.R.D. is striking: a bold scale, a genuine, uncompromising concrete character, forms of a bare, elementary, somewhat crude grandeur, immensely impressive where they combine into more complex rhythms such as they appear in 1 and 10, but a little slick where elegance is intended. The stylist is not up to the architect-engineer. Whether something more human might have been possible, cannot be decided by a foreign critic. A waterfront is not a priori the best place for a fast-traffic highway, at least not from the point of view of civic amenities. This objection has been raised on good grounds against the Hudson side traffic development. It certainly does not apply to that extent to the East River side, and perhaps does not apply at all.

Department of Borough Works, Manhattan, New York

Commissioner: Walter D. Binger
Chief Engineer: Lester C. Hammond
Design Engineer: J. C. Collyer

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