A Park in the Holland Tunnel Rotary? These Architects Say It Can Be Done

Rendering of a lower garden within the Holland Tunnel Rotary, planted with native grasses and shielded from the wind. Image by Ballman Khapalova

Jun. 17, 2020

It may seem like the most inhospitable of Tribeca open spaces, but architects Dasha Khapalova and Peter Ballman have a passion and a plan for putting a park in the Holland Tunnel Rotary.

For the past three years, the partners, in both marriage and the architecture practice Ballman Khapalova, have been working on a proposal to sink excavated parkland below the roadway. It would, appropriately, be named St. John’s Park, recalling the 19th-century neighborhood square that occupied the site, between Beach, Laight, Hudson and Varick Streets.

“Years ago we were walking through the rotary area and realized that it’s an enormous amount of space, building to building, for Lower Manhattan,” Ballman said in a phone interview with the two architects. “And all the buildings are low. So it kind of has the proportions of a European piazza. Wouldn’t it be interesting if something happened here, like some sort of modern piazza with this enormous rotary in the middle of it?”

The architects say they are now ready to seek support for the plan, beginning with the owner of the property, Port Authority. (The pandemic, they say, has delayed a meeting with Authority officials.) A spokeswoman for the Authority said the proposal is in “such an early stage” that it is too soon to comment.

Under no illusion about the challenges that lie ahead, and with the decade-long gestation of the High Line in mind, they say they’re in it for the long haul. “Maybe if we stick it out long enough, why not?” said Khapalova, 37, who along with Ballman, 42, teach at Cornell University. “Why couldn’t we turn this kind of crabby situation into something that’s a great thing for the neighborhood and the city.”

The Architects Newspaper agreed last year when it chose the project for its Best of Design Award for unbuilt urban design.

The plan calls for the park to be sunken about 20 feet below street level. Sheltered beneath the exit ramps is what the architects are calling a Wellness Center, with lecture hall, yoga studio, and even a bath house. Dog parks, playgrounds, plazas and wild gardens would occupy small open spaces at the edges of the rotary that are already there. But the design allows for plenty of programming flexibility, they said. 

The architects, who are working with pro bono construction consultants Sciame, Thornton Tomasetti and others, “very roughly” estimate the project to cost $200 million.

“We didn’t design the project to be expensive,” Khapalova said.

“Or flashy,” Ballman added.

With major loss of revenue during the pandemic, the Authority already is seeking $3 billion from the federal government to help pay for its existing capital construction plan. Still, Ballman argues that this is infrastructure that makes sense now more than ever. 

“The flexibility of public space is something that’s really weighing heavily on our minds,” he said. “What does it mean to be proposing open space in the city? It’s no longer like proposing a nice little park.”

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