A few weeks ago New York Magazine published my cover story, "Just Add Water," (07/16/01) about the New York/New Jersey harbor and waterfront, and during my research on development on the Jersey side, I came across Hoboken's old Maxwell House Coffee Plant, which I learned is slated for demolition under currently proposed plans for the construction of four conventional residential blocks, cut off from the water by an extension of Sinatra Drive along the river edge.
The destruction of these 11 historic, beautiful and still useful buildings is being paralleled because a citizens' group has threatened legal action against the developer who had originally tried to adaptively reuse them in one of the most enlightened projects recently proposed on either side of the Hudson. As a critic, architectural designer and citizen of our common harbor, I raise the strongest possible objection to this misguided and destructive effort, which will result in an irreparable cultural loss to Hoboken, New Jersey and New York.
Led by Ron Hine, the Coalition for a Better Waterfront, was the main force behind the creation of Hoboken's Pier A, which, of course, was a David vs. Goliath victory. But after slinging the shot, Davids have a tendency to turn into Goliaths. When Hine and the Coalition took the battle for open space on the piers up to the site of the Maxwell House Coffee factory, they enlisted the law and dubious planning principles to propose demolition of the Maxwell House plant. With its 1.5 million square feet, the old factory is a brilliant architectural specimen exemplifying what waterfronts on both sides of the state divide should look like and how they can be productively and profitably adapted. The high-ceilinged concrete loft structure with wide expanses of steel sash windowpanes, dates from 1938 (the year of the Bauhaus migration to the United States). Built to incorporate outdoor space into its porous massing, the building wanders episodically around the site, open both to the water and to the residential community just west. Jane Thompson of the Boston firm Thompson Design Group was hired and proposed adapting most of the buildings as a mixed use project with a lot of housing, adding some buildings here, editing some there and keeping some low structures on the piers. She is nationally acknowledged artist of public space, quite capable of negotiating the sensitive balance between private and public realms in a development that mixes the two.
Thompson's fully-developed preservation proposal is a how-to case study, but instead the ayatollahs of The Coalition, insightful a couple of piers down river, emerge here as unyielding fundamentalists. Faced with the prospect of prolonged litigation, the developers understandably have backed down and withdrawn the exemplary preservation project, reversing previous arguments, filing instead designs for a conventional building complex of new high-rise apartment blocks. This proposal promises to perpetuate all the other dumbed down, cost-conscious designs along New Jersey's waterfront, and to perpetuate the fallacious assumption that the only good pier is an empty one, without buildings. On a recent unseasonably cloudy afternoon, only a couple of people, rather their dogs, were enjoying the empty spaces of Pier A. The water around it is not activated, and the pier itself is passive, without any program to introduce life when temperatures aren't temperate. Members of the Coalition even oppose a small restaurant in the near corner.
It is possible that the well-intended folks of the Coalition are simply being misadvised by planners and architects with out-of-date 1980s concepts. Newer urban design thinking encourages multiple uses in public open spaces, not leveling everything in the name of the holy lawn. At the always crowded Parc de la Villette in Paris, for example, New York's Bernard Tschumi employed all means, including new and old buildings as well as open spaces, to set a park in motion so that it would become a continuous urban happening. A park in the 19th century is not the same as one at the beginning of the 21st. Designers have to try to suggest potential activities. The heterogeneity already in place on our waterways supports Tschumi's approach to urban design, when he adds a layer of new programs and buildings to an existing complex, to provoke fission reactions of unpredictable events. The way to create active public spaces is not to demolish buildings in favor of tabula rasas good only on ideal weekends in warm seasons, but to cultivate, weed and plant old and new buildings in an incremental way. The current proposal, with all the development behind the Frank Sinatra Drive, is old-brain and brutal, and it promises to cut off the city from the waterfront with a monumental wall of blandness. The citizens of Hoboken are now facing a lose-lose rather than a win-win proposition, and they should rise to defend their city against this know-nothing plan. The developer had it right the first time, and he should be handed a medal rather than the threat of a suit. A thousand preservationists should link hands around this national landmark.