Manhattan transit hub to become slightly less ugly monster

TRD New York /
Jul.July 29, 2011 11:53 AM

Rendering of George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal

If it were possible to soar on the wings of angels, or even on those of the lowly pigeons that haunt the five boroughs, we would be able, perhaps, to appreciate the pristine geometric beauty of the George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal. Unfortunately, we remain earthbound, and at street level, the afore-mentioned terminal is one ugly monster of a building. But that is about to change with a nearly $200 million renovation.

The six words, “The George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal,” perfectly convey the abject experience that awaits anyone so luckless as to have to enter this brutalist palace of poured concrete, completed in 1963.

The station, which rises over the Trans-Manhattan Expressway (Interstate 95) between 178th and 179th streets at Fort Washington and Wadsworth Avenues, is a tangle of bus ramps leading on and off the bridge’s upper level. The structure is formed from massive concrete trusses that are reinforced with steel. Fourteen of these are cantilevered over the median of the Trans-Manhattan Expressway.

It’s astonishing that in the nearly 50 years since it opened, the building has not once been renovated or altered. The rotting and abject condition of the place almost endows it with the sort of poetic resonance that certain elements of our culture have come to appreciate in the decayed hulks of the former Soviet Union.

Now finally, this 294,000-square-foot transit hub is about to receive a $183.2 million renovation that will increase its retail space to 120,000 square feet, while softening the rectilinear language of the original with some welcome curves and replacing concrete with glass. From the renderings, this looks to be something of a betrayal of the original conception, but something tells me it will enhance the pleasure and utility of the station.

For now, however, the whole place looks so thoroughly debased, so much like infrastructure that, I would guess, most of the people who pass through it or loiter about its entrances would scarcely imagine that it is architecture at all, that an eminent and perhaps even a great man, the Italian engineer and architect Pier Luigi Nervi, once designed it to serve as a symbol of New York City’s cultural vanguardism.

Nervi, one of the leading architects of the post-war period, is famous for such structures as Rome’s Stazione Termini train station as well as that city’s Palazzetto dello Sport. One could make the case that his selection to build the Manhattan terminal was one of the very earliest instances of what has now come to define New York architecture, importing some foreign star to add cultural heft to some local product.

Stephen Garchik, president of SJM Partners, which will develop and manage the place with Slayton Equities, told the New York Times on Wednesday that he hoped to raise retail rents at the terminal to $175 per square foot, up from an astoundingly low $40, which is now the highest asking rate at the station. In the spirit of pure perversity, consider that the current rent is about one-thirtieth of what is asked for prime retail space on Madison Avenue.

But what with the imminent expansion of Columbia University uptown and the gradual gentrification of Washington Heights, now may be the time to resurrect the fortunes of this neglected monument of international modernism.

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