Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
The Department of Sanitation opened a sleek shed in SoHo.
The people of SoHo did not want the garbage garage. First, there was that name, “garbage garage,” adopted by the New York media and naysayers around 2009, when the controversy around the building began to heat up. (Curbed NY got a little more creative and christened it the “Tower O’Garbage.”) Sure, the thing would house garbage trucks, not garbage, but the name was catchy and appealed to its opponents, who included residents of the expensive all-glass buildings developers now call “Hudson Square.”
Worries included smell, increased street traffic, and obstructed views of the Hudson River. (Interestingly enough, the plan grew out of a 2005 settlement between the city and the local advocacy group Friends of Hudson River Park.) Particularly vociferous opponents included Hollywood and musical heavyweights: Mad Men’s John Slattery, the late James Gandolfini, Michael Stipe, and artistic power couples Laurie Anderson and the late Lou Reed and Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany.
“We’re no NIMBYs,” Jana Haimsohn, a performance artist and neighborhood advocate, told the New York Times in 2009. “We look at the needs of the broader community.”
Building the parking garage in this well-to-do neighborhood where median household incomes are over $111,000 a year is part of a larger Bloomberg-era plan to spread the burden of urban sanitation more evenly throughout the city’s boroughs. A New York Times editorial called the policy “a veritable trash Enlightenment,” but it is a bitter pill for wealthy, closely packed Manhattan.
Now, in 2016, the moment of truth. The Tower O’Garbage is open and functioning, a design collaboration between Dattner Architects, WXY Architecture + Urban Design, and the Departments of Sanitation and Design and Construction. The garage is certainly conspicuous: It sits along the city’s busy West Side Highway. It is also near the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, which takes drivers from New Jersey to New York’s downtown, transforming the Hudson Square area into what WXY architect Claire Weisz calls a “gateway” to Manhattan.
And it’s pretty darn attractive. In fact, it’s been hailed by architecture critics and residents as a resounding infrastructure success. Housing prices have not plummeted, as predicted. (They’ve gone “through the roof,” the Times reports.) Slime-covered trucks do not idle on street corners.
In all, the structure is a nice of example of what can happen when government and architects listen to the community—but also the pleasant things that can emerge when the community (begrudgingly) shoulders its fair share of sanitation needs.
“The public outcry and pushback on the project really helped all of us involved in the process, all the public agencies and the design team,” says Dattner principal architect Paul Bauer. “It helped all of us push the project to what it is today.”
First, the facility fits well inside the glass-and-silver aesthetic that has come to dominate the area’s luxury apartment buildings. A glass wall and 2,600 silver fins enclose the outside of the building.
The design also treads lightly around another local objection, which was the facility’s height. The glass upper floors are set slightly back from its darker base, preventing the thing from looking like a monstrosity plunked along the river. “[T]he garage seems almost to float on its base,” Times critic Michael Kimmelman wrote.
The building’s broad windows, Dattner’s Bauer explains, are meant to give curious residents “a screened view...of what’s going on inside” the maintenance, fueling, and parking station. (“Which is really just the parking of trucks,” he explains.) The architects carefully designed the outdoor truck ramp so that headlights from the moving vehicles will not intrude into million-dollar homes.
The building also includes a nice splash of color along one side. Hue-coded offices correspond to each of the three sanitation districts that operate out of the facility. “How ironic that the rare splash of brilliance in a color-challenged city should adorn a garbage garage,” New York magazine critic Justin Davidson wrote in his (glowing) review.
The structure’s $200 million price tag is pretty typical for sanitation projects, WXY’s Weisz told CityLab, though increasing building standards meant that this project cost more than it might have in the past. The real test of New York’s commitment to infrastructure design, however, will come in the less tony neighborhoods. Are all New Yorkers worthy of silvery, thoughtful design?