Wasteful Thinking: Young Designers Clean-Up a West Harlem Garbage Depot

It's the one at left, without all the nice park land on it—yet! (ArchitectureLab.net)

The typically shaggy-haired DJ resonated bass frequencies into the sleekly designed white basement of the Center for Architecture last night as cliques of bespectacled and artfully dressed 20- and 30-something architects and designer types sipped complimentary Coney Island brews and snacked on carrots and hummus. There was a buzz in the room, both literally and figuratively, as the eager young professionals prepared to take on the Emerging New York Architects design challenge.

The talk of the evening was a massive abandoned building belonging to the department of sanitation, which continues to rot atop the Hudson at 135th street in West Harlem. Perhaps even more unappealing in its current state than during its tenure as a waste management facility (as if it’s proper title ‘marine transfer station’ really fooled us) this, believe it or not, could be Manhattan’s next Sunday picnic hotspot.

The Emerging New York Architects Committee and the American Institute of Architects threw the fête last night to announce their 5th biennial competition, The Harlem Edge – Cultivating Connections. ENYA’s past competitions have focused on re-designing waterfront areas such as the South Street Seaport, South Point, and the High Bridge in the Bronx.

The competition gives young professionals, from artists to engineers, the opportunity to show just how they would put the waterfront to community use. The competition is filled with creative guidelines, so simply designing a carousel (no matter how ornate the painted horses or starchitect-y the designer may be) isn’t an option. The winning design must include a plan for facilitating public access, while also creating a space to best help the ambitious goals of Nourishing NYC, a Harlem non-profit organization that advocates health through nutrition and knowledge. The site must include culinary libraries, volunteer centers, community gardens, and teaching kitchens. Holy sustainability, Batman!

“Harlem needs more fresh vegetables” said the overly spunky founder of Nourishing NYC, Gina Keatley, her big smile stretched broadly in true charity CEO form. “We want to teach people how to cook and make better choices” she said.

And fresh vegetables the community just may have, if the winning design is eventually made into a reality by the Department of City Planning. According to the Department’s Vision 2020 plans, the Harlem site has already been targeted as a prime area for rehabilitation. Naturally, ENYA hopes to speed the process along. “We’re ahead of the curve” assured ENYA co-chair Venesa Alicea. “the site has been decommissioned by the department of sanitation and turned over to the community, and there are currently no set plans for reconstruction.” Integral to the success of the project will be getting community groups, such as West Harlem’s Community 9 on board, a process that is well underway. Tonight the commission was represented by two unassuming elderly men who seemed to be taking full advantage of the snack table when not bombarded by participants looking for tips.

“I live by the site and walk past it every week.” said eager contestant No. 1, architect Aditya Shah. Shah has ideas for connecting the facility to the park on the adjacent east side. “I’m excited that the community leaders are here tonight. I want to get their input on how I can best incorporate the community.”

Competition winners will be announced in early 2012 and further decisions regarding implementation will likely follow. The Observer hopes that the potential usefulness of the marine transfer center will not go to waste.

realestate@observer.com Wasteful Thinking: Young Designers Clean-Up a West Harlem Garbage Depot