French Architect Victor Ostojic Imagines a Transit Hub

Roosevelt Island Sends Dreamers Sailing Past Common Sense

Peter McCarthy
Cantilevered Transit Hub Envisioned by Victor Ostojic
Cantilevered Transit Hub Envisioned by Victor Ostojic
as reported in Curbed New York

Something about Roosevelt Island inspires ideas that its predecessor, Welfare Island, never did. A new proposal for a transit hub jutting into the East River shows how rapturous the dreams can become.

At first glance, Victor Ostojic's proposal, unofficial, not shared so far with anyone who can do anything with it, strikes you as exaggerated in imagination on the scale of Donald Trump floating down the East River on his back, screaming, "Raise the drawbridge!?"

But look again, and his "cantilevered transportation hub," first reported in Curbed New York, falls not far out of line with some dreams that came true.

When Roosevelt Island slipped its nameplate in front of Welfare Island, a history built around a lunatic asylum, smallpox, a giant penitentiary, the almshouse and long care nursing homes stirred a new chemistry. Roosevelt would become the "City of Tomorrow," a place detached from all that ailed New York City.

In perspective, nearly a half century later, that idea alone, coupled with the fact that it happened on any scale, dwarfs Ostojic's transit hub with its ambition.

New York was then as much in the thrall of developers as it is today. It was also, though, captained by charismatic Mayor John V. Lindsay, who appointed a commission to make recommendations for development. Next came the State Urban Development Corporation's 99 year lease, and when designs by architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee for housing 20,000 residents provided enough framework, Welfare Island dissolved into a thing of the past.

To pull this off, progressive politicians had to fend off moneyed developers with plans ranging as extreme as paving the place over, top to bottom, towers soaring skyward, cars parked underneath. 

Other extravagant ideas for ending Roosevelt Island's isolation, in years past, included filling in the East River across to create a land bridge, rerouting tidal currents through Queens. But Johnson and Burgee's master plan set in concrete at least some features benefiting isolation and separation from big city crowding, crime and - especially relevant, then - dog poop.

If a community developed with a dog ban sternly in place (and since fortunately lifted) was fantastic in itself, how crazy was it to make the place dependent on an aerial tram for primary transportation?

Live here long enough and you might lose sight of how truly incredible that is. Subway service would take many years to develop, around twenty as it turned out, and no community was possible without something. That something was our one of a kind Roosevelt Island Tram, now in its second generation, gliding silently over the river, passengers relieved not to be trapped inside traffic congestion below on the Queensboro Bridge.

More recent impossible dreams have brought us the memorial grace of FDR Four Freedoms Park and the world changing potential of Cornell Tech. Think about Cornell Tech's high concept Bridge Building where graduate school creativity will be paired with real world business resources, combining to lead us into an innovative future. Who thought that might be possible, ten years ago, let alone nearly built and ready to draw international attention to our tiny piece of New York City real estate?

Ostojic's transit hub, dreamed up during a run along the Promenade, contains seemingly impossible components: the economics of a business/commercial concourse topped off with a luxury hotel ring preposterous, and who'd be crazy enough to build a marina, nearly dissecting the Island, carved out of Manhattan schist? Not so long ago, wasn't a structure dependent on thermal wells, as the Bloomberg Building at Cornell Tech will be, equally impractical? The narrowing meadow descending toward FDR's bust quixotic? The largest residential passive house in the world lifted alongside the Queensboro Bridge an environmentalist's fantasy?

This shows us why evolution provided us with an imaginary place known as the future: dreamers need a home. For many, that's now Roosevelt Island.

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