Forging a New Path for the Waterways of New York City

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By Allie Weiss
With a series of community-minded projects, an architecture team sets out to revitalize New York City’s waterways.

Born-and-bred New Yorkers Amanda Schachter and Alexander Levi of SLO Architecture moved to Spain after getting their master’s degrees in the late 1990s, and they had no intention of returning. While abroad, the married couple taught at Barcelona’s ESARQ-UIC and started their own architecture practice in Madrid in 2005. When their home city eventually beckoned in 2007, they found themselves strangers in their own land. "It was very exotic coming back," Levi says. "We felt like we were seeing everything anew." The couple embraced their new outsider status by taking long walks and bike rides around the five boroughs. 

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Alexander Levi and Amanda Schachter of SLO Architecture plan to convert an underused patch of land along the elevated Six subway line in the Bronx into a waterfront amenity.

On these explorations, a flurry of activity on and along the Bronx River caught their attention. "When we were growing up, you couldn’t even get near the water," Schachter says. "There was a state of fear that it was too polluted." Their curiosity about the river and its watershed has since fueled multiple projects for their Manhattan-based firm. In 2009, SLO mobilized 100 architecture students and local youths to build a large floating model of the Bronx River watershed. They also built two Harvest Domes out of discarded umbrella frames and two-liter soda bottles and buoyed them in New York’s waterways to track their tidal rhythms. The second incarnation of the Harvest Dome earned them the 2013 Dwell Vision Award.

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A masonry head house on the site, designed in 1908 by architect Cass Gilbert, has not been in use for over 80 years. SLO will connect the structure to the waterfront by constructing a steel bridge over the active Amtrak tracks.

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Dubbed the Bronx River Crossing, this activity was the first of a series of projects for the firm that center around the river.

With its latest project—transforming the abandoned Westchester Avenue Station in the Bronx into a waterfront recreation center—SLO is poised to make its most tangible impact on the river network. The prominent New York City architect Cass Gilbert designed the station—one of 13 commissioned by J. P. Morgan for the long-defunct New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad—in 1908. SLO’s plans—supported by two Fitch Foundation grants—involve connecting the existing masonry head house, idle since 1931, to a new center by way of a thin, steel bridge over Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor tracks.

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Both native New Yorkers, the duo began investigating the Bronx River network after returning from a stint abroad in 2007.

The project will bring the duo one step closer to changing the way people perceive New York City’s water system. SLO ardently rejects the label sometimes applied to the city’s waterways: the sixth borough. "It causes a new sense of division," Schachter says. "We see the water as that connective fluid that brings the city together." 

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In 2009, the firm worked with architecture students and Bronx youth to build a floating model of the river’s watershed network.