June 26, 2012 Architect's Newspaper

On June 18, the Parks Department held a pre-planning meeting on City Island to reimagine year-round use of the crumbling colonnade fronted bathhouse at Orchard Beach in Pelham Bay Park. The building was completed in 1936 at the behest of Robert Moses in a show of what architectural historian Kenneth Frampton described as “benevolent power.” The building, designed by architect Amar Embury II, evokes a concrete and terracotta riff on the Palais de Chaillot in Paris. But alkali-silica reaction (ASR), a kind cement cancer caused by salt erosion, has undermined the concrete. The meeting was called to reap ideas from a small invitation only crowd instructed to dream big and no ideas, including demolition, were to be left off the table.

Most pre-scoping projects are not carried out unless money is allocated from the Park’s Capital Projects Division, but funding for this study, more than $983,000, was made available through the Office of Management and Budget. The study places the project on track to be lobbied for by Bronx Parks Commissioner Hector Aponte before the clock on the Bloomberg Administration runs out next year. But the proposal could also be added to the long list of failed plans for the pavillion that go back as far as the 1980s.
After decades of neglect and erosion, the beach itself was finally replenished with more than 250,000 cubic yards of sand just last year. That project was funded in part with federal dollars obtained by Congressman José E. Serrano and Congressmen Joseph Crowley. Crowley’s district encompasses solidly middle class sections of northern Queens and eastern sections of the Bronx.  Congressman Serrano represents a relatively revived yet still struggling South Bronx. As Orchard Beach is the only public beach in the Bronx, many of the 40,000 beachgoers who go there on an average summertime afternoon come from the Congressman Serrano’s district. Indeed, many at the City Island meeting said they avoid the beach during the crowded summer season.


While there may be additional visioning sessions after the design proposals are finished, the listening phase was completed with little input from the summertime constituency. While some might argue that residents from all over the city use the beach, the fact that the majority of the beachgoers get there by bus, tells a more local story.
Urbahn Architects is carrying out the study under the supervision of John Krawchuk, Parks director of historic preservation. But Krawchuk warned that even the most idealistic preservation scenario, funding included, might not be enough to save the building. Urbahn’s primary objective then is to gage how much damage the building has sustained. Adaptive reuse was has been mentioned by several officials at Parks, and it would not be the first Embury building to be revamped. The Queens Museum, originally designed by Embury as the New York City pavilion for the 1939 Worlds Fair, is currently undergoing a $37 million overhaul by Grimshaw.


If anything, the City Island crowd seemed to underestimate the scale of the project’s potential. The size of the site could accommodate 60,000 to 80,000 square feet. Many of the ideas tossed about, from ice skating rinks to restaurants, were proposed once before. But the architects seemed to encourage a multiuse approach, particularly if concessionaires could be self-sustaining. And while the public/private aspects are to be explored, Parks officials soured at the suggestion of naming rights.

“This is such an important project and its such an iconic building, but at some point we’re going to be asking you to help us get the dollars,” Bronx Parks Commissioner Hector Aponte bluntly told the crowd, which included several representatives from the Friends of Pelham Bay Park. He added that Parks is trying to strike a balance between operating the park and preserving the building. “Maybe a solution is to mothball it for a while until the economy comes around.”


State Senator José M. Serrano, son of the congressman, whose district includes the South Bronx was pleased to hear about the year-round proposal, but had reservations. “It's important to keep in mind that Orchard Beach has always been a much-loved and well-attended destination by the residents of my district in the South Bronx,” the senator said in an email. “I'm hopeful that their needs will be taken into account during this process.”

Krawchuk struck a more optimistic note, pointing out that McCarren Park Pool, which was also opened by Moses in the Summer of ’36, was just recently restored and will reopen on June 28 after being closed for 28 years. “I never thought I would see that,” he said.