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Paul Willen, Architect of Manhattan’s Waterfront, Dies at 93

Paul Willen, an architect and civic advocate who helped turn Trump City, a plan for a massive development on Manhattan’s West Side, into a tamer, gentler and more livable neighborhood called Riverside South, died on Feb. 2 in Berlin, Vt. He was 93.

The cause was heart failure, his son, Paul S. Willen, said.

For decades, a 57-acre slice of Manhattan waterfront, a former rail yard that stretched from 59th to 72nd Streets, had tempted and confounded developers. Donald J. Trump had various schemes for it in the mid-1970s, after which an Argentine company took it on. When that project failed to get financing, Mr. Trump stepped back in, with a bolder, brasher proposal.

He envisioned a giant shopping mall, topped by what at the time would have been the world’s tallest building, along with a clutch of skyscrapers and television studios (headquarters for NBC), all of which he called Television City. In 1988, after NBC pulled out, he renamed it Trump City.

Community groups and urban advocates were horrified by the plan. They mobilized and asked Daniel Gutman, an urban planner, to conduct an environmental review. In a search of city documents, he discovered Mr. Trump’s earlier plan for the site, from the 1970s, which had been produced by Gruzen Samton, Mr. Trump’s architects at the time, and designed by Mr. Willen, who worked in the planning department there.

Mr. Willen had proposed taking the crumbling elevated West Side Highway that sliced through the site and moving it inland, creating parkland surrounding tall buildings on the waterfront. Mr. Gutman knew Mr. Willen, and together they reworked his earlier design into a new proposal to counter Mr. Trump’s.

It was an elegant solution: Low-density buildings of varying heights would line a new boulevard covering the relocated highway, allowing for expanded parkland along the waterfront. The community groups and civic organizations, including the Municipal Art Society and the Parks Council, loved it, and they began to circulate what they called the Civic Alternative.

“It is a plan that at once celebrates the urbanism of New York and pushes it forward,” Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic of The New York Times, wrote in 1990. He called it both visionary and practical.

Mr. Trump then did an about-face. He embraced the Civic Alternative, and an unlikely coalition was formed between the developer and the civic groups. To realize Mr. Willen and Mr. Gutman’s design, Mr. Trump hired the architects David Childs and Marilyn Jordan Taylor, of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; Mr. Willen, who had been working pro bono, was hired to assist. Trump City became Riverside South and slowly took shape.

Mr. Willen and the urban planner Daniel Gutman designed a plan for the area, known as the Civic Alternative, that the architecture critic Paul Goldberger called both visionary and practical.

The process was bumpy, a tragicomedy that unfurled over decades. There were financial upheavals (Mr. Trump’s), lawsuits, construction problems (the supports for some buildings had low-grade concrete) and changes in ownership. What was finally built was more or less the original Civic Alternative plan — though Riverside South is a little denser and a little higher, and its buildings are more uniform. There was one significant omission, however: The elevated highway was never moved, and the hoped-for park became a greatly reduced swath of green space.

It was community opposition that blocked the plan to move the highway; many feared the construction would be too disruptive. Jerrold Nadler, the longtime congressman representing Manhattan’s West Side, whose antipathy to Mr. Trump stretched back decades, declared that he would not allow taxpayer money to be used to enrich a Trump property and provide, as he put it, an expensive “private backyard” for the people who would live there.

“It’s a tragedy,” Mr. Goldberger said in an interview. “There was federal money and it was all set to go. This may have been the greatest incidence of the wrong thing being done for the right reason.

“It was really shortsighted and stupid,” he added. “No matter how much you hated Trump, it would have been better for everybody. And that opportunity will never come again.”

Yet in the end, Mr. Goldberger said, “like almost everything else that’s built in New York, Riverside South is not totally good or totally bad. And it rescued us from something that would have been truly awful.”

Mr. Gutman said: “Most of us were disappointed that the highway never got moved. But Paul Willen took a long view of Riverside South. He thought that someday an enlightened mayor would come along and finish the job.”

What was finally built as Riverside South was more or less the original Civic Alternative plan, if a little denser and a little higher.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Mr. Willen was born on Aug. 29, 1928, in Manhattan. His father, Joseph, was executive vice president of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York. His mother, Pearl (Larner) Willen, was a community organizer and a labor and human rights activist.

He grew up first in Westchester County and then in New York City, where he attended the Fieldston School, as did his sister, Deborah, now Deborah Meier, who would grow up to be a renowned educator and public-school reformer. The Willens were deeply engaged in many causes, and their children, through example, were raised for service.

Mr. Willen earned a bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College in Ohio in 1951 and a master’s in history and Russian from Columbia University in 1953. He worked for a few years as a journalist for Radio Free Europe before returning to school and earning a master’s in architecture from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 1962.

His first job was with the modernist architect Marcel Breuer, for whom he worked on the Whitney Museum, the Brutalist monument on Madison Avenue, in particular on its signature staircase.

In addition to his son and his sister, Mr. Willen is survived by a daughter, Marija Willen; four grandsons; and his partner of 25 years, Marie Madeleine Saphire. His marriage to Drenka (Opalic) Willen ended in divorce; a brief early marriage to Jane Maher was annulled.

Mr. Willen in an undated photo. He had designs on Manhatan’s waterfront early on. Credit…via the Willen family

Mr. Willen had designs on the city’s waterfront early on. In the mid-1960s, he was project director of the Lower Manhattan Plan, an expansive design for Manhattan’s southern tip to revive the financial center — the twin towers of the World Trade Center were the linchpin — and create housing and commercial space linked by a ribbon of parkland and a promenade. Commissioned by the city, it was a collaboration among three firms, one of which was Whittlesey, Conklin & Rossant, where Mr. Willen was then employed.

What the firms proposed was a series of neighborhoods, each featuring its own cove. They also persuaded the city to use the material from the excavations for the twin towers to build out the southwestern tip of Manhattan, instead of dumping it at sea.

Battery Park City, which was built on this new land mass starting in 1980, had its own designers and urban planners, but it has the feeling of much of that earlier plan. And, Mr. Willen wrote on his website, it improved upon it. There is a cove, ample green space and what Mr. Willen described as a “gentler, incremental housing system based on the city grid,” instead of the rather hulking buildings his report had called for (which were part of the modernist aesthetic of his day).

In 1980, Mr. Willen collaborated with the urban reformer John Belle, a principal of the architecture and planning firm Beyer Blinder Belle, to design an alternative to Westway, the failed proposal for burying the West Side Highway south of 40th Street. Mr. Willen and Mr. Belle’s plan, which they called River Road, was a grade-level highway bounded by parks and recreational space. Officials dismissed it as too expensive and too disruptive.

While the entire effort to improve the West Side Highway became mired in civic gridlock for decades (other designers also presented plans, none of which were realized), it is notable that what was finally built, at least below the West 30s, is not unlike Mr. Willen and Mr. Belle’s proposed River Road.

Mr. Willen’s final project was an alternative to the 500-foot ramp planned by the Central Park Conservancy to make the newly restored Belvedere Castle, the 19th-century Romanesque Revival structure that sprouts from a steep rocky outcrop above Central Park’s Turtle Pond, accessible to all. Preservationists had felt that the long ramp would destroy the character of the park. Mr. Willen, who late in life had mobility issues and used a wheelchair, collaborated with Mr. Gutman and Theodore Grunewald, a historic-preservation advocate, on a design involving an elevator.

“Paul had an inventive itch,” said Kent L. Barwick, a former president of the Municipal Art Society, “and he couldn’t leave a bad situation alone.”

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