Alive on the Edge

Reed Hilderbrand overturns a century of casual destruction at Long Dock Park in Beacon, New York.

By Anne Raver

A bucolic park, built on fill, is sustained by the tides that recharge its wetlands and meadows.
A bucolic park, built on fill, is sustained by the tides that recharge its wetlands and meadows. Courtesy of Reed Hilderbrand.

Ten years ago, Long Dock was a postindustrial ruins built on fill—the layered detritus of its past—that sprawled 1,000 feet across the tidal flats of the Hudson River at the foot of the boarded-up city of Beacon, New York.

Now, this same site, Scenic Hudson’s Long Dock Park, is a 23-acre expanse of meadow and wetlands shaded by cottonwoods and swamp maples, with a sculpted dock and quiet cove, where a kayak pavilion hovers like a dragonfly over the river’s edge.

Reed Hilderbrand has remediated and reshaped the flat landscape, transforming it to a series of earthen berms and reconfigured marshes that hold and filter stormwater and tidal surges in storms as brutal as Irene and Sandy.

“We were fully inundated four times during construction, so each time we lost ground,” Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA, said one midsummer afternoon, standing on the boardwalk that leads to the river’s edge. “But we also proved that the hydrology works. The site drains the way we designed it to drain. So it was rewarding, in a sense, to go through that and understand the site actually is resilient.”

The firm won a 2015 ASLA Professional Award of Excellence in General Design for the project, which has been a long and complicated collaboration with the Scenic Hudson Land Trust, the city of Beacon, and many others, including Patkau Architects, Architecture Research Office (ARO), and Craul Land Scientists. In 2013, Long Dock Park also earned three stars out of four as a pilot project for the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES).

Long Dock holds special meaning for Hilderbrand, a founding partner of Reed Hilderbrand who grew up in Wappingers Falls, the next town upriver.

“I first knew it as a kid because we used to go across to Newburgh on the ferry, before the bridge was built in 1963,” said Hilderbrand, 58.

As the wind died down, two fishermen showed up to cast their lines over Beacon Point, the site-specific installation by the artist George Trakas that registers the rise and fall of the tides.

“My family used to hike up there on Sunday afternoons,” Hilderbrand said, gazing at the smoky blue silhouettes of Mount Beacon and Breakneck Ridge to the east. “My father worked at the Nabisco company. He drove a forklift.” The family, including the five children, lived in a worker’s cottage on Franny Reese’s estate. “I used to run around in an Ellen Shipman garden,” he said.

Franny Reese, who died in 2003, was one of the early leaders of Scenic Hudson, which began in 1963 as a feisty band of environmentalists bent on stopping Consolidated Edison’s power plant at the foot of Storm King Mountain. The group argued that the hydroelectric plant, which would have been the largest in the world, would destroy the beauty of the iconic mountain and threaten water supplies and fisheries.

Scenic Hudson fought Con Edison until the company terminated its plan for Storm King in 1980. “I was surrounded by people who were trying to fix the Hudson,” said Hilderbrand, recalling Pete Seeger and his sloop Clearwater. The boat was launched in 1969, to inspire cleaning up the mercury, sewage, and polychlorinated biphenyls that polluted the river.

“But honestly, my biggest memories of growing up there are sitting on the Hudson and drinking Genesee Cream Ale, smoking pot, and playing music. We would look across to the Danskammer [power plant]. The river was our locus.”

Beacon, set high on the eastern riverbank, is a mile across the river from Newburgh. The short crossing was long used, before King George II granted a royal charter for the first Beacon–Newburgh ferry in 1743. In the 1860s, the state granted permission to a local railroad man, Homer Ramsdell, to fill in the tidal flats for a railroad siding. (And fill meant anything from a sunken barge to coal dust.) As many as 27 freight cars at a time were trundled onto the William T. Hart, a steamboat 295 feet long and 80 feet wide, to be carried to Newburgh and points west. The ferry’s last crossing in 1904 came more than 15 years after the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge was completed in late 1888. By the 1980s, Long Dock had devolved into a junkyard.

“It was all dead flat, covered with cars,” Hilderbrand said. “And it was a tank town, for oil storage.”

People still worked at the Biscuit, as everybody called the 300,000-square-foot Nabisco printing plant, with its high ceilings and acres of north-facing skylights, just north of Long Dock. Tons of colorful cardboard for Oreo cookies and Milk-Bone biscuits were loaded onto rail cars that came right into the bottom of the plant, before heading 50 miles down the line to the Nabisco warehouse in Chelsea, Manhattan.

By the time the Biscuit closed in 1991, Beacon was a run-down, drug-ridden city with boarded-up storefronts on Main Street. Its gritty despair was the backdrop for Nobody’s Fool, the Paul Newman film based on Richard Russo’s novel. But a few artists and risk takers, squeezed out of Manhattan and Brooklyn, had begun to fix up the dilapidated Victorians and other 19th-century buildings on Main Street.

Scenic Hudson, which had protected more than 2,000 acres of Fishkill Ridge in the Hudson Highlands, including Mount Beacon, and 12 acres on Fishkill Creek, where it met the Hudson River, was now trying to acquire the three parcels that made up the derelict Long Dock.

Around the same time, Michael Govan, then president of the Dia Art Foundation, famously flew his private plane over the shuttered Nabisco plant, eyed its proportions, and deemed it perfect for a giant museum of contemporary art.

The process of discovery—concrete slabs jutting up out of the woods and buried under soil, the detritus of storms and industry, a degraded wetland—led to the elements of design, reuse, renewal.
The process of discovery—concrete slabs jutting up out of the woods and buried under soil, the detritus of storms and industry, a degraded wetland—led to the elements of design, reuse, renewal. Credit: Reed Hilderbrand.

“[Richard] Serra’s Torqued Ellipses are down in a big room of their own, where the railroad car used to back right into the factory,” Hilderbrand said.

When Dia:Beacon opened in 2003, it drew 70,000 visitors the first year. “But Beacon didn’t even have a hotel,” said Hilderbrand, whose firm signed on to a master plan for developing the old riverfront in 2003.

The city of Beacon had partnered with Scenic Hudson years before, to sound out the community on a revitalization plan. People weren’t interested in residential development, which would have privatized the riverfront.

“They were interested in public access to a place they had never been able to get to,” said Margery Groten, who was then Scenic Hudson’s senior project manager. “They also wanted a hotel and a restaurant, a place to buy an ice cream cone.”

Groten, who has since retired, spent a couple of years negotiating with the junkyard dealer, Bernie Cohen, for the last parcel of land. “He had built a ranch house on a mound, and the property flooded every now and then. I spent a lot of days at his kitchen counter. There was a junkyard dog on a chain, a big mutt.”

The junkyard was covered with electronic materials, appliances, wire, carcasses of old cars and trucks, and remnants of a defunct steel mill, leaching all their chemicals into the river. Scenic Hudson hired Ecosystems Strategies to analyze the contaminants, and worked with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to remediate the site.

An 1880s warehouse, which had housed Hammond’s Paint and Slug Shot Works—Slug Shot, Grape Dust, and Thrip Juice No. 2 were popular insecticides—was falling into the river on the north side of Long Dock.

But it was dear to Beacon’s heart. So “even though we had no idea what to do with it, we stabilized it,” Groten said. “We wanted to do a boat building workshop for young people, like Rocking the Boat, in the Bronx, but we couldn’t find somebody to do that.’”

Groten also had to be diplomatic about prying loose the Dutchess Boat Club, a group of chums who hung out in their shack on the dock. “We kept renewing their lease until Hurricane Sandy, when the building was condemned and the oil tanks floated away.”

Scenic Hudson’s board realized that it needed a developer, so in 2000, it put out an RFP for a group interested in building a green hotel that could help maintain a public park. “It was complicated and a new model for us,” Groten said. The group chose a developer that included the architect John Patkau, ASLA, who invited Reed Hilderbrand to submit a proposal for the landscape.

Credit: Reed Hilderbrand.

“Doug [Reed, FASLA] and I had never done anything like this before,” said Hilderbrand. “A few public projects like Mount Auburn Cemetery and Christian Science Plaza. But we were ambitious; we were serious.”

Steve Rosenberg, the executive director of the Scenic Hudson Land Trust, recalled Hilderbrand’s presentation. “There was a sense, because of Gary’s personal background, that he understood and related to the place, and to the Hudson Valley.”

The board also liked “the neatness of the design,” he said. “And the firm’s ability to sensitively mediate between the proposed hotel development and the need for public space to be beautiful, sustainable, and publicly accessible was compelling.”

The original plan featured a long, rectangular, three-story, 200-room hotel that stretched out toward the river, with views either north or south from every room. The design called for cutting down many of the trees that had grown up on the site over time; cars were to be parked on a long pier. “We were always going to have a kayak pavilion,” said Hilderbrand, standing by the graceful boathouse designed by ARO. “It was a great scheme, honestly.”

But in 2007, the developers went belly-up, and by the 2008 stock market crash, Scenic Hudson put the hotel on hold. The next year, it asked Reed Hilderbrand to proceed with an “interim” park, to experiment with reuse of materials and earthworks.

Scenic Hudson, working with the DEC, had already removed tons of contaminated soil and capped certain areas of the site, particularly around the old Slug Shot warehouse, which it had stabilized by putting on a new roof, siding, and windows.

When the Reed Hilderbrand team first walked the site, they marked all the trees they wanted to save. Big cottonwoods and black locusts, swept by the wind blowing off the river; swamp maples and sycamores in the wetland by the cove, with the initials of lovers carved in their old mottled trunks. They tagged the invasive Norway maples and ailanthus for removal.

“An immense amount of debris had washed up along the south shore,” recalled Chris Moyles, ASLA, a Reed Hilderbrand principal who led the team. “The site floods several times a year, so not just trash washes up, but tree trunks and branches. It was a thicket.”

Box elder (Acer negundo) was suckering through the aggregate and spreading over top of slabs of broken concrete. The huge jagged slabs, many about 8 feet by 12 feet, were the remains of the concrete decking removed from the first Newburgh–Beacon Bridge when it was repaved in the late 1970s. They were stacked four or five high, rebar projecting from their jagged sides. Or buried, the team discovered, near Beacon Point, to shore up the eroding shoreline.

A series of wetlands, natural and constructed, hold and filter stormwater. Credit: James Ewing/OTTO.
A series of wetlands, natural and constructed, hold and filter stormwater. Credit: James Ewing/OTTO.

“The site was very porous; it was slag,” Moyles said. “One day in the pouring rain, we looked down at the crabgrass and saw this grid pattern of joints.” They stuck a rod into the scruffy surface, and it stopped less than a foot down.

It’s expensive to dispose of such materials, and in the spirit of sustainability, Scenic Hudson and Reed Hilderbrand were determined to reuse as much as possible. They excavated the slabs, removing the rebar and asphalt, which is a carcinogen, and directed the contractor to place them in other parts of the park: tucked into the wooded cove, to be used as a bench to watch the herons; laid down for parking pads; or as a terrace around the kayak pavilion.

All this proved way too much for the first contractors.

“They didn’t quite know what they were getting into,” said Michelle Crowley, ASLA, a member of the team who has since started her own firm. “Picking up one at a time, and trying to place each one like a bluestone, with proper drainage. It was very difficult.”

Where the slabs were buried deep along the shoreline, they simply jackhammered them, to improve drainage, and covered them with a few feet of soil.

“Our soil scientist, Tim Craul, said we had to have at least two feet of cover, or turf wouldn’t grow,” said Hilderbrand, standing at the western edge of the meadow that July afternoon.

“This was all dead flat when we came. So we raised it up, not just to grow turf, but to give shape to the land, so it looks like it’s been here.”

Looking east, where Beacon perches above the original riverbank—you can hear and see the trains rumbling at its base—Hilderbrand explained the role of these earthworks in holding and filtering stormwater.

It sheets off the steep slope of the entrance drive, across the permeable parking lot—those concrete slabs, thank you, placed in the shade of deeply rooted old cottonwoods and silver maples—and runs into a narrow swale, planted with wetland species, including blue flag (Iris versicolor), fox sedge (Carex vulpinoidea), and broadleaf cattail (Typha latifolia) to hold and filter the water.

The long, low, grassy mounds that border the south side of this parking lot (there is another one by the old Slug Shot works, now called the Red Barn, elegantly tweaked by ARO) offer another barrier to stormwater, with openings for paths across the meadow. These low mounds are also inviting to sit on, or do a somersault or two, in good weather. And they keep people from parking their cars on the meadow.

On the south side, high buttresses protect the flat meadow from the river’s storm surges, present a tempting hill for children to run up and roll down, and, on the other side, provide a sense of intimacy for people who are walking down a wide path between meadow and wooded wetland. (They also echo the shapes of the mountains, Crowley notes.)

Credit: Reed Hilderbrand.

The paths echo the curved lines of the railroad sidings that once covered this site, and they connect on the southeast end of the park with the Klara Sauer Trail that leads south along the Hudson River. A sandy trail by the shore leads to a hardly noticeable opening between the common hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) and arrowwood viburnums (Viburnum dentatum) that the design team has planted here, and through the intertidal wetland formed over decades by the action of the river bumping up against this artificial projection from the shore.

There were concrete slabs buried here, as well, so the team used them as the foundation of a raised boardwalk, made of aluminum, so pedestrians can walk through the wetland without disturbing fragile species.

Witch hazel, shadbush, viburnums, and many other species that love shady, moist conditions border the north side of the walk; blue flag iris, cattails, black gum, and other species that like wet feet have been added to the wild swamp maples and cottonwoods that self-seeded here.

As the path gently ascends, upland species like buttonbush, silky dogwood, and sweet pepperbush have been planted here. Water glimmers through the trees, and the designers have cleared narrow paths to the pebbly beach, where children love to play along the quiet cove carved out by the river.

Wetlands presented a challenge for the team, because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has to approve any changes, even if it’s to a patch of reeds growing out of slag. “When we began, this was a parking lot that had been paved in asphalt, but it was full of plants, mainly little bluestem,” said Hilderbrand, as we walked into the meadow. “But there were some wetland indicators, so it had to be flagged as a wetland.” The designers won permission to remove two such barely functioning wetlands, which would have been in the way of parking and walking paths, by agreeing to deepen and enhance another existing wetland—“It’s the workhorse of all of them, collecting stormwater in the largest volume during a storm event,” Moyles says—and creating a new one that connects with the intertidal wetland along the south shore. “The created wetland became the opportunity for Scenic Hudson to have an outdoor classroom overlooking it, so they could understand how a wetland functions and actually get up to the edge.”

A set of wide curving concrete steps, set into the buttressed landform, provides an informal seating area facing the cattails and joe-pye weed that flourishes in the marsh. Red-winged blackbirds and swallows swoop over the swamp catching insects, and the little amphitheater is a favorite spot for quiet conversation.

On the north side of the park, ARO has turned the Red Barn into a handsome, LEED Gold-certified structure. Half of the building’s power is generated by solar panels installed on the top of the kayak pavilion.

“It wasn’t exactly in the right place, but it seemed like it had to stay where it was,” said Hilderbrand rather grumpily. His team used dozens of the excavated concrete slabs for parking pads, bordered by a line of hackberry trees, next to the building. The countrified parking lot recalls the longer parking lot, which uses the same concrete slabs, carefully placed under the old silver maples and black locusts, that the firm was able to save when the hotel plan foundered, perhaps never to be revived.

“I’m not unhappy with what happened,” said Hilderbrand, with a little smile. “The best thing you can do to mitigate parking is to put it in shade. It just changes everything. You just don’t have gleaming metal all over. And it doesn’t say parking, right? And we were happy to use those slabs. It looks established. It was a conceptual breakthrough.”

This parking lot, and the gravelly path that leads toward the water, is on axis with the airy kayak pavilion, which manages to enhance, not obscure, the view to the river. Built out of aluminum panels, placed vertically 12 feet high, with horizontal bars on the back, the pavilion has a kind of porosity that protects the boats but can be seen through, if the light is right. Those ubiquitous concrete slabs were placed to create a terrace around the pavilion, again saving some of the old trees and allowing room for others.

Reed Hilderbrand also planted a line of young plane trees to parallel the boardwalk that leads to the Trakas installation. Benches made of recycled oak, set on steel posts, appear to hover beneath the trees.

“George was already under way with this thing, which gave us a lot of problems,” said Hilderbrand, obviously irritated with the wiggly line of the dock. “He did it all by hand, and it’s a total meander. We tried to get him to straighten it out, and he said, ‘No, no, I’ve already got the underpinnings here.’”

Hilderbrand likes a straight line when it’s called for, as in an orchard, or an allée, or a dock. “Because it either looks accidental or an error. Geometry plays a pretty big role in intentionality.” The arcing paths through the meadow, for example, “are all really carefully designed, because we want it to feel like somebody really designed it. It’s not just naturally occurring here.”

Curving paths between earthen berms recall the arc of the railroad sidings that once covered the site.
Curving paths between earthen berms recall the arc of the railroad sidings that once covered the site. Credit: James Ewing/OTTO.

But that doesn’t mean that paths are not cut around or beneath trees, when it is the trees that express the power of the place. At one point in the park, a path coming off the meadow intersects with one moving through the intertidal wetland at the very place where a grove of self-seeded cottonwoods, bowed by the wind, express the exquisite serendipity of nature. Hilderbrand sat down on one of the concrete slabs placed in the grove, simply to enjoy the moment.

Long Dock is still a work in progress. A fenced-off expanse of newly remediated ground, where the junkyard dealer’s house and the old boat club once stood, begs the question of its future use. The meadow has proved to be one of the greatest challenges. The first contractor failed to break up the compacted soil and refused to follow the regimen for soil remediation and seeding laid out by Tim Craul, Affiliate ASLA.

“The first contractors didn’t see the vision; they thought it was ridiculous and awful—why would we do any of this?” Crowley said. “The second group came in and redid the planting, and it’s so much better.”

Craul pointed out the difficulties of building good soils in an area that constantly floods. “It was one of my most challenging projects,” he said. “I wanted to bring in local topsoil, but we didn’t have the budget for that, so we loosened the soil we had and incorporated an improved compost to increase organic matter.”

Craul was basically trying to build up bacteria and fungi, the “first consumers,” to provide food for the “secondary consumers,” like protozoans and nematodes, which are the underpinnings of the soil’s food web. In the wetlands areas, he put down a mucky, loamy sand, high in organic matter, that would be less likely to wash away in a flood. The first plugs that were planted floated off in a hurricane.

The meadow was planted with a seed mix, and Scenic Hudson’s team followed Reed Hilderbrand’s recommended regime for mowing and spot treatment of weeds like mugwort and knotweed with an herbicide. Now, the Scenic Hudson board has adopted an organic regime, which Hilderbrand commends, but he’s not happy with the aggressive species and the weeds.

“I just wish they would keep the grasses under control; we’re losing some of the diversity,” he said.

But Craul is more philosophical. “We can plant a certain set of species there, and the ones that adapt quickly will take off, and the ones that don’t won’t.”

Craul lectures to a lot of students of landscape architecture, at Harvard, Penn State, the University of Pennsylvania, and the like. “I tell them, ‘Don’t talk about maintenance. You’re only directing things that are naturally occurring. Don’t sweat the details. We can kind of push it in the right direction, but we’re not going to force nature where it doesn’t want to go.’”

Crowley loves the juxtaposition of nature, in whatever form it takes, on the old industrial wasteland. “Originally, Scenic Hudson wanted natural paths, but we wanted to show how urban this site really is, that these are concrete slabs we’re walking on,” she says. “You can feel you’re out in nature, sitting on a big concrete block, looking out at the water. Yet you’re smack in an urban place, a made landscape. The whole place was made. Yet, it has a life of its own. Like that thicket in the wetland. We didn’t plant that. Nature did.”

Anne Raver lives in Warren, Rhode Island, and writes about design and the environment.

Project Credits: Client/Owner Scenic Hudson Land Trust, Poughkeepsie, New York. Landscape Architect Reed Hilderbrand, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Architect Architecture Research Office (ARO), New York. Planner/Architect Patkau Architects, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Owner’s Representative Levien & Company, New York. Marine Engineering Mcclaren Engineering Group, West Nyack, New York. Civil Engineer Divney Tung Schwalbe, White Plains, New York. Structural Engineer Robert Silman Associates, New York. Sustainability Vidaris, Inc., New York. Environmental Ecosystems Strategies, Inc., Poughkeepsie, New York. Soil Design Craul Land Scientists, State College, Pennsylvania. Construction Management Kirchhoff-Consigli, Pleasant Valley, New York. Elevator Consultant VJ Associates, Hicksville, New York.

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