For New York’s best new public sculpture, thank the sanitation department

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For New York’s best new public sculpture, thank the sanitation department
The New York City Department of Sanitation’s new salt shed, foreground, and garage, rear, in Manhattan / © Todd Heisler

After years of noisy protests, the New York City Department of Sanitation’s new garage-and-salt-shed complex has opened in Hudson Square, on the northern edge of TriBeCa. The project took nearly a decade and cost a king’s ransom. Luxury apartment developers in the neighborhood predicted Armageddon. Instead, apartment prices went through the roof. The garage and shed have ended up being not just two of the best examples of new public architecture in the city but a boon to the neighborhood, whether the wealthy neighbors have come around to it or not. I can’t think of a better public sculpture to land in New York than the shed.

There are a couple of larger lessons here. They are not so much about Nimbyism, but about how residents of a neighborhood react when faced with development absent real planning, and about why it makes sense, economically and in terms of public health and social justice, for disparate communities to share burdens like parking for sanitation trucks.

At issue was not a stinky garbage-processing plant. The garage, at West and Spring Streets, was always to be just a place to park, fuel, repair and clean sanitation trucks, more than 150 of them, with the shed, across Spring Street, used as a storehouse for some 5,000 tons of salt to clear roads after snowstorms. The site was hardly a charmer: It used to be divided between a United Parcel Service truck lot and an old, much smaller sanitation building. When there was not enough room to park, idling vehicles often spilled out, blocking traffic.

Still, opponents imagined something worse arising, and rallied to cancel or at least shrink the project. They argued that the garage should not be housing trucks for three Manhattan districts. The fight became one of the toughest urban land-use battles of the Bloomberg era. […]