In New York, the line that separates the best places from the worst is surprisingly thin. Design problems are seldom intractable; instead, a misplaced emphasis on auto traffic or heavy-handed security measures is usually all that stands between failure and success. So while all the places below are now shamefully inadequate as centers of public activity, it is encouraging to know that with better management and a re-ordering of priorities, many could make the leap to become Great Public Spaces.
Nowhere else in New York offers more opportunity to create something out of nothing than Astor Place. It is one of the few places in the city that has the form of a public square, yet there is so little vehicle traffic and so much asphalt that people are compelled to walk straight through the space rather than use it as a destination. The “Alamo” sculpture (also known as “The Cube”) and an historic subway entrance provide distinctive landmarks, but people only use them as meeting points before venturing elsewhere. Meanwhile, the recent completion of an ultra-luxury condo tower designed by Gwathmey Siegel has added nothing to the streetlife of the square; another ubiquitous bank branch occupies its ground floor.
Astor Place begs to be transformed into a pedestrian-oriented district. Stretching east-west from Third Avenue to Broadway, and north-south from 10th Street to 4th Street, the new Astor Place would reclaim large swaths of the roadbed for pedestrian use. This common-sense step would open the door for a host of improvements: Cooper Square, currently an isolated triangle sandwiched between two inhospitable streets, could expand and become much more open to the public; Fourth Avenue could become a pedestrian- and bike-friendly boulevard from Grace Church to 14th Street, linking Astor Place to Union Square; Third Avenue could be narrowed to strengthen the connection between Greenwich Village and the East Village. As the core of a vibrant pedestrian district, Astor Place would bind those two neighborhoods together rather than divide them as it does today.
Rockefeller Center West
In the 1970s, Rockefeller Center built an extension on the west side of Sixth Avenue. The complex was designed when it was fashionable for buildings to “hit the ground hard”, with heavy columns spaced closely together to hide ground-level uses. Its plazas and through-block connections were laid out in plan with geometric precision, and the architects’ models no doubt looked pleasing when viewed from above. Inhabiting the spaces is a different matter. They are nearly unusable for human activity. To make matters worse, Rockefeller Center has recently added railings to keep people from sitting on ledges along Sixth Avenue. It’s a familiar story: Design based on abstract principles leads to failed spaces.
Because Rockefeller Center West is so bad, most visitors to the main complex don’t even realize the extension exists. Retrofitting the failed plazas to create usable places would add a worthy complement to the successful destinations just across the street, forming a cohesive network of excellent public spaces. The value added would be tremendous, both for the owners of Rockefeller Center and for Midtown’s throngs of workers and tourists.
Civic Center in Lower Manhattan
New York’s Civic Center–the government buildings and public spaces clustered near City Hall–is a disgrace, the worst civic district of any city with global prominence. The Civic Center covers quite a large area, from Broadway to Park Row and from the Brooklyn Bridge up to Chinatown. As soon as you cross its boundaries, the change is palpable: Jersey barriers mar the bases of beautiful courthouses and stately office buildings, while parked cars cover the streets and sidewalks as though the law has ceased to apply. The whole area acts like a poison seeping out from its edges into neighboring districts. The only positives to build on are the refurbished City Hall Park and the plaza at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Chatham Square and Park Row by Police Plaza
Chatham Square, also known as Kimlau Square, marks the northern end of Park Row and could one day be a major public space within Chinatown. Today, unfortunately, this important crossroads is ensnarled by auto congestion, at times requiring two traffic enforcement officers to maintain order. The rest of Park Row has essentially been converted into a driveway for the police department. As with law enforcement facilities throughout the city, here the presence of the police is marked by squad cars and officers’ private vehicles parked all over the sidewalks, clustered near the drab, intimidating headquarters. The Chinatown community is fed up with the appropriation of their streets. The NYPD should take this opportunity to make Park Row a pilot project for better integrating its physical facilities into the neighborhoods it serves.
Federal Plaza/Foley Square
This awesomely bad complex is so disjointed it boggles the mind. It comprises an array of separate plazas and park spaces, none of which engage human beings. Traffic dominates, along with illegal on-street parking that greatly diminishes the pedestrian experience. Five years removed from the attacks of September 11th, security measures still appear ad-hoc and needlessly oppressive. The city’s largest federal property ought to be a major destination that citizens would be proud to visit and show off to visitors. Surrounding streets should connect pedestrians to downtown’s major assets just short blocks away, creating a whole greater than the sum of its parts. What a shame that Federal Plaza doesn’t fulfill even a modicum of this ideal purpose.
City Hall Park and Plaza
City Hall Park has been transformed into a very good small public space, but the barren area between the Park and City Hall is an embarrassment to New York. This space used to be full of events; many a photograph of civic groups and VIPs has been snapped with City Hall as the backdrop. While other cities around the world use their seats of government to showcase assets and accomplishments, New York’s is hamstrung by the insistence that security should be achieved through heavy-handed manipulation of architecture and public space. Security can best be implemented inside the building; the outside should be returned to New Yorkers as the symbolic front porch of their city.
The symbolic center of capitalism looks like it is under siege. Security measures intended to protect against terrorism have resulted in an armed camp mentality that serves no one. Of course security is necessary, but measures can be implemented successfully and subtly. As is, security barricades and vehicles are everywhere, giving the impression that Wall Street operates in a state of constant fear. The chaotic conditions are an embarrassment to the financial district and to New York as a whole. Better to cordon the area off from vehicles, which would create a pedestrian zone in the nation’s most significant live-work district, a major destination showcasing the roots of American capitalism.
Columbus Circle and the Time Warner Center
Perhaps because the Time Warner Center replaced the stultifying New York Coliseum, its initial reception was much more positive than deserved. Take a second glance, and this complex is revealed as the anti-urban edifice it has always been. The problem is that the building does not engage the street. It is essentially a shopping mall inside, with little or no hint from the outside that anything is going on. Circulation occurs within the confines of the privately owned indoor space, not on public city streets. Because the design is so insular, stores are putting advertising in the windows, and the building is starting to look like a billboard. Compared to Fifth Avenue in Midtown, where the storefronts are creative and the sidewalks alive with activity, the Time Warner Center is a dumbed down excuse for a commercial district.
The rest of Columbus Circle is no better. The other buildings are blank and lifeless. The traffic circle, though recently improved with a new fountain and more pedestrian space, still gives auto traffic at least forty percent more space than warranted. Overall, Columbus Circle is still a transitory place that people pass through, not a true destination.
Central Park South
A wide, unfriendly and dangerous street, Central Park South is the worst of the edges around New York’s crown jewel. The sidewalks are so narrow on both sides of the street that strolling along the park has limited appeal. Why? Because Central Park South has essentially been designed to act as an onramp for the Queensboro Bridge (58th Street was recently widened for the same reason).
Frederick Law Olmsted firmly believed that parks should not be separated from their surroundings. He spoke of the need to maintain the “outer park” as the setting in which the “inner park” could thrive. But Central Park South (and, for that matter, every other road surrounding Central Park) is a major liability for the inner park. The real priority should be to provide a pedestrian-friendly connection to the park. By reducing the vehicle lanes down to two, sidewalks on both sides of the street could be widened for outdoor markets, food kiosks, seating, and other amenities that would welcome people into the city’s most revered public space. That modest investment would transform Central Park South into a fitting outer park and a model for the other streets bordering Central Park.
Museum of Modern Art, Exterior
The recent renovation of MoMA’s interior spaces, galleries and sculpture garden has been a triumph in terms of public space. That makes it all the more galling to see the entrance and facade remain so monotonous and impenetrable. The approach to the building feels more like the side of a junkyard or warehouse than a world-class cultural institution. At no point does the facade permit any transparency between the sidewalk and the interior. The entrance, meanwhile, has all the appeal of an open garage door. It evokes no sense of arrival, nor does it support any activity that could serve as a bridge between the Museum and the public realm.
William H. Whyte shrewdly captured the detrimental effects of blank walls when he wrote that they “proclaim the power of the institution, the inconsequence of the individual, whom they are clearly meant to put down, if not intimidate.” MoMA surely does not want to project such an image. Its next renovation should focus squarely on how to create an exterior public space experience equal to its remarkable interior.
Grace Plaza embodies much of what is wrong with New York’s “bonus plazas”–public spaces built by developers in exchange for more air rights. The space feels like an afterthought or an obligation. Raised slightly above street-level, it is dwarfed by the giant, windowless north facade of the WR Grace Building and functions primarily as a haven for smokers. A few amenities have been added in the course of its various renovations: seating and waste receptacles along the north edge, seating and planters along the south edge. They do little to diminish the sense of alienation. What’s really missing is a management presence that goes beyond maintenance. Grace Plaza (and many other bonus plazas) should take a cue from Rockefeller Center: Determine what uses and activities will best animate the space and transform it from a liability into a neighborhood asset.
New York University Campus – 3rd Street between Broadway and Laguardia
Every building in this section of the NYU campus turns its back to the street, carving out a gaping hole in the heart of Greenwich Village. Sidewalks punctured by huge curb cuts surround residence halls built in the towers-in-a-park mold. Part of the area has been dubbed by NYU as “Washington Square Village”, a cruelly ironic moniker given the fact that it feels like a separate world from Washington Square Park, which is just down the street. Most students and faculty who live in these isolated structures probably had something very different in mind when they decided to pursue their academic interests in New York.
Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building
This “killer building” from the urban renewal era is a high-rise attack on 125th Street and the surrounding historic fabric of Harlem. Elevated on massive stilts at least one story above the ground, the government facility has a distinctly Orwellian feeling, which is reinforced by the fact that the entrance is impossible to find. An already forbidding edifice is made more so by a windswept plaza, which covers the entire site (because the building is elevated). The place is scorching in summer and Siberian in winter, and there has been no evident attempt to make it habitable for humans. (One glimmer of life has been the return of a seasonal farmers’ market to the building’s plaza in the summer of 2001.) Overall, the combined effect of the building and its plaza is enough to make pedestrians run to the other side of the street, preferring the shelter offered by the brick row houses that remain.
Marriott Marquis Times Square
Private properties rarely make it into the Hall of Shame, but PPS makes an exception for this disaster. The Marriott Marquis is a sucking void in the middle of one of the most energetic places on earth, Times Square. It has disrupted the flow of ground-floor activity by placing its lobby on the ninth floor and putting a large vehicle drop-off by the sidewalk instead. It’s as though the hotel wants guests to feel removed and aloof from the bustle around them, and the upshot is that The Marriot has created one great mass of cars and confused people. Why locate in the heart of a busy district only to disengage entirely from the surroundings? The Marriott should get back in touch with Times Square, return retail to the sidewalk, and put its lobby on the ground floor.
Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn
Most people try to avoid Grand Army Plaza even though it links commercial Flatbush Avenue with Prospect Park and connects the neighborhoods of Park Slope and Prospect Heights. The Plaza itself fails as a destination because it is one of the most car-oriented intersections in Brooklyn. But the excessive street capacity devoted to its enormous traffic circle is unnecessary. In the middle of Brooklyn’s most centrally located plaza, the road needlessly expands to six lanes. As a result, the green spaces within the traffic circle are extremely hard–even dangerous–to access, and the traffic is most severe right in front of the main entrance to Prospect Park.
The area around Grand Army Plaza is known as the heart of Brooklyn, and for good reason. Within a few blocks’ walk are the Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, countless shops, restaurants and residences, and of course the renowned Prospect Park. Grand Army Plaza could be a world-class public space linking these elements together, a source of pride for all of Brooklyn. The recently formed Grand Army Plaza Coalition, a partnership among different cultural organizations and community groups, is working to make that happen. They are currently exploring ways to reduce the impact of traffic and create streets and sidewalks that engage pedestrians, with the ultimate goal of reclaiming Grand Army Plaza as a place where people can gather in the heart of Brooklyn.