At Grand Central, Ignore the “Flying Doughnut” and Look to the Street

Yesterday at the Municipal Art Society Summit, three architecture firms — Foster + Partners, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and WXY architecture + urban design — unveiled proposals to remake public space in Midtown East, as the Bloomberg administration sets out to rezone the area for taller towers.

How a pedestrianized Vanderbilt Avenue might look, according to Foster + Partners.

The rezoning covers a large swath of Midtown, aiming to take advantage of new transit capacity as the Second Avenue Subway and the LIRR’s East Side Access project bring more people to the area. In an interesting twist, the administration wants developers to pitch in for pedestrian improvements as the area becomes a bigger destination for people.

In their public space proposals, the three firms focused on the area immediately around Grand Central Terminal, because although it lies at the heart of the district, the public realm outside the station’s grand interior often leaves much to be desired. The streets surrounding Grand Central empty out at night, and from the outside, the terminal can feel like a bit like a fortress. “It’s opaque,” said Claire Weisz of WXY. “There should be so much more happening.”

The attention-grabbing visual yesterday was SOM’s proposal to build a circular walkway above Grand Central, floating up and down between new skyscrapers on either side of the train terminal. In a panel discussion with the architects, New York magazine architecture critic Justin Davidson dismissed the concept as a “flying doughnut.”

The encouraging part of the panel was that aside from the flashy rendering, the architects are generally looking down, not up, to improve the public realm in Midtown East – and they urged the city to do the same as the rezoning moves ahead.

“The vibrancy of Manhattan is because there is so much action at the sidewalk level,” said Sir Norman Foster. “In exploring the fine print of the zoning, it should be sensitive to the activities at the ground plane, on the sidewalk.”

City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden has already expressed interest in pedestrianizing Vanderbilt Avenue to accommodate the increased foot traffic that will accompany the completion of the East Side Access project. The architects followed Burden’s lead and went further, proposing to expand the pedestrian realm beyond Vanderbilt Avenue.

A proposal for the Park Avenue viaduct from WXY architecture + urban design.

The ideas presented yesterday would convert Vanderbilt Avenue, and to a lesser extent 42nd Street, to pedestrian-priority zones. Foster’s plan pays particular attention to pedestrian movement on the street and the already-crowded walkways and access points linking Grand Central, nearby sidewalks, and the subways. He noted that in Grand Central’s nearly 100 years, the number of people moving through has increased ten-fold but the size of the terminal has remained essentially the same. To eliminate congested choke points and better connect the terminal’s interior to its subway corridors and surrounding streets, Foster proposed converting some of the current retail spaces into circulation areas, especially along the 42nd Street side of the terminal.

In plans from WXY and SOM, the Park Avenue viaduct, which wraps around Grand Central above street level, would become, at least in part, a space for pedestrians and bike riders. In its presentation, WXY drew direct inspiration from how the viaduct is used during Summer Streets.

All three architects warned that good intentions and a rezoning aren’t enough to create a high-quality public realm. Zoning is a blunt tool, noted Weisz. “There should be a public realm and transportation plan,” she said, to lay out a vision that can’t be convey by a zoning text alone.

The Department of City Planning has indicated an interest in bold changes to the streets and public spaces around Grand Central, and three firms have laid out visions of what that might look like. As the rezoning progresses, we’ll see if the city’s plans live up to the potential.

  • Ex-driver

    How about requiring the developers of these new towers to contribute to the southern extension of the Second Avenue Subway and underground ped space?  

  • Larry Littlefield

    The whole upper East Side was built to higher densities years ago in anticipation of the Second Avenue Subway.  And all of Marine Park was built in the expectation the IRT would be extended.

    How about building the infrastructure first?

  • Ben Kintisch

    For me, each summer streets experience is incredible, but one of my favorite moments each summer is biking up close up to the majesty of Grand Central Station. Every big train or bus station should have nice pedestrian space nearby because they are people magnets. Where you have thousands of people coming and going, there should be livable pedestrian spaces. It just makes sense!

  • v5inr0us

    Stephen Miller wrote (reporting the comments of Sir Noman Foster):To eliminate congested choke points and better connect the terminal’s interior to its subway corridors and surrounding streets, Foster proposed converting some of the current retail spaces into circulation areas, especially along the 42nd Street side of the terminal.Benjamin Hemric writes:I’d have to take a closer look at the proposals for a more final comment, but my quick take is that this is exactly the OPPOSITE of what is needed — and it raises warning signs about the proposed rezoning. As presently constituted, the pedestrian spaces around the Terminal work very well. The only “negative” so it seems to me is that the area is less lively outside of rush hour and, if you want to count it as a negative, Vanderbilt Avenue is especially quiet outside of rush hours. But it’s the storefronts along GCT’s exterior that are one of the special features of the Terminal that make it unusually urbane. (The storefronts used to contribute more to the street when the stores were smaller, etc.) So taking away storefronts — in order to make more space for increased pedestrians due to rezoning — seems exactly the wrong way to go: build bigger buildings around the terminal, take away retail to make way for increased pedestrians — and create less livliness and more emptyness along the street.The one area where reducing retail might be helpful is the one area where I suspect this is not likely to be considered. Before the Terminal’s recent redevelopment as a retail hub, there used to be a extra corridor that connected the Terminal’s interior spaces (e.g., the Lower Level, the Kissing Gallery, the passeways to the Roosevelt Hotel, the Concourse, etc.) to the subway shuttle. This corridor ran parallel to the corridor that is there now, and there was also a short “cross street” that connected these two parallel corridors (and also connected to the ramp up to the street and the ramp to the lower level and Oyster Bar). This extra corridor was lined with glass walled storefronts and was very pleasant. But in order to increase the size of these storefronts, the “extra” corridor was removed (as was the connecting corridor) and the space was added to the the footprint of existing retail spaces. (In other words, the redesigners essentially created an underground superblock, where there were once a small collection of small blocks, and gave the street space to existing storefronts.)Both of these corridors, by the way, also were connected to the waiting room (via a high ceilinged, wood-paneled lounge [that used to be the men’s smoking room], which contained a large shoe-shine stand). While it’s “understandable” that with lower pedestrian traffic volumes, management might want to get rid of these corridors and add to retail space (and get extra income), it would be terrible if retail space elsewhere is reduced to now make room for increased users due to an upzoning.Will, of course, have to take a closer look at the proposals. But from the description, it sounds like, over time, all the cumulative planning “prescriptions” are taking a lively, urbane area (that was the envy of the world) and transforming into, instead, into a sterile “starchitect-designed” waste land.Benjamin HemricFri., 10/19/12, 7:50 pm

  • “There should be a public realm and transportation plan,” Is this where Toronto is headed? I hope so.

  • John Z Wetmore

    When architects present their plans for a grand new signature building, they typically show it as part of the city skyline.  What I would like to see is the bottom 10 feet next to the sidewalk.  It’s that bottom 10 feet that pedestrians will see and interact with.  Get the pedestrian space right, and then we can worry about what the tower looks like. 

  • Reid Nystrom


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