MAS Summit 2012: imagine a donut above Grand Central, and Park Ave with a park in the middle

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Last month, the Municipal Art Society held its third annual summit on the theme of Density, Development, and Diversity. For two intense, jam-packed days, designers, planners, architects, and politicans spoke and presented grand visions for the city. Among them were the redesign of Grand Central Terminal and the creation of a Park Avenue Promenade.

Re-Imagining Grand Central Terminal

To celebrate Grand Central’s 100th birthday, the Municipal Art Society challenged three architecture firms, Skidmore Ownings and Merrill (SOM), WXY Architecture & Urban Design, and Foster & Partners, to present their visions for the future of Grand Central Terminal. The design challenge coincides with a rezoning proposal by the Bloomberg Administration, known as Midtown East, which would make it easier to demolish aging buildings, and allow for new, high-rise development in the area around Grand Central Terminal.

SOM’s proposal incorporated the most dramatic visual element, an imagined circular pedestrian observation deck hanging above Grand Central between two towers, or as New York magazine architecture critic Justin Davidson referred to it, “a flying donut.” The plan also calls for an intricate layering of public space, which would exist above and below ground, and would be connected through multiple city blocks. This new network of space would be privately funded but under public ownership (Privately Funded Public Spaces)- a restructuring of Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS).

Top:  SOM’s Vision for Grand Central 

Bottom: Foster & Partner’s Vision for Grand Central 

Foster & Partner’s, perhaps the most minimalist of the three proposals, called for many small interventions to the terminal, focusing on redesigning public space, rather than the building, thus reflecting the words of MAS President Vin Cipolla who argued that “the public experience must be at the center of the conversation – not the size of buildings.” The plan proposes the creation of new civic spaces, open visible entrances to the station, reconfiguring streets as shared vehicle/pedestrian routes, and fully pedestrianizing Vanderbilt Avenue.

Park Avenue Promenade

Alongside the new visions for Grand Central, Vishaan Chakrabarti, Director of the Center for Urban Real Estate at Columbia University and partner at SHoP Architects, presented another radical idea — to build a pedestrian promenade down the middle of Park Avenue. The idea is to double the width of the Park Avenue median, which would create space for a 12- to 15-foot-wide pathway stretching 11 blocks, from 46th to 57th Streets. To make this happen, Mr. Chakrabarti proposes removing one lane of traffic in each direction, which certainly will not occur without some opposition. (Park Avenue currently has three lanes and a parking lane on each side, eight lanes for cars in total.) To ensure that traffic flows smoothly, left-turn lanes would be provided, and north-south crosswalk signals would be installed. The changes to the traffic conditions would still need to be evaluated by the Department of Transportation, but Mr. Chakrabarti thinks it’s doable.

The pedestrian promenade would rejuvenate the street in profound ways; it would draw locals and tourists alike seeking a place to stroll, relax, people watch, read, and admire the architecture of Park Avenue. As New York Observer calls it, it would be the Upper East Side’s High Line, complete with benches, sculptures, and food stands. Few New Yorkers may be aware that Park Avenue was originally designed to have a park running down its spine. A black-and-white photograph, taken in the 1920s of ladies and gentleman relaxing on benches in the center of Park Avenue Mall, attests to the glamour of the bygone days of Park Avenue.

Top: A High Line for the East Side 

Bottom: Original Design of Park Avenue