Volume 16 • Issue 42 | March 19 - 25, 2004


Don’t run mores streets through the W.T.C.

By David Stanke

The city released this map last year proposing running Cortlandt and Dey Sts. through the World Trade Center site.

New York City is again asserting itself in the details of designing the World Trade Center site. The issue is whether additional vehicular access to the W.T.C. will enhance or detract from the pedestrian experience and street level vitality.

In an official response to the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. regarding the W.T.C. Amended General Project Plan, the City Planning Commission recommends extending Cortlandt and Dey Sts. an additional block into W.T.C. The objective is to create the street life typical of other successful Manhattan neighborhoods. It is appropriate for Mayor Bloomberg to represent the city’s needs at the W.TC., but unfortunately, this suggestion would create a standard Midtown block with pedestrians and autos competing for space instead of creating a new vision for an urban pedestrian center supported by convenient public transportation

The city planners do not understand how this unique location thrives. The primary limitation of W.T.C. I was poor pedestrian access at ground level, not lack of vehicular access. In neighborhood workshops sponsored by the L.M.D.C. and the city, the primary transportation findings were that “projects should benefit pedestrians and...the use of mass transit.” I recommend that the C.P.C. present its plans to Community Board 1 and again listen to constituents familiar with the WTC who dedicate their time toward improving our Downtown.

The Port Authority plans for the W.T.C. site include two streets crossing the 16 acres — Greenwich St. running south and Fulton St. running west. These streets will add vehicular access that might contribute to overall traffic flow Downtown. But the addition of two streets running east and west between Church and Greenwich will be too small to have any impact on broader traffic patterns. Instead, these dead end streets will consume valuable space to support a few vehicles circling through the site. They will detract from street level retail and vitality by driving pedestrians into underground passages to get from subways to locations outside of the site.

One stated assumption behind these design changes is that street traffic adds to the vitality of an area. But vehicles have little impact at best, and probably detract from pedestrian vitality. Consider West St., 10th and 11th avenues. These are large heavily trafficked roads, but there are long sections with limited retail activity and no street life. Now consider Rockefeller Center that fills three long blocks (300 meters wide) with only east-west access through the site. This configuration creates a relaxed pedestrian environment capable of comfortably handling crowds at rush hour.

Consider Soho, which thrives because of local character, an artistic reputation, and magnet retail. But we moved out of that neighborhood because the combination of cars and pedestrians was more than the area could handle. Facilities that draw pedestrians in create vitality, while short blocks and frequent traffic lights kill the experience.

Another implied assumption of the city is that mega-blocks are barriers to movement that create dead areas. This was the case at the original W.T.C, where the buildings walled off the plaza centered in a 12-block fortress with no street level retail. With the latest W.T.C. designs, though, the commercial space configured in a one-block wide L-shaped pattern does not create a mega-block. Every location in this area is within one half block from a street, similar to Rockefeller Center. Only the memorial acts as a mega-block.

The statement by the C.P.C. suggests that the city does not have large blocks elsewhere, except for “Significant public buildings like Grand Central.” I wonder if they see the disconnect of that statement. The W.T.C. will be a Downtown Grand Central. It will be a public transportation hub with masses of pedestrian traffic interspersed throughout the day. Office towers will be integrated with the space, as they are at Grand Central, but more so. No local streets run through Grand Central. Grand Central is six contiguous blocks and has no vitality problem. Grand Central is very New York.

Mega-blocks work in Manhattan when they support the pedestrian traffic from transportation hubs, have magnet retail or a tourist attraction, or support substantial commercial space. This is the definition of the W.T.C.

The objective in designing city space is to minimize the distance from any location to a street while maximizing the distance one can walk without encountering traffic. The W.T.C. as designed by Daniel Libeskind, the Port Authority and the L.M.D.C. will accomplish this with long narrow blocks of buildings radiating out from the transportation hub. Every building will have street access on at least two sides. More importantly, every building is conveniently linked to public transportation through uninterrupted, underground sheltered walkways.

The city’s report contains some good suggestions and concerns, but their foremost objective is to create something that does not exist anywhere else in the city: a transportation hub jammed beneath a traditional N.Y.C. street grid. The result of these suggestions would be a less desirable transportation hub; congested, slow moving sidewalks; and wasted space consumed by streets with few cars. I urge City Planning to use the experience from elsewhere in the city to create a vision of a pedestrian urban center for Downtown.

David Stanke is co-president of BPC United and can be reached at bpcunited@ebond.com.


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