Sunday, October 5, 2008

Modifying the Grand Army Plaza of Olmsted and Vaux

Today, Sunday, October 5, (Sunday?) is the deadline for the public to cast its votes respecting proposals for how Grand Army Plaza might be redesigned.

The proposals have been solicited in a contest by Design Trust for Public Space. See also: How Would You Reinvent Grand Army Plaza? by Brad Aaron

The proposals are on view at their site and also in the very center of Grand Army Plaza itself.

The proposals are numerous and not easy to take in and evaluate at either site. Evaluating them to vote is not a quick proposition. Deciding which are the best will take anybody a fair amount of time. Noticing New York is not going to deliver a verdict in favor of particular proposal but will note that not all of the proposals selected as winners by the separately conducted vote of an official panel of judges should have won.

Olmsted and Vaux

Rather than try to select the best plan, it is better to deal in general principles. It should also be noted that NOT among the competing entries was one that should have been: the original design by Olmsted and Vaux. We may not be able to do better than that and, if we can’t, we shouldn’t be cavalier about modifying it.

However excellent that original plan may be, the suggestion that we give some attention to modifying the design of Grand Army Plaza is a superb idea. The plaza could work better than it currently does. What doesn’t work well now probably has less to do with the original Olmsted and Vaux design than with the advent of the automobile.

What Works Now

Here are the ways the current design of the plaza works well:

1. Noticing New York has previously cited how excellently the raised berms (the tree-planted hills) on the sides of the plaza serve to attenuate noise on the residential streets that surround the plaza. (See: Wednesday, July 23, 2008, Sound Abatement / Highway Noise Attenuation Measures.)

2. The berms are bordered on the outer edges of the plaza by encircling streets (Plaza Street, East and West). These streets intercept and provide access (with a cul-dul-sac style handling) five spoking quieter streets: St. John’s Place (East), Lincoln Place, Berkeley Place, Butler Place and St. John’s Place (West). (Just one of these spokes, St. John’s Place coming from the west, also allows a driver access into the busy center of the plaza.) The berms and Plaza Streets serve to separate the traffic of those intercepted quieter streets from the busier thoroughfares intersecting at the plaza. At the same time this keeps the quieter streets quiet and prevents what would otherwise be an unmanageable tangle of roads.

3. The Plaza Streets’ interception of the quieter streets also creates a lot of contiguous flowing plaza parkland-berm that would not otherwise be possible.

4. The Plaza Streets also gather and allow for the collective feeding of the intercepted quiet streets into what functions as the center traffic circle of the inner plaza.

5. The plaza manages to accommodate with reasonably effective interplay the intersection of spokes for the following ten routes, six of them 2-way and only one of them not major:
a. Flatbush Avenue (2-way from and to the north)
b. Flatbush Avenue (2-way from and to the south)
c. Union Street (2-way from and to the north)
d. Vanderbilt Avenue (2-way from and to the north)
e. Eastern Parkway (2-way from and to the east)
f. West Drive going into Prospect Park (2-way from and to the south)
g. Prospect Park West (1-way to the south)
h. Plaza Street East (1-way from the north)
i. Plaza Street West (1-way from the west)
j. St. John’s Place (1-way from the west). This is the only street which is not a major route and the effect of this intersecting non-major road is slightly less because some traffic turning onto Plaza Street (West) is siphoned away without going into the plaza center.

6. The plaza has the gracious central landmark arch.

7. The plaza has the superb central interior space and sculptural fountain.

8. The plaza serves as a cue and an extension for Prospect Park, which it abuts.

What Doesn’t Work Now

Here are the ways the current design of the plaza is not working well:

1. The central portions of the plaza, shackled in a fast-moving ring of traffic, are almost impossible to reach.

2. The traffic that encircles the plaza center subjects the plaza to an inordinate amount of noise. The level of noise is more extreme because the traffic moves fast and there are no features comparable to the berms to help abate the sound.

3. There is a huge amount of wasted space inside and alongside the main interior traffic circle. This can easily be seen if you study the Google Earth picture. Much space is wasted because the streets of the interior traffic circle have been designed like highway cloverleafs with the gentlest curves possible that encourage acceleration to high speeds.

4. The landmark arch is not connected with any thematic formality to the nearby central fountain area even though there are no roads separating them.

5. Neither the interior plaza nor the encircling park berm areas connect to Prospect Park as well as they could. This also has to do with how the area abutting the Prospect Park entrance (used for the local farmers market) integrates with the plaza space.

6. Even if area visitors do not succeed in physically accessing the plaza’s interior, that interior has ornamental value when seen from afar. Unfortunately, the extreme visual clutter of the roadways detracts from the appreciation that is possible in this regard.

7. The plaza could also interrelate better with the adjacent plaza space belonging to the public library.

Possibilities for Improvement

What are some of the things that could be done? Some of the competing plans may or may not comport in some ways with the list of suggestion below.

1. The interior plaza design should be less accommodating to a high speed flow of the major routes moving through it. Slowing down the traffic that moves through the inner plaza will reduce noise. Most traffic noise is tire noise and tire noise is always substantially greater as speed picks up. All the major routes that flow through the plaza are inner-city routes that are typically slowed to a normal city pace by traveling through intersections. There is no reason why traffic in the plaza should not be kept at or below these normal speeds. Instead the roads, with fewer intersections and gentle curves, are designed so that traffic can accelerate while moving through what should a green idyll. Slowing and quieting the traffic for this short stretch should not significantly diminish overall car trip times.

2. Curtailing and eliminating the gentle curves that now accommodate the car traffic will offer opportunities for reconnecting, greening, making sense out of and minimizing the currently wasted spaces within the plaza.

3. The improvements that would be most dramatic but also most expensive involve allowing the central plaza to connect with the park space in the surrounding berms by putting a lot of the inner roadway below the park with grade changes. This could be done by submerging the roads. Or, because the berms are elevated landscape, it could perhaps be more easily engineered by elevating the park and walkways over the roads. A substantial amount of road would have to be covered over to make the sight and sound of the roads disappear. Sidewalks, or some of the sidewalks, disappearing underneath the elevated park could be sacrificed, replaced by elevated park pathways. The effect would be to put the fountain and triumphal arch in something like a bowl or amphitheater. There would also be a vantage of Prospect Park from this new hill and vice versa.

4. There is a possibility of shrinking the number and perhaps width of some of the interior traffic lanes.

5. It may not be in the offing, but some roadway and turn-off eliminations might be possible if some of the routes traveling through the plaza were converted to one-way.

6. Thought should be given to having the central traffic circle serve fewer roads. The roadways in and out of Prospect Park could possibly be eliminated. This would be consistent with the effort to have cars use the park less or not at all. A particularly great amount of roadway through the plaza is devoted to traffic using West Drive to exit Prospect Park. Similarly, should the turnoff from the traffic circle that allows cars to travel south on Unison Street be eliminated?

7. To the extent that cars will still travel through the plaza, thought could be given to baffling the noise from their wheels and some sort of ornamental screening that diminishes their visual impact.

Grand Army Plaza and the Unity Plan

It is worth noting that the community UNITY plan, proposed as a preferential plan for the development of the Vanderbilt Railyards (instead of the foundering Atlantic Yards plan), envisions creating a new related public square to the north on Flatbush Avenue. The UNITY plan designers had the forethought to consider the nearby Grand Army Plaza on a conceptually integrated basis. (See page 25 of the full downloadable version of the plan.)

The Yards forms the northern edge of a triangle that includes the Vanderbilt and Flatbush Avenue Corridors. One corner is defined by Grand Army Plaza. Another corner is formed by the Atlantic Terminal. Rather than increase the congestion around the Atlantic Terminal by adding even more density, we propose an alternative strategy that concentrates density at the Vanderbilt/Atlantic intersection. This will improve that currently underdeveloped intersection and create the opportunity for a large new public square at the Atlantic Terminal, providing an experience similar to Union Square. This results in a reasonable density that makes the project economically viable without overwhelming the neighborhood.

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