Astor Place figures prominently in New York’s collective imagination. It acquired that character thanks to its location and significance in the city’s cultural history, but as a series of public spaces, it’s fairly uninspiring. In a coordinated effort between the departments of Transportation and Parks and Recreation, a new plan is moving toward approval that would increase the amount of public space, improve storm water drainage, and increase the amount of planting, all while attempting to preserve the area’s informal, spontaneous atmosphere.
Designed by WXY architecture + urban design with Quennell Rothschild & Partners landscape architects, the project area includes the two plaza segments at Astor Place, Cooper Square, the areas south to 3rd Street, and all sidewalks connecting them. Arguably the biggest change will be the closure of Astor Place itself to traffic, creating a large plaza in front of the Gwathmey Seigel–designed mirrored condominium building. This plaza, which contains the famous Tony Rosenthal sculpture Alamo—colloquially known as “The Cube”—will be left largely open, but the plaza’s surface will be subtly contoured to direct rainwater into a bio-swale and stand of trees at the southern end of the plaza. The Cube will be moved about six feet westward to create a new view corridor. “We want The Cube to be visible coming from Union Square,” said Claire Weisz, a principal at WXY. “We also want to preserve the feeling of open-endedness, so that Astor Place is still a site where spontaneous performances and unplanned encounters can happen.”
Across 8th Street, the plaza with the subway entrance will also be expanded. New trees will be added, as well as benches of informally stacked blocks of stone. A large oak tree—like those found at Cooper Square—will anchor the plaza at the southeast corner. It, too, will feature a bio-swale and improved storm water management. A similar large oak will be planted caddy corner from the front of the Cooper Union Foundation Building.
Cooper Square will be expanded, and feature lushly planted beds by Piet Oudoff and benches lining its perimeter. The existing oaks and monument will be preserved. “The language will be a bit more traditional at Cooper Square,” Weisz said, in deference to its more historic character.
Additional trees will line both sides of a significantly narrowed 4th Avenue. Near the juncture of 3rd and 4th avenues, where a series of scraggly street trees and narrow medians now stand, an expansive plaza will be created along the west side of 4th Avenue. This space, near the entrance to a new private high school being opened by nearby Grace Church, will be left largely unprogrammed, with the exception of another new stand of trees. “We want it open for interpretation,” Weisz said. Fourth Avenue, which currently meets 3rd on the diagonal, creating a wide, wedge-shaped expanse of roadway, will be redirected into a curve. The new plaza will be carved from the former roadbed.
For the designers, the project is a showcase of what can be done within the framework of the city’s new street design guidelines. “It’s a real deployment of all the new techniques,” Weisz said.