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A new, 2,400-square-foot pocket park has been wedged within the crowded grid of Midtown, Manhattan. The 50th Street Commons was designed by AECOM and takes its inspiration from the beloved Paley Park just blocks north. A water feature on the back wall defines the space, but the new park is more than a micro oasis. It masks a ventilation system for the MTA’s long-delayed and over-budget East Side Access project. The new access, which will connect the Long Island Rail Road with Grand Central Terminal, is now scheduled for completion in 2022.
“50th Street Commons is our way of giving back to the Midtown Manhattan community, which has endured the inconveniences of construction for a number of years,” said Dr. Michael Horodniceanu, the president of MTA Capital Construction, in a statement. “While most of the construction for East Side Access is underground, this is an aspect of the project that will be a visible improvement for everyone in Manhattan.”
Andrew Lavallee, a principal at AECOM, explained that while 50th Street Commons is roughly organized like Paley, the architects took steps to differentiate it from the modernist retreat. “Paley is a piece of sculpture,” he said, “this is a piece of landscape.”
To create a more “voluptuous” feel for the space, AECOM flanked the park’s walls with vines and trellises, and used curved planting boxes to bring landscaped elements into the main space. In total, 22 plant species were incorporated into the narrow park. Paving and seating, made of green and black granite, extend from the sidewalk to the glass waterfall, which changes colors throughout the day. As with Paley, moveable tables and chairs are stationed in front of the water feature.
Creating a public park atop such a significant ventilation system presented a unique, and fairly obvious, challenge for AECOM and the MTA: how to dampen unwanted noise. “We always understood that acoustics were going to be an issue,” said Lavallee in an email, “so we designed the water as a ‘masking’ of the vent noise and ambient street noise rather than competing with it. We were relying on psychological proximity of distraction more than anything else.” The vent is located behind the water feature.
The MTA says it did its part to reduce noise levels as well. The agency used dampers and sound absorbing materials within the facility to stop as much of the sounds as possible from reaching the street level. AECOM started work on the design in 2007 and received the UrbanMerit Award from the New York chapter of the AIA the following year.
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Emma Pattiz is Policy Coordinator for the AIA New York Chapter.
Consistently ranked as one of the most bike friendly cities in the United States, San Francisco—where over 3 percent of the population commutes by bicycle—has its sights aimed high. The long-term bicycle plan put into effect five years ago—officially dubbed the 2009 San Francisco Bicycle Plan––has lofty aims to increase bike ridership to 20 percent by 2020 through a series of projects. As of this year, 87 percent of the projects, or 52 out of the 60 projects in the 2009 plan, are complete.
This past year the Bay Area Bike Share opened, and other initiatives will soon see the light of day. A long-term goal includes adding over 30 miles of bike lanes to the more than 45 miles that currently exist in the city. Officials want to make cycling safer and more appealing to everyone. “We are focusing on better connecting the bike network. We don’t want a fragmented approach,” said San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) spokesperson, Ben Jose.
Opened last year, the Bay Area Bike Share (BABS) now has 3,000 annual members and 28,000 casual riders (those with one or three day passes). There are 350 bikes and 35 stations in San Francisco, with another 400 bikes and 35 stations in nearby cities including Palo Alto, San Jose, Mountain View, and Redwood City. The bikes and stations are operated by Alta Bicycle Share, and received $11 million in public funding.
Plans to expand are being put on hold. When the bike-share opened, the original plan was to push out 1,000 bikes across the bay and 50 stations in San Francisco within the first year. But completing this phase—distributing an additional 300 more bikes to the five Bay Area cities and 15 more stations in San Francisco—could take up to two more years. Alta Bicycle Share is changing ownership, and the companies providing the hardware and software for the bikes have filed for bankruptcy. The city wants to add 3,000 more bikes, but this would depend on securing an additional $25 million through sponsorships.
In an area that has become filled with coffee shops, cafes, and parklets, a portion of Valencia Street will get the first raised bikeway in the city (pictured, left). In an effort to improve north/south access, it will upgrade the southbound existing bike lane on a portion of Valencia Street, between Duncan and Caesar Chavez streets. The bikeway will lie in between the pedestrian sidewalk and the road.
This effort is part of the Green Infrastructures and the Mission & Valencia Gateway Projects, helmed by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and the San Francisco Public Utility Commission. Along with the new bikeway, the project will also widen sidewalks, build two greened plazas, and install permeable pavement and rain gardens to help capture stormwater. Construction is expected to be complete by mid 2016.
Other raised bikeways planned in the city are on 2nd Street and Masonic Avenue. Each will add a fourth type of major bike infrastructure to the city that currently offers off-street bike paths, protected bike lanes that run along the roadway, and shared bike and automobile routes.
Another planned Green Infrastructure Initiative is the Wiggle Neighborhood Green Corridor. SFMTA and San Francisco’s Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) are partnering on this project.
The much beloved Wiggle is a zig-zagged flat route (formerly a toll road) that stretches from Market Street to Golden Gate Park, enabling cyclists and pedestrians to circumvent the city’s hills. Bikers have been using the path for years, but new green sharrows were added in 2012 to make it easier for riders to see the route.
The Wiggle initiative is also focusing on improving stormwater management by bringing in new, permeable pavement. Traffic calming measures are also in the works, including a traffic diverter at Scott and Fell streets and a raised intersection at Page and Scott streets. Improvements are being funded by the Sewer System Improvement Program and the 2011 Road Repaving and Street Safety Bond. They will cost SFMTA approximately $1.4 million.
SFMTA is focusing on making several districts safer and facilitating greater movement in the city. One project, the Polk Streetscape Project, which will include enhancements like green bike lanes, protected bike lanes, and bulb-outs, is undergoing Environmental Review and will be up for approval by the beginning of next year.
SFMTA is also looking at collisions, and have designated areas in the city as Cyclist High Entry Corridors (CHEC). Two of these areas are South of Market and the Embarcadero Waterfront. Another focus is Howard Street in South of Market, which serves as an east-west connector. SFMTA wants to better organize the roadway so people are safer and better oriented. They will narrow existing lanes and install buffered painted bike lanes—a short-term improvement to increase visibility. This would be the first of 24 projects as part of Vision 0—an initiative to bring traffic fatalities in the city down to 0 by 2024.
SFMTA officials are also developing a concrete design for the Embarcadero Waterfront––a 3-mile-long, mixed-use promenade—and hope to have concepts ready by the fall of 2015.
It is not just about making isolated bike infrastructure improvements, Jose emphasized. “It’s about complete streets, a new look at public right of way.”
When James Ramsey and Dan Barasch set out to turn a defunct trolley terminal underneath Manhattan’s Lower East Side into an open, airy park, they launched a Kickstarter. It was 2012 and they needed $100,000 to build a full-scale mockup of Ramsey’s “remote skylights” which would collect natural sunlight at the surface and funnel it into the 60,000-square-foot site through fiber optic tubes. If it worked, there would be enough light to sustain photosynthesis.
The team met its goal in six days, and ultimately exceeded it by more than $55,000. The installation was created that fall and, for the most part, the tessellated, aluminum light canopy, with its 600 individual panels, worked.
Courtesy The Lowline
But in the year-and-a-half since, the Lowline’s 15 minutes have come and gone. The project has been eclipsed by other Kickstarter campaigns, including ones for a floating pool, a floating beach, a floating party island, solar paneled streets, and so on and so forth. The Lowline, however, is not dead; the non-profit behind the project has a full-time staff that believes the park could be a reality by 2018. “The past year, and going forward at least another half year, we have been primarily focused on advocacy politically, and refining our technology and design process,” Ramsey recently told AN in his Tribeca office.
The 2012 installation was an integral piece in getting the Lowline to where it is today; it raised the project’s profile and proved that the technology was actually viable: an underground park could be filled with natural light.
“We learned a lot about the way the light actually behaves—physically and psychologically,” said Ramsey. “In order to actually have some sort of bearing or reference to how the natural sky works, it was important to strike a balance between directed parallel collimated light and ambient diffuse light.” He explained that he wants the light to create an inviting, timeless quality in the park.
This technology is still being refined and Ramsey was headed to South Korea to “suss out” an optics manufacturer the day after AN visited his office. But making the Lowline a reality will take more than technology—it will take cash, approximately $50 million.
Ramsey and Barasch are not planning another Kickstarter. Instead, they are pursuing corporate support, public grants, and said they have received “several seven-figure pledges” for the project. That money, though, is contingent on whether the Lowline gets access to the 1.5-acre site, which is controlled by the MTA.
Ramsey and Barasch said they are making progress on securing the space, but a spokesperson for the MTA told AN “there is nothing currently happening with regard to this former trolley location.”
But that could change as the proposed site of the Lowline is directly adjacent to Essex Crossing, a 1.9-million-square-foot development designed by SHoP that is expected to break ground in March. While Ramsey and Barasch said Essex Crossing and the Lowline can exist autonomously, the projects could connect through the mega-development’s “Market Line”—a retail corridor similar to Chelsea Market. Doing so, they say, would significantly boost public space at Essex Crossing.
“The Market Line is going to absorb a lot of the commercial activity and the Lowline will have its own design autonomy," said Vishaan Chakrabarti, a principal at SHoP.
Since its inception, the Lowline has been racking up political and community support, but ultimately needs City Hall’s blessing to move forward. Ramsey has not landed a meeting with the mayor just yet. “Understandably, the new mayor has been really busy,” he said.
For the time being, Ramsey and Barasch are pulling together all of the Lowline’s disparate pieces so that if—or when—they get the go-ahead, the project can be executed quickly and efficiently. “This is not like the mayor issues an RFP and it trickles down,” said Ramsey. “This is completely bottom-up urbanism.”