Issuu on Google+

Alexander Garvin Looks at Public Spaces in New York - NYTimes.com

HOME PAGE

TODAY'S PAPER

VIDEO

MOST POPULAR

12/5/12 10:54 AM

Subscribe to Home Delivery

TIMES TOPICS

U.S.

N.Y. / REGION

BUSINESS

TECHNOLOGY

ART & DESIGN

BOOKS

SCIENCE DANCE

HEALTH

MOVIES

MUSIC

Help

Search All NYTimes.com

Art & Design WORLD

cross3...

SPORTS

OPINION

TELEVISION

ARTS

THEATER

Treasuring Urban Oases

STYLE

TRAVEL

VIDEO GAMES

JOBS

REAL ESTATE

AUTOS

EVENTS

Log in to see what your friends are sharing on nytimes.com. Privacy Policy | What’s This?

Log In With Facebook

What’s Popular Now Despite Bob Dole’s Wish, Republicans Reject Disabilities Treaty

Mayor Clinton? Bloomberg Urged Her to Consider a Run

Richard Perry/The New York Times

The fountain at Bryant Park in Midtown. More Photos » By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN Published: December 2, 2011

Alexander Garvin, natty in bowtie and jacket, watched commuters hustle through the gray, sunken concrete plaza at Citigroup Center on Lexington Avenue. Across 53rd Street, in the fading afternoon light, more New Yorkers ducked into a faceless subway kiosk on the triangular patch of wind-swept sidewalk — ostensibly a second public plaza — that occupies the southeast corner. This is the city’s public realm, or part of it.

RECOMMEND TWITTER

TicketWatch: Theater Offers by E-Mail Sign up for ticket offers from Broadway shows and other advertisers.

LINKEDIN

cross3@sva.edu

E-MAIL

Change E-mail Address | Privacy Policy

PRINT REPRINTS SHARE

Multimedia

Slide Show

What passes for public space in many crowded neighborhoods often means some token gesture by a developer, built in exchange for the right to erect a taller skyscraper. Mr. Garvin, an architect, urban planner and veteran of five city administrations, going back to the era of Mayor John V. Lindsay (1966-73), has spent the better part of the last half-century thinking about these spaces.

Walking New York’s Public Spaces

“The public realm is what we own and control,” he told me

MOST E-MAILED

23

articles in the past month

RECOMMENDED FOR YOU

All Recommendations

1. A Forlorn Shuttle Points to Progress in the Rockaways 2. Antarctic Eats

3.

THE TEXAS TRIBUNE

Some See Logistical Issues and Elitism in

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/04/arts/design/alexander-garvin-looks-at-public-spaces-in-new-york.html?pagewanted=all

Page 1 of 5


Alexander Garvin Looks at Public Spaces in New York - NYTimes.com

Connect With Us on Twitter Follow @nytimesarts for arts and entertainment news.

Arts Twitter List: Critics, Reporters and Editors

A sortable calendar of noteworthy cultural events in the New York region, selected by Times critics. Go to Event Listings » Enlarge This Image

the other day when we met to look around Midtown. More than just common property, he added, “the streets, squares, parks, infrastructure and public buildings make up the fundamental element in any community — the framework around which everything else grows.” Or should grow. Writing in The New York Times last week, Christopher B. Leinberger, a professor of urban planning, took note of “a profound structural shift” in America during the last decade or so, “a reversal of what took place in the 1950s.” Back then drivable suburbs boomed while center cities decayed. Now more and more people want to settle in “a walkable urban downtown.” The most expensive housing in the country, and not just New York City, is in “high-density, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods,” he said. But what makes high-density neighborhoods pedestrian friendly? Good public space, for starters.

12/5/12 10:54 AM

Toll Lanes

4.

OPINION

Beyond Black and White in the Mississippi Delta 5. Terms of Greek Bond Buyback Top Expectations 6.

RECIPES FOR HEALTH

For Holiday Party Fare, Try a Purée 7.

RECIPES FOR HEALTH

Carrot Purée 8.

LOOK

Folk Medicine 9. Still Building at the Edges of the City, Even as Tides Rise 10.

OPINION

Many More Images, Much Less Meaning PRESENTED BY

Go to Your Recommendations » What’s This? | Don’t Show

The best public spaces encourage diverse urban experiences, from people watching to protesting, daydreaming to handball, eating, reading and sunbathing to strolling and snoozing. Witness the High Line. The park opened a couple of years ago on the West Side with no special program of cultural offerings or other headline attractions to lure people. The attraction was, and remains, Richard Perry/The New York Times the place itself. Its success shows how much can be Alexander Garvin in Grand Central achieved, economically and architecturally, when city Terminal. More Photos » government and private interests make the public realm, on a grand scale, their shared interest. Governors Island is another enlightened urban experiment. Leslie Koch, its president, has been planning the island to respond to what people want to do there. The layout of green spaces, bike paths, playgrounds and pavilions evolves as the public uses the place each summer, a process that flips around how most public spaces get designed. That said, in a contentious city where you can’t plant a single tree without somebody complaining to City Hall, expecting the public to oversee the design of the public realm at large is nuts. Besides, as everybody learned about Zuccotti Park, much public space is not even really public but privately owned, and landlords find ways to restrict access by cutting hours or limiting activities. We’ve been so fixated on fancy new buildings that we’ve lost sight of the spaces they occupy and we share. Last month Mr. Garvin addressed a conclave of architects, planners and public officials from around the country and abroad, who met on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of New York’s landmark 1961 zoning resolution. That resolution established the incentive program for private developers, whereby developers construct public spaces — plaza “bonuses,” in zoning lingo — in return for bigger buildings. Acres of some of the costliest real estate in town have been turned into arcades and squares as a consequence, but sheer space, the urban sociologist Holly Whyte famously observed, is not “of itself” what people need or want. Quality, not quantity, is the issue.

Pastel construction toys for girls and their fathers ALSO IN BUSINESS »

Why training workers costs more than you think Degree inflation? Jobs that newly require B.A.'s

Ads by Google

what's this?

Planning Master's Online Master in Urban & Regional Planning No Planning or Work Exp. Required!

UrbanPlanningMasters.UFL.edu

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/04/arts/design/alexander-garvin-looks-at-public-spaces-in-new-york.html?pagewanted=all

Page 2 of 5


Alexander Garvin Looks at Public Spaces in New York - NYTimes.com

12/5/12 10:54 AM

Mr. Garvin argues that the city should reverse its approach, zoning neighborhoods like Midtown, Lower Manhattan and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, by thinking first about the shape of public space instead of private development. And it was clear why on our walk. We started at the Citigroup Plaza, which is far from the worst public space in the city. With a few shops, trees and the entrances to the building and subway drawing people down into it, it’s at least busier and less glum than most sunken plazas, and inviting in ways that the barren patch of sidewalk across the street isn’t. But the two sites were developed piecemeal, as separate footnotes to skyscrapers. “If from the beginning,” Mr. Garvin said, the city had organized “all the subway entrances, stairways, corridors, shops and plazas through which pedestrians flow and into which sunlight should penetrate, this might have been a great public space.” Rockefeller Center, Times Square and Bryant Park (which copies much from European landmarks like the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris), are among the world’s great public spaces and they are also commercial hubs. The goal is to learn from their success, and avoid lost opportunities like Lexington Avenue and 53rd Street. The Dutch today put together what they call “structure plans” when they undertake big new public projects, like their high-speed rail station in Rotterdam: before celebrity architects show up, urban designers are called in to work out how best to organize the sites for the public good. It’s a formalized, fine-grained approach to the public realm. By contrast, big urban projects on the drawing board in New York still tend to be the products of negotiations between government agencies anxious for economic improvement and private developers angling for zoning exemptions. As with the ill-conceived Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, the streets, subway entrances and plazas around Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues, where millions of New Yorkers will actually feel the development’s effects, seem like they’ve hardly been taken into account. Meanwhile the public demand for parks, squares and more pedestrian-oriented streets only grows. Every new plaza the city opens, like the recent one on Gansevoort Street, instantly fills up; local shop owners reap the benefits. Retail sales rose in Times Square after Broadway was closed to traffic two years ago and became a pedestrian plaza, contrary to what some businesses there feared. The transformation of Times Square required brave thinking by the Bloomberg administration. The same level of daring might help blossoming neighborhoods like Bushwick, Brooklyn, and could yet redeem New York’s most ignominious failure to safeguard the public realm, Penn Station. Creative redesign (turn 33rd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues into a car-free, glassed-over pedestrian gateway to the station) and a little hardball politics (find another home for Madison Square Garden) might still turn the Farley Post Office into a dignified Amtrak terminal and bring some light and air into what is now a rat’s warren of a transit hub suffered by 550,000 commuters each day. From the Citigroup Center, Mr. Garvin navigated the northern sidewalk along 53rd Street, made nearly impassable by a phalanx of planted security bollards. At Park Avenue he climbed the steps leading up to the plaza of Mies van der Rohe’s great Seagram Building, a modernized Italian piazza raised a few feet above Park Avenue. Imagine, Mr. Garvin said, if Park Avenue were altogether redesigned now for the public realm. “Why should there be a median that no one uses?” he asked. “Suppose the street was reconfigured, with one of the sidewalks widened and connected to the plazas along the street? You don’t build great public spaces incrementally,” he repeated, and marched on toward Rockefeller Center. Its pedestrian passage, lined with brightly lighted shops, meticulously maintained, sloping

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/04/arts/design/alexander-garvin-looks-at-public-spaces-in-new-york.html?pagewanted=all

Page 3 of 5


Alexander Garvin Looks at Public Spaces in New York - NYTimes.com

12/5/12 10:54 AM

toward the skating rink, framing the view that unfolds when you arrive; its network of subway entrances, underground concourses and open spaces, carefully mapped out from the start: what makes Rockefeller Center special, its Art Deco details aside, is how the site was conceived around public space. “It doesn’t get better than this,” Mr. Garvin said. In Times Square he lamented the forest of telephone booths and lampposts that have become archaic impediments in the era of cellphones and lighted signs, but he praised the farsighted zoning law enacted in the Edward I. Koch era that demanded those lighted signs. In Bryant Park Mr. Garvin exalted the plan by which local businesses bonded together during the 1980s and retailers on the site helped to pay for one of the most incredible urban transformations in New York history. Once a crime-ridden symbol of urban blight and the bankruptcy of public space, the park was a crowded wonderland the other day, with its Christmas market, food stalls and cafes. Mr. Garvin’s final destination, as dusk turned to dark: Grand Central. Packed with commuters, it’s a daily reminder of how the public realm, at its best, speaks to the aspirations of a society and the nobility of a great city. He spread his arms. “We ought to be able to learn from this,” he said. That was his challenge to public officials. And to the rest of us too. This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Correction: December 11, 2011 An article last Sunday about public spaces in New York gave an outdated name for the skyscraper at 601 Lexington Avenue. It is Citigroup Center, no longer Citicorp Center. A version of this article appeared in print on December 4, 2011, on page AR1 of the New York edition with the headline: Treasuring Urban Oases.

E-MAIL PRINT REPRINTS

Get Free E-mail Alerts on These Topics

Architecture Garvin, Alexander Manhattan (NYC) Restoration and Renovation Ads by Google

what's this?

Christmas is… Christ Learn about the story of Christmas & share what it means to you.

www.mormon.org/christmas

INSIDE NYTIMES.COM DINING & WINE »

OPINION »

HEALTH »

BOOKS »

OPINION »

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/04/arts/design/alexander-garvin-looks-at-public-spaces-in-new-york.html?pagewanted=all

U.S. »

Page 4 of 5


Alexander Garvin Looks at Public Spaces in New York - NYTimes.com

12/5/12 10:54 AM

Editorial: Rigging the Financial System

Gluten-Free Dishes Become More Tempting

Home

World

U.S.

Invitation to a Dialogue: How to Treat A.D.H.D.

N.Y. / Region

© 2011 The New York Times Company

Business Privacy

For Athletes, Risks from Ibuprofen Use

Technology

Your Ad Choices

Science

Health

Terms of Service

Will authorities really hold banks and bankers accountable for Professor Who Learns From manipulating interest rates? Peasants

Sports

Opinion

Terms of Sale

Arts

Style

Corrections

Travel RSS

Jobs

Help

Penn Museum Pushes for Broader Public Appeal

Real Estate

Contact Us

Autos

Work for Us

Site Map Advertise

MORE IN ART & DESIGN (1 OF 50 ARTICLES)

Stretching Her Creativity as Far as Possible Read More »

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/04/arts/design/alexander-garvin-looks-at-public-spaces-in-new-york.html?pagewanted=all

Page 5 of 5


Alexander Garvin Loos at Public Space in New York