Indeed, entering the Main Concourse of Grand Central Terminal is a pleasure that rivals few others. For me, it took me by surprise: walking, as New Yorkers do, in a determined beeline through an undistinguished tunnel, I was suddenly struck by light. I stopped, as New Yorkers never do, to observe a vaulted, starry ceiling, the changing light, and multitudes of people whipping by.
Grand Central is one of New York’s most beloved icons, one of the few which tourists and natives share alike. Which is not to say, of course, that it isn’t in need of a face-lift.
The Terminal’s upcoming centennial, which corresponds with proposed re-zoning laws that would completely change the face of Midtown, makes now the perfect moment to consider how Grand Central’s grandeur can be preserved and its neighborhood reinvigorated. Last week, the Metropolitan Art Society (MAS) invited three firms to share their visions - and while SOM’s gravity-defying “halo” may have stolen the show, only one truly captured the spirit of Grand Central, and explored the full potential of what it could - and should - one day be.
Grand’s Growing Pains
100 years old,The Grand Central of 2012 suffers from two main ailments.
One, “acute overcrowding” and daily pedestrian traffic jams. Designed for a traffic flow of about 75,000, Grand Central regularly sees 10-12 times that many people in a day - a fact no rush-hour commuter could fail to notice. And with progress being made in the East Side Access Project, which will connect Long Island commuters to the station, those numbers are only expected to swell.
Two, a “dead” neighborhood. As any stranded Grand Central traveller knows, the station is effectively isolated from the rest of Manhattan by a 2-block radius of “nothingness”: after 7pm, there’s nothing to do and nowhere to go. As Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan points out in her article for Fast Co.Design, “the area is in danger of becoming an auxiliary neighborhood to Times Square, full of hotels and chain restaurants.” For one of Manhattan’s most historic neighborhoods, that would truly be a tragic fate.
But while a proposed zoning law modification by City Planning offers an incredible opportunity to tackle these growing pains, it also poses an imminent threat.
The Potential Pitfalls of Re-Zoning
The proposed plan aims to promote Midtown East (which, according to City Planning representative Frank Ruchala, has experienced virtually no growth in the last five years) as a viable, global business destination. Current law limits the size of new office towers: they must be smaller than those which stood when the law was passed in 1961. The new zoning would allow companies to buy rights to taller buildings, with the area around Grand Central getting the tallest zoning allowances.
Developers will also be required to pay a “district improvement bonus” earmarked for infrastructure upgrades, such as improving access to the subway, expanding public spaces, and creating pedestrian areas.
The change raises a few concerns: first, obviously, the fear of ever-more traffic in an already highly congested part of Manhattan; and, second, that developers could produce a “soulless,” financial district that would swallow Grand Central whole. In the words of one op-ed columnist for The New York Post, the million-dollar “strings” (a.k.a the improvement bonus) could “deter all but the richest, most ruthless developers.”
However, as the three plans presented at MAS show, there’s no reason why this doomsday scenario must come to fruition, that “big” must necessarily be “bad.” As Vin Cipolla, MAS president, pointed out: "the public experience must be at the center of the conversation — not the size of the buildings." And indeed, all three firms, cognizant of the potential for a “private land grab,” focused on imagining a Grand Central that is the centerpiece of a lively public space.
Understated and Over-the Top
All three plans sought to improve accessibility and mobility, and bring the pedestrian from the margins to the forefront, by designing pedestrian-friendly spaces that would bring life back to Grand Central.
Foster + Partners’ vision, although not the sexiest, did the most to suggest logistical improvements that would vastly improve the current overcrowding of the Terminal: wider concourses, new and improved entrances, streets reconfigured as shared vehicle/pedestrian routes, enlarged underground spaces, pedestrian corridors lined with trees, sculptures, and cafés.
All great suggestions. But, in my mind, the practical plan left something to be desired.
The same could not be said of SOM’s vision, which has been reduced by the media to its most prominent feature: “the halo,” “the UFO,” “the flying donut.” Yes, the moving, circular observation deck (which rises above Grand Central for a 360-degree panorama of the city) clearly calls attention - and thank goodness, seeing as the entire point of the MAS summit was to generate debate about Grand Central’s future.
But let’s not forget that SOM’s plan also included the creation of pedestrian corridors and condensed public spaces - a plan to revitalize the Terminal at the ground level, which has little to do with the scene-stealing deck. Indeed, I’m inclined to agree with the analysis of Fast Co.Design’s Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan, who says the deck is “a bit like an actual donut: saccharine, overwhelming, and nutritionally suspect.”
Moreover, for me, the beauty of Grand Central is that it’s not a self-conscious tourist attraction; rather, it attracts attention by default of its grandeur. A flying “donut” could not say the same.
The Happy Medium
However, the plan proposed by WXY Architecture and Urban Design fell somewhere between a “grand civic gesture” and a practical solution.
Much like the other plans, WXY’s suggested pedestrian-only streets and new public spaces. Like SOM, they suggested turning the Park Avenue Viaduct into a High-Line-esque pedestrian/bicycle path, with a glass floor and seasonal plantings. But WXY also proposed “unharnessing the potential” of the Terminal’s edges, linking the station to its neighborhood.
Even the proposed tower, featuring a roof garden and various “sky parks,” is less an iconic gesture than an expression of the prioritization of green, healthy spaces.
Although I’ll admit that the execution of the tower is somewhat lackluster, I believe that the tone of WXY’s plan is exactly spot-on. It provides all the necessary practical adjustments to the Station; prioritizes the life of the neighborhood; and, with a symbolic tower, acknowledges this new era of development. Instead of converting Grand Central into the sidekick of a modern-day marvel, WXY’s plan modestly proposes creating a “place people enjoy being in [and] not just running through .”
Under their vision, Midtown East would become a place to stop and ponder, and Grand Central would keep its rightful place of privilege. For me, it came the closest to what Grand Central is all about: “an ennobling experience, a gift.”