Nick Signorelli was walking north on a weekday along Park Avenue near Grand Central Terminal, a familiar route on his way to work as a lighting technician.
He was looking across the sea of traffic towards the welcoming strip of tulips and deep green grass in the middle of the avenue when a thought struck him: Why was the median so inhospitable to pedestrians? No footpath, no place to sit.
“It seems like a lot of wasted space,” said Mr. Signorelli, 27, who lives in Poughkeepsie, New York, about 80 miles north of Manhattan.
It’s been a long time, but it was once possible and even fashionable to stroll down a much different Park Avenue, one with a green strip of lush lawns and shrubs nearly ten meters wide. It was the city’s first linear park, where pedestrians took precedence over cars and there were plenty of benches to take a break.
Nearly a century later, the iconic stretch – home to the Waldorf Astoria and featured in the opening sequences of the TV show “The Odd Couple” – is far less welcoming. Not only are pedestrians discouraged from using the median, but it was also halved in 1927 to around 20 feet to make room for one more lane of traffic in each direction and accommodate the city’s growing automobile culture.
But today, at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has triggered a huge demand for more open space, plans are in place that could transform Park Avenue malls and return them to their original splendor.
Some of the options the city is considering include repatriating chairs and benches, as well as more ambitious ideas like widening the median, eliminating traffic lanes, and creating room for cycle lanes and footpaths. pedestrian.
Over the decades, said Janette Sadik-Khan, former transportation commissioner to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, “we let cars take over everything else and we ended up with a lot more avenues and a lot less parks.
The proposed renovation, she added, represents “a once-in-a-century opportunity to correct this problem and turn today’s asphalt wall into the walk our city deserves.”
The renovation of Park Avenue is prompted by a major underground transit project. A cavernous hangar used by Metro-North commuter trains entering and exiting Grand Central is over a century old and in need of major repairs.
The work requires tearing up nearly a dozen streets along Park Avenue from East 46th to East 57th Street, making possible a new vision for this stretch of track.
“The scope and timing of this large-scale project provides the city with an opportunity to redesign Park Avenue shopping malls,” Alana Morales, spokesperson for the city’s Department of Transportation, said in a statement. “We look forward to sharing more with public stakeholders as the rail hangar and median reconstruction projects move forward.
In a city where the pandemic has accelerated a movement to reclaim street space from cars, the removal of traffic lanes along Park Avenue is likely to elicit backlash from drivers who complain that the addition of pedestrian plazas and cycle paths throughout the city was successful. more and more difficult to move.
“Catastrophe,” said Leon Adams, 65, who owns a jewelry store on Park Avenue near 56th Street. “The traffic was already terrible and the city only makes it worse.”
He also questioned the appeal of spending a lot of time in the Midway Mall.
“Who wants to sit in the middle of traffic anyway?” he said.
But others say the city would be more livable with fewer cars, making the streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists, and creating less climate pollutants.
“Asphalt is an asset and New York has no shortage of it,” said Danny Harris, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group. “But we are wasting it.”
The debate gained new momentum during the pandemic, when the city turned many streets into car-free places to allow social distancing and make room for restaurants to serve dinners outside.
Many of these open streets, from Vanderbilt Avenue in Brooklyn to 34th Avenue in Queens, have become extremely popular. The desire to perpetuate these spaces and add even more emerges as a lasting legacy of the public health crisis.
Along Park Avenue, the availability of open space was relatively limited before the outbreak, said Alfred C. Cerullo III, president of the Grand Central Partnership, which oversees streetscape improvements.
A 2019 study based on city data by HR&A Advisors, a consulting firm, found that there was 1.1 square feet of green space per office worker along Park Avenue, far less than in other shopping districts – around the World Trade Center complex in Lower Manhattan, for example, each worker had 11.2 square feet of green space.
“What is missing here is an attractive public space,” Cerullo said.
Efforts were made over the years to beautify the avenue malls – tulips and begonias were planted in the 1950s, and two decades later fences were removed and flower beds were added.
But with the city facing a major financial crisis in the 1970s, maintenance dollars dried up and malls were largely neglected.
“No one was taking care of them,” said Victoria Spagnola, president of Patrons of Park Avenue, a local group that runs malls south of Grand Central, as she showed off the early spring blossom. “That’s what the neighbors do.”
Thanks to public-private partnerships and volunteering, shopping centers now have a colorful and artistic touch for their small size. Kanzan trees paint a pink and white sash on the asphalt, and a statue of Venus Genetrix by Chinese artist Xu Zhen is currently on display outside the Asia Society on 70th Street.
In 2018, a private design competition sponsored by Fisher Brothers, a real estate company that owns several properties on Park Avenue, sparked some whimsical ideas – a mini-golf course, a shark tank, sheets of metal that breathed with the roar of the sea. metro-North trains below.
While it didn’t have any practical ramifications, the competition “was about giving people a taste of what’s possible,” said Winston Fisher, an associate at the company.
One recent morning, Park Avenue was still quieter and more empty than before the outbreak. Mr Fisher said his company’s office buildings have not yet exceeded 10% occupancy.
He pointed to the boost that a major overhaul of a street as famous as Park Avenue could have on the city’s tattered soul.
“More than ever,” he said, “New York needs it.”