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The Public Realm and Grand Central

grand central terminal night new york city

By Eugenie Birch, Chair, and Vin Cipolla, President, MAS

This year marks the centennial of Grand Central Terminal—a building that elegantly combines transportation, public space, and architecture.  As is well known, nearly forty years ago and with the aid of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, MAS played a leading role in saving Grand Central Terminal from the wrecking ball that destroyed our other great landmark, Penn Station.

Then and now, Grand Central anchors an important neighborhood, one that is emblematic of the excitement of New York City as the nation’s center of commerce and culture.

This is a special neighborhood with layers of history, yet one that has allowed the insertion of new buildings alongside of older ones. This has created a magnificent mosaic of urban life—a dynamic we expect to continue—with tens of thousands of people streaming through Grand Central and into the streets daily to experience the sidewalks, streets and buildings of East Midtown.

And looking around, MAS knows it’s time to rethink this mosaic, especially paying attention to the public areas around the mighty Grand Central. To this end, last year MAS invited three internationally-recognized design firms, Foster + Partners, SOM, and WXY, to envision a glorious future for the area—including soaring buildings, diverse uses, and rich enhancements for the public.

MAS asked the designers to think about two key questions:  How do we elevate the experience of people as they walk through Midtown?  And, How do we create seamless and gracious connections to the transit above and below ground? 

At the 2012 MAS Summit for New York City, the designers presented their work, with plans that sparked an ongoing conversation about the potential of East Midtown to be more exciting, more beautiful and better functioning.  Influenced by the plans presented, MAS advocated that the City look more closely at the public realm around Grand Central, especially in light of the City’s proposed rezoning of East Midtown.

The Office of the Mayor and the Departments of City Planning and Transportation, in particular, led the way in re-thinking our public spaces in some of the densest parts of New York City, with impressive results now enjoyed by citizens across the city.  East Midtown is desperately in need of this kind of innovation and creativity.  In response to a request by Councilmember Dan Garodnick, New York City leaders including the Deputy Mayor of Economic Development and the Commissioners of the Department of Transportation and the Department of City Planning sponsored an in-depth study of the area, which has been undertaken by Jonathan Rose Companies, Gehl Architects, and Skanska. Consulting frequently with stakeholders, they are completing a proposed public realm plan as City Planning’s East Midtown rezoning plan heads to the City Council for its final review.  Over these same months, City Planning has continued to offer important and insightful improvements and refinements to the original plan.  Councilmember Garodnick, a leader in the importance of public realm considerations from the outset of this process, continues to encourage and drive a balanced discussion aimed at the best policies for the area and the city.

So, as we look to the future of East Midtown, we need to remind ourselves that New York has many neighborhoods but some command a great deal of attention because of their location, their unique economic importance to the city, the number of people visiting and working in them and because of their heritage—especially those that contain important landmarks that add to the special New York brand.  In no small part the success of this neighborhood will depend on the quality of its shared spaces—sidewalks, streets, open spaces, and transit.

We have great hopes for the public realm plan that will be unveiled at the 2013 MAS Summit for New York City on October 17th.  We have come a long way in the past year, and we need to keep up the momentum to make sure our public spaces are the best in the world, and ensure that the Grand Central neighborhood is both dynamic and livable as we forge into the decades to come.