Lots of new ideas offered for Astor/ Cooper renovation

Photo by Lincoln Anderson Elena Madison, vice president of Project for Public Spaces, jotted down ideas from workshop participants in her group, which specifically focused on uses for the new “Village Plaza” area, which will project out from the existing sidewalk near Grace Church School.

Photo by Lincoln Anderson
Elena Madison, vice president of Project for Public Spaces, jotted down ideas from workshop participants in her group, which specifically focused on uses for the new “Village Plaza” area, which will project out from the existing sidewalk near Grace Church School.

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON |  Should a redesigned Astor Place and Cooper Square have more skateboarding, new digital “wayfinding” kiosks and ping-pong tables, plus movies with the audience all listening in via wireless headphones?

Or, should most of the above uses be avoided so the revamped area doesn’t become a place where people come to hang out — only inevitably to “freak out”?

And what will happen to the iconic Mudtruck? Will it morph into a mere “shell” of its former self? And could that actually be the best possible outcome?

These questions and ideas and more were considered by about 70 people who turned out last Thursday for a “placemaking” workshop for the city’s fast-approaching renovation of Astor Place and Cooper Square. Many were parents of students at the Grace Church School, which this year opened a new high school division on Cooper Square.

The workshop was led by representatives of Project for Public Spaces, who were brought in by the Village Alliance business improvement district. P.P.S. will collect and distill the information from the workshop and present it to the BID as part of the ongoing planning for programming the new spaces.

The participants broke up into eight smaller groups, then went out and surveyed specific areas of the landscape, then came back and drew up lists of recommendations.

The renovation job will stretch from Eighth St. to Fifth St. along Cooper Square. The one-block length of Astor Place between Cooper Square and Lafayette St. will be closed to car traffic under the city’s plan, so that “The Alamo” sculpture, i.e. “The Cube,” will no longer be on its own island, but will be attached to the block with the new Gwathmey Siegel-designed, luxury, glass tower.

The workshop groups each focused on one of the four major areas of the renovation: the Astor Place subway plaza; “The Alamo” plaza; the “Cooper Triangle,” or Cooper Park; and the “Village Plaza,” a new plaza area to be created south of Cooper Park.

Basically, in addition to closing Astor Place and creating the new “Village Plaza,” sidewalks will be widened by about 15 feet around the subway island and on the western side of Cooper Union’s Foundation Building and Cooper Park.

The thinking was that the new “Alamo Plaza” would be a place where performances and music events would be held.

Participants said the southern end, Fifth St., is crying out for some kind of “anchor,” such as an interactive sculpture.

One woman, a Cooper Union student, suggested making the “Village Plaza,” near the Grace Church School, a cool skateboarding park, but — when this was shared later during the recap with all the participants — it was met by loud boos from many in the crowd. Someone else suggested a “mini soccer field.”

Joyce Kuh, director of development for Grace Church School, said not to worry — the “Village Plaza” surface will specifically be designed to prevent skateboarding. Grace Church will maintain this new plaza, including four planters that its students will cultivate, and daily will put out and remove seats and tables for the plaza, she said. Grace Church School has already signed a contract with the city for this, she said. According to William Kelley, the Village Alliance’s executive director, the BID will be the “maintenance partner” for the subway island and the “Alamo Plaza.” It remains to be seen if Cooper Union will have a role in maintaining the new plaza area to the west of it.

Noho activist Zella Jones warned that the new plazas would be deluged with food carts and food trucks unless regulations are put in place limiting them. However, there was wide support for some kind of public artwork.

Another popular idea was for a “night market” that would stay open until 8 p.m.

Other recommended uses were WiFi, theater, bike-share docks, moveable lounge chairs on tracks à la the High Line and “the piano guy.” A member of the group Bowery Moms advocated for playground space, noting, “Playgrounds in Union Square and Tompkins Square are so crowded, children are now waiting in line for swings.”

However, one Fifth St. resident warned of the new, welcoming plazas, “Do we want to draw more people? We’ll have a really nice space for people to freak out in. You have to be realistic — this will happen. We want a nice space for people who are here.”

The operators of the Mudtruck, the popular Astor Place coffee vendor, are concerned, because the expanded subway plaza means they won’t be able to park there. “Hopefully, it would be good if we could have a kiosk, and could even use the shell of the Mudtruck,” said Maria Cocchiara-Klein, the truck’s catering manager. “People look for us at the spot. People going to work, coming from east and west, get their coffee with us before going into the subway. A tourist DVD called the Mudtruck the ‘Gateway to the East Village.’ ”

The Department of Transportation is set to start construction on the renovation project very soon, with the work slated to take 18 months.

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