Volume 74, Number 42 | February 23 - March 01, 2005

Talking Point

Trading space for place at Astor Pl./Cooper Sq.

By Shirley Secunda

For countless years, local advocates have been scraping together bits of open space and greenery toward the modest goal of 2.5 acres of open space per 1,000 residents that City Planning calls ideal. For just as long, they’ve been bemoaning the dangers of crossing perilously wide, helter-skelter streets and beseeching the Department of Transportation for solutions.

Now, as the Astor Pl. Task Force review process proceeds, some sorely needed change for the better is possible. D.O.T.’s Astor Pl./Cooper Sq. street makeover plan promises expansions of Peter Cooper Park and the Astor Pl. subway triangle; two sizable public spaces; and extra room to accommodate pedestrians with new medians and widened sidewalks. It also offers safer, shorter, simpler street crossings and more rationally direct roadways, good for walkers and drivers.

Happily, the task force is recognizing some of these open-space and traffic safety benefits, instead of exercising the fight/flight syndrome that sometimes occurs when a multifaceted plan not to everyone’s liking is presented to a community. Task force members are studying the plan carefully and asking D.O.T. for crash statistics, street design options, emergency vehicle impacts and other instructional data.

D.O.T. has responded at length on these subjects and more, and a traffic count study at key locations is underway. D.O.T. will be delivering the results before the next task force meeting.

Yet, the community hasn’t considered what it needs, which may explain why in some quarters there’s such resistance to transforming ugly and superfluous asphalt into usable open space, particularly at Astor Pl. between Fourth Ave. and Lafayette St.

Small attention has been paid to what will go into this reclaimed space and what people might want to see there.

Spare space became “place” in Santa Monica, Cal., when the Third St. Mall, a bare, unused asphalt expanse, was facelifted with a menagerie of topiary dinosaurs, trees, gardens, fountains and community amenities like newsstands and bike racks, transforming it into the popular Third St. Promenade.

Nearer home, on 34th St. at Herald Sq., recaptured street space with well-designed bollards, pavers, planters, decorative lighting, tables and chairs has increased people’s comfort and safety navigating a complex intersection while providing a pleasant setting to relax and eat lunch.

The Astor Pl./Cooper Sq. proposal offers a rare opportunity for similar benefits geared to this locality’s specific needs and nature. But unless people start thinking about what they need and what could increase their comfort and convenience, it won’t happen.

Besides considering what could be done around Astor Pl./Cooper Sq. and what would enhance that experience, people have to convey it. D.O.T. seems open to listening.

As a subway user, I envision coffee and newspaper kiosks, and maybe a mini-produce market, like the way Montreal’s public market system operates outside metro stations. As a walker, I’d like plenty of street trees. Many possibilities are sure to emerge once people put on their thinking caps and look around.

A long-vanished trail to Sapokanican traced by the Astor Pl. roadbed already has sparked ideas for a historical path, commemorative markers and exhibits. Given the rich history of the Astor Pl. area, people may want to memorialize the Astor Pl. Theater Riot or the Astor Library or Wanamaker’s department store.

For those concerned about “bad elements,” the great urbanologist, William (Holly) Whyte, who studied people’s behavior in public spaces his whole life, found positive activities drive out negative ones. “The best way to handle the problem of undesirables is to make a place attractive to everyone else,” he concluded.

The gift of excess street space, with its promising potential for supporting the community’s character and improving its quality of life, can be a true bonanza. It’s up to the community to take full advantage of it.

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