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How New York could dramatically increase its public space

One architect has a bold vision for making New York more livable: Splice through Manhattan’s blocks to create public courtyards for outdoor dining, public open space, or even car-free streets.

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Threaded through the dense city blocks of Manhattan, a subnetwork of public spaces is waiting to emerge.

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Right now, these spaces are hidden within the private realm, at the back end of long lots that make up much of New York City’s grid. Stretching back from the street 100 feet or more, the typical lot in Manhattan is filled completely with a building, creating city blocks that consist entirely of built structures. A new architectural proposals asks a bold but somewhat realistic question: What if a small segment of these lots were opened up and turned into public space?

[Image: courtesy ODA]

This is the provocation of Eran Chen, founder of the New York architecture firm ODA. Instead of fully built-out lots, Chen envisions that Manhattan’s blocks could be spliced through with a network of inner courtyards, almost like alleyways, that could be used for outdoor dining, public open space, or even a new kind of car-free street of pedestrian-focused storefronts. Gradually, as buildings are renovated or torn down for new development, these spaces could be opened up.

With a few tweaks to the planning system and some building owners willing to try something new, the idea could gradually become reality.

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ODA’s proposal, revealed here for the first time, focuses on the heavily commercial Flower District, on the edge of Chelsea, where flower sellers take up the majority of the ground floor real estate. With most of their sales action at or near the sidewalk, the deep buildings filling those lots aren’t used to their full potential. “They have 100-foot depths that nobody knows what to do with,” Chen says. “Cutting it short and creating another facade at the back, creating public engagement or seating in return for incentives for the owners, to me, is a no brainer.”

It also could be filling a need. Though often depicted in movies and television shows as a city of dark alleyways, Manhattan actually has very few of them. If added, they could provide a rich new source of public space for a growing city. Chen says continued development in the city is putting stresses on the public realm. “What we see with the overload of cars on the streets and with overload capacity on some of the sidewalks, it’s just not enough,” he says.

Making something like this work is technically already possible. Chen points to the development that zoning rules allow in cities like New York, known as floor area ratio, which dictates how high a developer can build on a given site. By allowing building owners to shift some of that floor area ratio—reducing the amount of surface they build on in exchange for “air rights” to develop taller, more valuable buildings—the city could carve out room on the ground for this new public space.

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[Image: courtesy ODA]

ODA has shown that it can work. In two new construction projects—one built, and one nearing city approval—the firm has designed mixed-use projects that cut out developable space from their footprints to create new, interwoven public and semi-public spaces.

In Bushwick, ODA’s Denizen project is a 900-unit luxury rental development with a nearly 18,000-square-foot public park running through it, along with a series of semi-public courtyards that can be accessed by non-residents during the day. Chen says the concept led to a lot of concern from the city, from the developer and the local community who all worried that opening up the space to the public would lead to safety problems. But he says the activity in these spaces means there are more eyes on them, which creates a safer environment.

For a five-block mixed use project in the works in Queens, ODA has expanded on this idea, slicing the development area with a public park that will bisect buildings and carve out retail-lined courtyards on what would otherwise be interior sections of the city block. Roughly a quarter of the land will be set aside as open space. “This is a step on the way to what we’re proposing right now,” Chen says.

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Translating these two projects from one-offs into the kind of large-scale alleyway and courtyard creation ODA envisions for the Flower District will likely require more systematic change in the city’s zoning laws. Designing new public spaces into newly built projects is far less complex than adding new public space where part of a building now stands. But Chen says even short of that, individual developers could follow these projects’ example and start integrating public or semi-public ground floor space into new or renovated buildings in exchange for being able to build a bit higher.

[Image: courtesy ODA]

The idea has some legs, according to Benjamin Prosky, executive director of the American Institute of Architects New York chapter and the Center for Architecture. “I do think this proposal could provide much needed small, yet vibrant, public spaces,” Prosky writes, via email. “Look at how curbside dining has suddenly become something New Yorkers don’t want to give up or how people have become accustomed to strolling down the center of one of the car-free blocks as part of the city’s Open Streets program. New Yorkers now want to see how some of these improvised enhancements can benefit from longer-term planning and thoughtful urban design to help us find public space where we never dreamed it existed.”

Prosky says the kind of space ODA is proposing has a precedent in the pedestrian corridor that cuts through buildings mid-block in the Theater District and Midtown Manhattan. Expanding this approach to the Flower District, though, will require a lot of outreach and education. “Now they must socialize it with property owners, developers, politicians, and most importantly the people who work and live near these proposed new spaces,” Prosky says.

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Chen says ODA is in the process of bringing this concept in front of elected officials and members of the city’s planning department. But he admits the path forward is likely a long one. He’s hoping that a city policy comes into place eventually, but that in the meantime other architects and developers consider doing a version of this alley or courtyard creation on their own. “At that point these courtyards will start to form. Over time they’ll link to one another in this endless web,” he says, noting that this urban form is common in cities like Amsterdam and Brussels.

Ultimately, the goal is to start using the ongoing development of the city to begin providing more of the public space residents want and need, according to Chen. “To generate life, density is not enough,” he says.