Times Square’s Lesson in Design Value

New York City’s plan to close Times Square to vehicles looks like a triumph. The chaises-longues the city dropped at the Crossroads of the World on May 24th have stayed popular throughout the week, like day-glo brigadiers in a battle against delivery trucks. (I saw two tourists taking pictures of their feet on the pavement on May 26.) At the same time, the luxuriant plans that Gehry Partners concocted for developer Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project are failing to keep the project financially credible – and the latest rumor is that a no-fuss plan from Ellerbe Becket for the project’s focal basketball arena may bump Gehry’s bundle of crumples.

So: plastic chaise-lounges win a wave of rear ends, while titanium arenas leave the court with a hobble and nary an ovation. What’s the takeaway for urban design? I say it’s an axiom: people want to be together. If they come together under a roof shaped like a hoopoe bird, fine. But in an era of lean government budgets, the plan that gets people together quickly and cheaply should guide policymaking.

A New York that depends on fickle corporations, part-time residents and private partners for big chunks of its tax base should make itself a fun place to be. Happily, fun translates intuitively to ‘free of car fumes,’ ‘planned with clear sight lines,’ and ‘open to the public.’ Most of the city will necessarily remain a web of conduits for goods, executives en route to wherever, and musicians looking for a gig. By bracketing parts of the city as pure public space, the Bloomberg administration has made a pithy argument about why global corporations and jetsetters should stay here. They should stay here, the chaise-lounges say, because they can tinker with what “here” is. That’s a more democratic premise than the ones driving light-rail in Denver or ersatz Mayberry in Florida. It’s also a more replicable strategy than the one behind Atlantic Yards.

Mind you, the Times Square project also succeeds for having a narrow writ. Nobody will blame the chaise-lounges for failing to trigger consumer confidence or to inspire a rush of mixed-income housing. But they do reinforce an urban-design principle we can see shining through all the stunted construction sites: if you reconnect people without obliging them to shop or watch jocks, you can make a convincing start toward reinventing a city.

 

As with all review and opinion pieces posted on Urban Omnibus, the views expressed are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.

Alec Appelbaum writes about how cities can become greener and fairer for the New York Times, the Architect’s Newspaper and others. He lives on the Lower East Side.



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