Underground / Aboveground: Touring the Second Avenue Subway Community Information Center

Entrance to the Second Avenue Subway Community Information Center. Photo courtesy of the MTA

On Wednesday night, 35 urban enthusiasts braved the cold to check out the Second Avenue Subway Community Information Center on 2nd Avenue between 84th and 85th Streets. The event reminded all of us here at Urban Omnibus how much fun it is to meet our readers out in the physical city, exploring the intentional choices that influence the shape and feel of the built environment.

A show of hands revealed that only a handful of the assembled live on the Upper East Side, where the first phase of the massive infrastructure project — a 2.8-mile extension of the Q line from 63rd to 96th Streets — is scheduled to open by December 2016. The rest had come from all around the city not only to witness the complex construction process of the new 86th Street station, but also to observe firsthand the storefront space dedicated to communicating the story of the Second Avenue Subway: what it takes to manage the project, how MTA Capital Construction (MTACC) is responsive to community concerns, and why the much-needed subway line has taken so long to build.


Laura MacNeil, Director of the Second Avenue Subway Community Information Center, addressing the crowd

Laura MacNeil, the director of the Community Information Center (CIC), and Michael Porto, who manages the MTA’s Good Neighbor Initiative, introduced the CIC to the crowd in the context of a range of community engagement strategies the MTA has employed. They confirmed that one of the questions they get most often is, in fact, about the many times the new subway line has seemed imminent, only to be put on hold once again. With that fitful history in mind, it’s appropriate that the current exhibit at the CIC (the first of four planned for the next few years) delves deep into the project’s past. Official proposals for the project date back to 1929, but the graphic timeline displayed on the walls reaches even further back, to the very origins of public transportation in New York City.

Long before the advent of subways, street cars and elevated trains (and omnibuses!) introduced a rapidly growing city to the idea of mass transit. Although the elevated rails on both 2nd and 3rd Avenues were closed by 1955, the Upper East Side continued to develop. Serious plans for an alternative to the Lexington Avenue line (the 4, 5, and 6 trains), which now provides the only subway access to the area, have been discussed since the 1970s. In fact, as we learned at the meet-up, plans were far enough along 40 years ago to motivate an upzoning of the area, adding residential density and increasing the need for more transit capacity well in advance of the political will and financing to build the additional subway line.


A visitor checks out one of the monitors, showing station construction in progress

Facing this graphic timeline is a set of interactive displays — iPad-controlled, wall-mounted monitors — that orient the visitor to the wealth of information available about the Second Avenue Subway. If you click on the introductory option, you are greeted by Michael Horodniceanu, the president of MTACC. According to MacNeil and Porto, this welcome message is just one of many ways that Horodniceanu has stepped up to “put a face on the Second Avenue Subway project… publicly taking full responsibility for the disruptions to the community during construction.” MTACC has put considerable effort into minimizing these disruptions.

For example, much of the original subway system was built utilizing the cut-and-cover method, turning entire streets into open-air trenches. This time around, the MTA utilized a tunnel boring machine, “a giant mechanical earthworm” that carved through the bedrock below street level “like a hot knife through butter.” Liaisons reached out to the community to inform residents about what construction impacts to expect, when precisely to expect them, and to explain why certain activities were necessary because “while not everyone is happy with the information… it’s always helpful to know what the expect.” Contractors were required to maintain specific aesthetic standards for work zones, including incorporating information about open local businesses blocked by the construction. And in what Porto described as one of their “most successful tools,” MTACC began hosting tours of the underground construction for neighborhood residents to get a firsthand look at the complexities and progress of the project.

The CIC itself is a new form of community engagement, a “one-stop shop for Second Avenue information” that provides a place where “residents, retailers, and the general public can speak with project liaisons.” Additionally, the CIC hosts biannual exhibitions, school presentations, and evening events about the subway’s history and construction.

The Omnibus meet-up was an example of one of these evening events, drawing transit enthusiasts and curious residents from across the city to get a glimpse of how the MTA is giving people a chance to learn more about one of New York’s largest and most complex transit projects. After MacNeil’s thorough introduction to the CIC, we ventured outside, where Porto described what we were seeing at the construction site of the future of the 86th Street station. Mining the tunnels and caverns below 2nd Avenue produces a lot of material to be removed. At loading points along the corridor, the MTA has built large enclosures called muck houses that allowed trucks to receive their loads within an enclosure, mitigating noise and dirt for residents and businesses. To haul materials up and down from the tunnels, they used large electric gantry cranes instead of the standard diesel to minimize pollution and noise. To keep traffic flowing along 2nd Avenue during construction, work is done one side of the street at a time, always maintaining a minimum number of open lanes on the designated truck route that links Manhattan and the Bronx.

After checking out the construction site, a few of the die-hards among us adjourned to a local bar to continue the conversation, and to brainstorm where the next Urban Omnibus meet-up will take us…


The 86th Street station construction site

Michael Porto explains the muck conveyance system

Michael Porto addresses the crowd on 85th street.

The crowd observing station construction on 85th Street

Cassim Shepard served as the founding editor of Urban Omnibus from its inception to 2014.
Daniel Rojo is a project manager at The Architectural League and is a former assistant editor of Urban Omnibus. He is an urbanist, writer, and designer interested in the power of the urban environment to enrich people’s lives. He lives in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.