A Plan To Perfect the New York City Street

An "achievable, replicable" plan for a city that's embracing public space as never before. Curbed: New York and Curbed recruited a team of designers and consultants, led by the architecture firm WXY, to approach the streets as a matrix of overlapping, interrelated networks. The allure of more humane cities has generated an entire library's worth of plans and pilot projects, both top-down and grassroots, for areas like Downtown Brooklyn and Soho. A few years ago, a consortium of Harlem business and organizations collaborated on a plan to redesign East 125th Street. In 2019, the City Council passed a law requiring the Department of Transportation to develop a five-year citywide plan. But this torrent of good intentions and expertise has fragmented the issue further by producing more schemes to ignore, postpone, and gripe about. Most New Yorkers' concerns are exquisitely parochial: The only time a Bronxite is likely to care about, say, the width of Sohoâ(TM)s sidewalks is if it makes parking there even worse. So we tried to imagine what a comprehensive transformation would produce on a generic Manhattan block, to the extent that one exists. We chose Third Avenue between East 33rd and 34th Streets because of its concentration of terriblenesses and virtues. It is congested, dense, torn up, noisy, and lively. Lined by towers and tenements, plied by trucks and fed by tunnels, it's a short walk from offices, hospitals, and trains. Yet we also embraced its frenzy. Our goal was not to impose the serenity of a provincial Dutch city or to streamline the block into anodyne efficiency. New York without friction wouldnâ(TM)t be New York. We aspired to pack all the measures we already knew we should be taking into one vivid frame. An aerial photograph became a platform on which to overlay a possible future city. The result is a real-life I Spy book, filled with details that accumulate into a livable, equitable, safer, and more pleasant place to live. This is no futuristic fantasy of self-sweeping sidewalks or robot-controlled Tesla taxis gliding up at the touch of an app. Instead, we imagined a makeover that could happen now, given urgency and determination. To execute it in permanent, handsome materials would be slow and expensive; a recent project to renovate a stretch of Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn cost $2.2 million per block. But the DOT has already shown many times that some of this work can be achieved with paint, planters, and boulders. Getting the first draft done matters more than making it perfect and perennial. Our efforts yielded two big lessons. The first is that every improvement is a trade-off. Protecting bus lanes with concrete barriers, for example, would keep cars out, but it would also keep limited-stop buses from passing local ones. Our street incorporates a possible set of compromises. The second is that even simple tweaks imply a far-reaching organizational overhaul. Enclosed trash bins would push the Department of Sanitation to update some of its trucks and pickup procedures. New regulations and speed limits mean enforcement, and thus money, manpower, and -- most important -- a sense of common purpose.

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