If You Unbuild It, They Won't Come

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Lower Manhattan would be an eco-zone, with vehicle access fees and restrictions to only ultra-clean cars and trucks. (Terreform and Michael Sorkin Studio)

In the last five years, New York has added hundreds of miles of bike lanes and closed parts of Broadway to cars, a re-allocation of street space that has caused no small measure of controversy. But those plans? Child's play, compared to what a group of international planners wants the city to do: tear down the lower part of the FDR drive.

It’s a proposal that draws almost immediate – and intense – derision from almost anyone who hears it.

“Terrible idea,” mused Bryan Delaney, kibitzing with his wife, Ibelice, the other night on Grand Street near the FDR drive. “Ridiculous,” snorted Carmen Gund, a teacher walking three small dogs. “People are going to drive into Manhattan regardless, so why not have as many roads to drive into Manhattan as possible?”

Inside the Bloomberg administration, there’s also incredulity. “Tear down a ring road?” said one highly placed city official who didn’t want his name used because he was speaking about the plan without authorization. “That will never happen.”


The proposal would remove FDR Drive from the south side of Manhattan Bridge and create a green public space with shops and cafes at the anchorage to Brooklyn Bridge.

But architect Michael Sorkin, who drew up blueprints for a radically different lower Manhattan, is a fervent believer in the “if you unbuild it, they won’t come,” school of thought. His plans look sort of like a Brooklyn Bridge park, but on the Manhattan side – manicured lawns, plazas, ferry terminals, restaurants, and lots and lots of open sky.

“You would see one of the most beautiful architectural achievements in the history of consciousness, the Brooklyn Bridge,” Sorkin said on a crystal clear day in June, standing under three layers of highways and on-ramps to the Brooklyn Bridge. Just yards from the river, only a sliver of it was beautiful between the giant supports for the highway.

Under the Brooklyn Bridge, 2010

Sorkin’s plans are part of an international project, Our Cities Ourselves, an offshoot of the sustainable planning group, the Institute for Transportation Development Policy (ITDP).



The proposal would create two-way lanes for cyclists on the lower level of the Bridge and free up the elevated walkway for pedestrians only.

The Our Cities Ourselves project asked architects from ten cities – New York, Rio de Janeiro, Ahmedabad, Budapest, Dar es Salaam, Ghangzhou, Buenos Aires, Jakarta, Johannesburg, and Mexico City, to re-envision how those cities could look in 2030, with design that would drastically discourage private car use. “We simply can’t sustain the sort of automobile-dominated transportation systems that we have today,” says Walter Hook, ITDP’s Executive Director.

Cyclists and electric cars will have priority.

Our Cities Ourselves includes an international design exhibit that launches later this month at the Center for Architecture in the Village. And while no city officials have endorsed New York’s plans, the host committee for the gala opening does it include city transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and planning commissioner Amanda Burden.

As for tearing down the lower portion of the FDR drive, Hook points to studies of traffic in Seoul, South Korea, and Portland, Oregon, who removed elevated highways in their urban centers, and San Francisco, which lost highway in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Hooks says not only do those cities look better, but also overall traffic was reduced.

Strangely, New York also had that experience. In the 1970’s, part of the West Side Highway crumbled. The DOT Chief Engineer at the time was Sam Schwartz, the traffic engineer now known as “Gridlock Sam."

“People panicked. They said that was Armageddon and that was a period we were still thinking of cross-Manhattan expressways.” It was Schwartz’s job to track the traffic. Traffic on some roadways was up. “After that we had trouble tracing one third of the people and it wasn’t that they weren’t coming in. When we looked at transit, transit went up. We had the same number of people coming in, but they weren’t coming by car.”

Bird's eye view of Sorkin's "Brooklyn Bridge Remix/Redux"

Schwartz is also on the event host committee, though he says he hasn’t fully studied the idea of ending the FDR drive north of the Manhattan Bridge. Neither has Lucius Riccio, now a Columbia prof, who was NYC transportation commissioner twenty years ago, the precise time frame of this exhibit. But, he says, “nothing should be off the table.”


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Comments [9]

Toby from New York City

Judging by the other comments, there are a lot of people who would prefer to do nothing and think our city cannot be improved at all. And we shouldn't do anything, because it used to be even worse, or it would cost money, or would be inconvenient during construction, or even because rents might increase after a hugely improved waterfront was built! How depressing. I agree the huge ugly ramps around the Brooklyn Bridge are a waste of space and should be removed. But I would prefer to see the highway buried, and collection of parks, bikeways, marinas, and, yes, commercial development, restaurants and buildings (to pay for it all). That would be a vast improvement. Cities like Sydney, Baltimore and Boston have completely and spectacularly redeveloped their abandoned ugly waterfronts. We have to do something, are losing ground and have to catch up. Don't people want our city to be better?

Sep. 12 2010 07:05 AM
Dave Smith from Queens, NY

Remember when they closed down a big chunk of 5th avenue so people could walk and bike on it? That was really fun, and it was covered in people. Maybe as a proof of concept they could close part of the highway and open it to bikes and pedestrians for, oh, a week and see what happens to traffic. I bet you'd get even more people in the city despite having less road to drive on.

Jul. 15 2010 05:45 PM
Steve Osborne from Durham, North Carolina

I like the second image showing "green public space with shops and cafes at the anchorage to Brooklyn Bridge".

Jul. 01 2010 11:08 AM
j mork from brooklyn

Perfect, except for the electric cars.

The biggest problem with cars in NYC is the space they take up. Making the cars electric doesn't solve that.

Jun. 14 2010 09:50 AM
Jay B from Manhattan

Utopia Schmutopia. Remove the moniker "Green" and all you have is a large-scale urban design project, like, well, like the FDR itself. The question is whether the project will a) meet future needs and b) support future use in a sustainable and acceptable manner. The answer is likely yes, but planners will need to make up for traffic by developing other modes (bicycles won't help long-distance commuters). More express trains making even fewer stops; some cities have created high-speed bus systems with dedicated lanes and train-like stations. Transport hubs (maybe with parking lots) in the outer boroughs, anyone?
As for property values, well, yes. Still, there are models for managing that, too.

Jun. 13 2010 10:26 AM
eric nagy

my opion i am a resident over 30 yrs here ,i think the building of the east river is great compared to when growing up here with the abandoned cars and all the mess under the high way but there are several concerns as the Brooklyn bridge to 14st there are many residential buildings the development might increase rents which the area of the lower east side will now be water front property this would effect single,and married couples with children the other concerns i have there wasn't much effort reaching out to the community residents and any information about the meetings to bring to the public awareness as well i wounder if there isn't a guarantee that the area being bult would not effect us as residents what would happen here fathers 4 justice

Jun. 13 2010 05:59 AM
Cara Ava Bissell from Amado, Arizona

Lets get our priorities straight! Before this utopian "Fourth Reich" society is built ***for _all_ people***, WE need to concentrate on reducing all war machines everywhere - starting with our own. The present administration - was won "by the people". President Obama made it clear it is our work that will make peace and prosperity. A utopian paradise for all in lower Manhattan should be one of the last things to get done relative to the world's problems! Perhaps however, the money needed for lower Manhattan among other things like the Freedom Tower is a small amount in the scheme of things of trillions of dollars of national debt down to our individual debts, . . .

Jun. 12 2010 11:58 AM
David F from Brooklyn

Well... it's a great idea if your priority is recreational spaces. I bike around the Bkln and Manhttn bridges often enough, and the space under both bridges is poorly used in many ways. Not unused, just not well used.
And there's the (potential) problem: making drivers use surface streets only could seriously disrupt the people who already live and work in the area. What happens to the housing? What happens to the businesses (and the deliveries they need)? Once that becomes the first priorities of planners, I'll be happy to look at the rest of the ideas.

Jun. 12 2010 09:45 AM
Mike L. from Manhattan

Regarding the page,

Wow, the first picture is especially impressive. It's always nice to look at scenes of affluent, attractive, smartly dressed white people.

For God's sake, guys, it looks like a utopian vision of the life in the Fourth Reich, where all the members of the master race can enjoy Nature (with a capital N).

Maybe some things should stay "built".

- Mike

Jun. 12 2010 08:54 AM

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