City Hall Park Reimagined
“Ask an architect to solve a problem and somehow the solution always turns out to be a building.” - Ralph Caplan
Looking out our window, walking the streets in front of the Woolworth Building and living in the neighborhood has given us an intimate understanding of City Hall Park and its environs. We set out to propose simple changes that would have outsized impact on the public and focused on three areas:
-Millennium “Park” at the south end of City Hall Park
-Murray Street as it passes in front of City Hall
-The Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian and bicycle circulation as it connects to City Hall Park
And we proposed making changes with almost no capital investment: no buildings, no large construction projects and no endless approval processes. We met with Assistant Commissioner of Urban Design Wendy Feuer of the NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) and her terrific team to talk about some of our ideas. The results were surprising and very reassuring. Government, at least at the municipal level, can be very responsive and very proactive.
City Hall Park was originally the city Commons, and has been occupied by everything from grazing cattle to a Debtor Prison to Solider Barracks to an enormous Post Office and of course City Hall.
When City Hall was opened in 1812 the north side of the building was finished in brownstone, not the marble that graced the downtown front façade. It was assumed that no one would ever see the building from that far uptown! We would call it Value Engineering today.
In 2008 a political assassination in the City Council Chambers killed James Davis due to the courtesy of allowing Councilmen and women access without passing through the metal detectors. Mayor Bloomberg revoked that courtesy and now everyone passes through metal detectors.
But it was in 1998 under the slightly paranoid former prosecutor Mayor Rudy Guiliani that Murray Street was closed to the public. Previously it was open to pedestrians, having been long closed to automobiles, but Guiliani hated dissent and banned groups of more than 25 people from the steps of City Hall. Except for the Yankees, the Mets, his inauguration and anyone else he liked.
Closure of Murray Street in front of City Hall has the effect of disenfranchising the public from its right to petition the government. The first chapter of Kristine F. Miller’s book “Designs on the Public: The Private Lives of New York’s Public Spaces” is about the steps of City Hall and the fight to keep them accessible.
City Hall Park has suffered other ignominies as when the city sold the southern portion of the park to the Federal Government for a Post Office. The view from City Hall to St. Paul’s was severed until the building was finally removed in 1939. The modern version of City Hall Park started in 1939 with the building of the current park footprint and the visual reconnection of City Hall and St. Paul's Church.
The park is now renovated and well maintained, but the ad hoc barriers at its north end and the view from the south gates are beneath the dignity of a City Hall Park. Our proposals are about reestablishing the dignity of the urban context that surrounds City Hall. And they are about returning the symbolic center of civic life in New York to pedestrians, visitors, bicyclists and markets that fill the area every day.
Our trio of proposals are summarized below, and explained in greater detail in the 'gallery' option above:
1 Eliminate the bus turnaround and join the now isolated 'Millennium Park' to the larger public plaza creating an additional 23,000sf of public park space. This will reestablish the visual connection to St. Paul's and ease the transition south to Broadway where a major hub of pedestrian accidents occur.
2 Re-open Murray Street in front of City Hall to pedestrians. Move the security line to the step and curved apron, and park cars further back behind this line. The Mayor is in favor of openness in government and this is simply the physical/urban analogy to the idea of a transparent government.
3 Eliminate one of the vehicular access ramps to the Brooklyn Bridge creating a safe and elegant access to the bridge's pedestrian and bicycle traffic walkway. This extends the idea of the park onto the bridge linking several of downtown's most powerful icons.
Together these three simple changes could provide a transformative experience in City Hall Park.