Pedestrians at the Gates: Pathway Plan for Park Avenue Could Turn Class Into Mass

Currently, Mr. Chakrabarti’s proposal only calls for building the project from 46th Street to 59th Street, as a component of the city’s proposed Midtown East rezoning.

“I think people will fall in love with it and there will be a good chance it will get extended further north, but you have to take it slowly,” Mr. Chakrabarti said. “You know, the High Line was built in phases, and this isn’t dissimilar to the High Line. There will be people who say it could be a great new experience for New York. I think it could be sensational for public art, for tulips and all the other things that Park Avenue is known for.”

Mr. Chakrabarti believes the plan, or something like it, is an imperative for Midtown and the Upper East Side to remain attractive. He points to Google’s then-surprising decision to buy 111 Eighth Avenue two years ago for $1.8 billion in Chelsea, of all places. Looking at the attractive amenities, like the High Line, it starts to make sense. But a Park Avenue promenade wouldn’t need to be High Line fancy, he said, pointing to Columbus Circle as a modest yet inviting space.

Even more ambitious was the proposal for Park Avenue from SOM (though it gained far less attention than the other suggestion made by the firm at the MAS Summit—for a floating disc of a public plaza hovering over Grand Central Terminal). Created by SOM principal Roger Duffy, the firm’s plan would pedestrianize the entire length of Park Avenue, running from Union Square all the way to 125th Street.
Like Mr. Chakrabarti, Mr. Duffy sees this as a public priority. “When’s the last time we made a great civic gesture in northern Manhattan?” Mr. Duffy said, giving Ground Zero and the High Line their due. “The real issue here is the priority of money. The same money exists, there’s just less desire to use it for these things. It’s somehow a question of social priorities.”

Local Councilman Dan Garodnick believes that a revamped Park Avenue mall bears a look, albeit a cautious one. “It’s a novel idea, especially given how starved we are for open public space in the area, but it would need considerable study—particularly on traffic impacts—before it could be seriously evaluated,” he wrote in a brief email.

And perhaps the Bloomberg administration could be persuaded. “It’s consistent with what they’ve done in the past,” said Mr. Duffy, “but it also is perhaps better because it’s a feature that could be restored.” Play it as historic preservation, and the old dogs of the Upper East Side might just be won over.

It appears other city officials could be as well. At a transit conference last month, The Observer asked firebrand Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan if she might support the plan. “It’s certainly an interesting idea,” she said. “We’d have to study it, of course, and consult with the community, but it is intriguing.”

The community, the very one the promenade ostensibly benefits, may well be the biggest challenge to its survival. Mayor Michael Bloomberg may call the Upper East Side home, but in the 11 years he has been in office, remaking whole swathes of the city, few places have changed less. Sure, everything costs more, but the Greek diners, the galleries, the socialites are pretty much the same. There are few stunning new condo towers, cultural institutions or pocket parks that have been created on the mayor’s watch. There are no bike lanes. Every corner of the city has been reshaped, from Chelsea and the Village to Williamsburg and the Rockaways, Flushing and the South Bronx. Just not the mayor’s backyard.

The administration has been good enough to give the pathway over to bikers and walkers three times a year, for the summer streets program that shuts down Lafayette Street and Park Avenue from the Brooklyn Bridge to 72nd Street, so it can be done. But then again, who on Park Avenue is home on a Saturday in August anyway?

The rest of the year seems doubtful.

Of all the people The Observer spoke with at the fund’s cocktail hour, only Jean Shafiroff, one of the queens of the social circuit, thought plans for a pedestrianized Park Avenue were a good idea. “The city changes, and that is for the best,” she remarked. “There must be something for everyone.”

But for all the clinging to Gilded Age grandeur that goes on on the Upper East Side, all the Sturm und Drang about historic preservation, few want anything to do with restoring Park Avenue to its former pedestrian glory. As one woman, wearing a large pearl brooch and standing just behind Ms. Shafiroff, declared when she overheard the plans, “It’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. Soon they’ll be camping out,” she said, “like at Zucotti Park.”