“Nobody on Park Avenue walks,” Michael Shvo said last month, standing near the back of the Drill Hall inside the Park Avenue Armory.
The Fund for Park Avenue was hosting a private cocktail reception to honor donors to its annual holiday tree-lighting drive, a signature project that dates back to 1949.
Mr. Shvo, the 40-year-old retired real estate glitz guru, was among the few dozen guests at the reception. Wearing a white dress shirt with black top-stitching unbuttoned past his clavicle, he was talking about a recent art transaction with a fellow developer when The Observer interrupted them to ask about the future of Park Avenue. Maybe there was room on it for a pedestrian pathway down the middle, so we could all enjoy the malls?
“I stopped walking a decade ago,” said Mr. Shvo nonchalantly, a statement of success rather than disability.
Nearby was Irwin Cohen, the man who turned the old Nabisco factory into the Chelsea Market. With the High Line nearby, he had seen the transformative power of an impressive infrastructure project firsthand—so how might he feel about reclaiming the Park Avenue median as an actual park?
“That’s ludicrous,” his wife Jill Cohen said. “What if you’re coming here? Where would your driver stand the car?”
“I don’t know that Park Avenue needs it,” a friend piped up. “The sidewalks are plenty wide already.”
“As long as they don’t make it bike lanes,” Mr. Cohen said.
Concerns over parking spaces and bikes aside, a clever group of planners and activists would like to transform the street into a world-class gathering place rather than a mere thoroughfare. In the middle of October, barely a week before the city was swept away by Sandy, two different designers on two different panels at the Municipal Art Society’s third annual MAS Summit hit upon the same radical idea: to build a pedestrian promenade down the middle of Park Avenue.
In various ways, the architects proposed to widen the lush mall running along the middle of the road, allowing for a path that could be home to benches, sculptures, even—gasp—food stands. It would be New York’s newest public space, and not one without precedent; the Bloomberg administration has reclaimed the streetscape to create plaza, piazzas and pocket parks everywhere from Times Square to Jackson Heights.
Just imagine … It could be the Upper East Side’s very own High Line, a recreational and cultural destination to rival any in the city or the world, a place to relax, stroll, maybe buy a coffee or a Shake Shack burger from a kiosk. It could be the capstone of Mayor Bloomberg’s unorthodox reappropriation of the city’s streets, one that would take place right in the mayor’s backyard—a fact that, ironically may be the very reason this daring idea may ultimately die without ever being realized.
Both proposals, it turns out, started with the same inspiration: a somewhat well-known (at least within wonky planning circles) black-and-white photograph of gentlemen and ladies in repose in the very middle of the Park Avenue Mall. The photo was taken in the 1920s, a decade into Park Avenue’s life.
Park Avenue may seem like the last redoubt of grand old New York, but the street is younger than most. Built a century ago as a deck over the New York Central rail yards that once ran through Manhattan’s heart, Park Avenue, for a brief time, was an idyllic spot. A park ran down the middle, dotted with benches, trees and a pathway for the common man to enjoy.
So it would remain until the end of the decade, when cars began to dominate the city’s streets. Park Avenue was widened from two lanes to three, and what was left was a glorified, and at times grotty, median. “When we took over, it was basically a dog run,” said Ronald Spencer, an attorney and chair of the Fund for Park Avenue, which has been maintaining the strip since the 1970s. “People would take dogs there to do their business. It was just filthy with trash and debris, the grass run down to dirt.”
The fact that people used the median at all underscores a natural tendency to gravitate there, possibly because the green-space-starved Upper East Side consistently ranks near the bottom of the city’s precincts in park acreage per capita. Even with Central Park nearby.
Vishaan Chakrabarti, director of Columbia’s Center for Urban Real Estate and a principal at SHoP architects, believes a pathway could actually solve another of Park Avenue’s problems: traffic.
Currently, one of the biggest bottlenecks on Park Avenue comes from drivers making left-hand turns, according to Mr. Chakrabarti. He would engineer a smoother flow of traffic, carving at a left-hand turning bay by extending the medians to take up half, but not all of the middle traffic lane. He would then take this extra space, push the vegetation to the sides, and run pathways and mini plazas down the middle. “I think you could have a really great public space, and you could also improve traffic flow,” Mr. Chakrabarti said.
The trees and tulips so tenderly cared for by Mr. Spencer and his fellow funders would remain intact, and now people would be able to enjoy them up close, while the foliage would provide a subtle barrier from the cars whizzing by.
And the same would go for the sculpture, the Fund for Park Avenue’s other big project. Not only would there be more room for art, but people could actually interact with it. It could even be argued that this is an act of historic preservation, of returning Park Avenue to its original state. And everybody knows how much uptown loves historic preservation.
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.”