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Grand Central Terminal Reimagined in Grand Style

Rendering of Grand Central Terminal, displaying an elevated public space in the form of a floating circular observation platform
SOM’s vision included an elevated public space in the form of a floating circular observation platform that would dock to a pair of new office towers bracketing Grand Central Terminal. © SOM

Three design firms have creatively reimagined the future of the public space around New York’s Grand Central Terminal.

November 27, 2012—Call it the donut, the halo, the hula hoop or just... very cool, but a floating circular skyway hovering above New York City’s Grand Central Terminal presents a scintillating vision of development at the core of the Big Apple over the next century.

The oval pedestrian observation deck became an instant icon in a presentation made by Chicago-based Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM) to the city’s Municipal Arts Society (MAS), which had invited three architecture firms to create a vision for the next 100 years of the space surrounding Grand Central, New York’s signature Beaux-Arts masterpiece, in the district known as Midtown East, stretching from 39th to 50th streets and from Fifth to Third avenues. In addition to SOM the other firms are London-based Foster + Partners and New York City-based WXY Architecture + Urban Design.

The impetus for the exercise came from the City Planning Commission, which is considering a plan to rezone the district to allow for higher density—in other words, taller structures. According to an MAS spokesperson, the three participating firms were chosen to particiapte on the basis of their reputations as well as their experience in working on transportation projects. In a press release issued on October 18, the MAS’s president, Vin Cipolla, said, “There is perhaps no building more important in New York City than Grand Central. It is the anchor of a major commercial business district, a critical piece of infrastructure, and one of our most important urban transportation hubs. It is also one of the world’s great public spaces.” 

Rendering of Grand Central Terminal, displaying wider concourses and new civic spaces

Foster + Partners sought to create “breathing room” around the
station with a number of interventions, including wider concourses
and new civic spaces that enhance the experience for pedestrians.
© Foster + Partners

Space is the issue, for as the district grows vertically the area at ground level would be darkened and squeezed. So the three proposals attempted to enlighten the public realm, both figuratively and literally. As it turned out, the three concepts complemented each other quite well, Foster + Partners taking a narrower view of the station and its immediate environs, SOM dealing more broadly with the entire area, and WXY “acting as kind of a connector scheme,” in the words of Claire Weisz, a cofounding principal of the firm.

Foster + Partners focuses on strategies to improve street-level circulation and flow, and offers a redesign of the surrounding buildings as part of a public area plan to create breathing space around the iconic train station. Within the station, the proposal creates wider concourses with new and improved entrances. Externally, streets will be reconfigured as shared vehicle/pedestrian routes and Vanderbilt Avenue will be barred to vehicles. New civic spaces are created.

In the MAS’s press release, Norman Foster, AIA, the founder and chairman of Norman Foster Partners, said, “The quality of a city’s public realm reflects the level of civic pride and has a direct impact on the quality of everyday life. With the advent of the Long Island Rail Road East Side Access, along with the plan to rezone the district, there has never been a better opportunity to tackle the issues of public access and mobility around one of the greatest rail terminals in the world.”

Rendering of Grand Central Terminal at night

WXY’s Claire Weisz says her firm’s plan for Midtown’s near future
would ensure that the  Grand Central neighborhood would become
a place people enjoy being in—not just running through.
© WXY Architecture + Urban Design

In an interview with Civil Engineering online, WXY’s Weisz notes, “Right now Grand Central has amazing interior spaces, but not amazing exterior spaces. People are still interested in going to places to hang out—even in a time when social media is so prevalent.” Her firm’s vision offers new public spaces around the base of the MetLife building, creates seamless access from Vanderbilt Avenue to the train tracks below, and transforms the Park Avenue viaduct into an elevated pedestrian and bicycle path with a glass floor and seasonal plantings.

WXY’s proposal also calls for a new tower building on the west side of the station featuring winglike “sky parks.” During her presentation, Weisz told the MAS: “New zoning rules should trigger real transportation links to public space. One way is to harness the untapped potential of Grand Central’s edges. The plan for midtown’s near future needs to make the Grand Central neighborhood a place people enjoy being in, not just running through.”

Weisz adds, “A public realm plan includes transportation, zoning, and preservation and includes reimagining the role of the bicycle and east side access into the mix.”

Ground view rendering of Grand Central Terminal looking up at the floating 'donut' circular observation platform

Instead of buildings piercing the New York skyline, SOM’s iconic
floating “donut” would make a sensational statement above
Manhattan.  © SOM

SOM’s goal was to increase the amount and quality of public space in midtown Manhattan to balance a potentially much denser private core. To accomplish this, design partner Roger Duffy, FAIA, says the architects mapped all of the privately owned public spaces (POPS)—including the city’s many small, randomly located so-called “vest-pocket” parks—to show that they provide limited public benefits. SOM proposed the creation of privately funded public spaces to augment the POPS, which themselves would be reconfigured to create pedestrian corridors through multiple city blocks. “This would create high-quality public space,” Duffy says.

SOM’s showstopper is the circular pedestrian observation deck, made of carbon fiber and suspended above the terminal, affording a 360-degree panorama of the city and moving vertically by means of docking points on two new towers bracketing Grand Central. “We decided to elevate public space to be more proximate to the sun,” says Duffy. “Instead of making the only symbols of New York the private buildings that pierce the skyline, we thought we could make an iconic public space that pierces the skyline.”

Duffy says the halo’s operating system would be hydraulic, possibly helium-based, and the structure would be eminently buildable given the 100-year lead time of the visioning exercise. Moreover, it would capture a tourism dimension that the mere “upzoning” of Midtown East would not. “Imagine this thing being out there in the world; everyone is going to want to see it!”



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