Last September, the Bloomberg administration announced architecture firm Snøhetta’s plans for a makeover of the Great Crossroads into a 21st-century pedestrian plaza with futuristic touches like metallic tiles and zoomy slab benches. Then silence as the current décor of junky bistro chairs and peeling paint polka dots seemed to settle in for the ages. The $45 million plan due to be complete by 2014 has been waiting on Con Edison.
Times Square needs extensive subterranean work before the future can get underway. “That’s the greatest story never told,” said Janette Sadik-Khan, Department of Transportation (DOT) commissioner, of the outdated infrastructure beneath the street, including 19th-century trolley tracks and gas mains now being replaced by some serious backstage (that is, below-grade) infrastructure to support one of the world’s great outdoor stages.
No longer will visitors simply look up at the energy of Times Square; they’ll be sitting on it, too. The long granite sculptural benches indicating the thrust of the Great White Way will now carry electrical currents of up to 400 amps. The new entertainment infrastructure with fiber-optic connectivity will be the first of its kind in the city and could have implications for other event venues likely to pop up on 34th and Broadway, Madison Square, Union Square, and other plazas in Midtown.
The commissioner added that if the entertainment plaza model were to be replicated elsewhere it would probably follow a public/ private model similar to the Times Square renovation, where months of community charrettes met key support from the Times Square Alliance. Of the $45 million spent on the renovation, $5 million will go toward event infrastructure.
Wesler-Cohen engineered electrical plug-in points on the benches that will provide both 400 and 200 amps. Bexel engineered the broadcast capacity, while Weidlinger Associates facilitated utility coordination. The power for plazas to the southeast will be provided by transformers hidden within two buildings on the south side of the square, while on the northwest a transformer will be placed in a prefabricated vault designed to go beneath the sidewalk. The DOT will manage and maintain the system.
“It all fits into the basic goals of consolidation and simplification that have been key for the project as a whole,” said Snøhetta’s Claire Fellman. The plug-in points will eliminate the need for generators, whose noise and pollution have been known to cause neighborhood outrage, as they did during last year’s Fashion Week at Lincoln Center. Organizers there eventually plugged in to supplies at Fordham University and at the David H. Koch Theater, but there were still miles of cables “hidden” beneath protective pads cluttering the area.
Department of Design and Construction (DDC) Commissioner David Burney said he cannot think of a precedent for similar event infrastructure. Bryant Park, for example, has power capacity not broadcast infrastructure. “The event economy has really evolved in the last 20 years,” said Bryant Park executive director Daniel Biederman. “You’re much better off if you can have underground connectivity distributed throughout your space.” But while facilitating events is important, Burney noted the main focus of the redesign remains the “de-cluttering of Times Square.” If it’s not needed, it’s got to go. Gone are telephone booths, curbs, and many of the light posts. “There’s more than enough ambient light from the signage,” Burney noted.
Con Edison is already working their way north on the square, converting oil systems to natural gas. Burney said that toward the end of this year, the DDC will begin to follow the energy company, capping below-grade work with cast-in-place 12-foot-by-12-foot concrete slabs. Modular concrete pavers will top the slabs. The pavers combine white quartz aggregate with darker hued concrete for contrast, while small stainless-steel circles called “pucks” will be embedded for a touch of glitz.
Turning Times Square into a no-car zone was inevitable. “It never made any sense,” Burney said. “It just becomes a de facto pedestrian plaza anyway—we’re just recognizing reality.” Sadik-Khan noted that before the pilot program, 11 percent of the space was set-aside for pedestrians, even though they are 90 percent of the traffic. In terms of design solutions, however, one size does not fit all. “What works in Times Square doesn’t necessarily work on New Lots Avenue,” Sadik-Khan said. However, with pedestrian signage designed by Pentagram to be introduced across the city this fall, there will be some consistency. With its presumed success in Times Square, event infrastructure has a future throughout the city. If you can make it happen there, you can probably pilot it and make it happen anywhere.