Longtime Brooklynites may recall when Grand Army Plaza featured the “Death-O-Meter,” a sign in the broad circle displaying the latest body count for borough-wide traffic fatalities. For decades it stood as a call to caution—even if then, as now, the plaza itself was a better advertisement for the perils of New York’s streets.
On September 12, the Design Trust for Public Space and Grand Army Plaza Coalition unveiled a sheaf of competition-winning schemes that could change all that. Launched last spring, Reinventing Grand Army Plaza drew 200 proposals from around the world, each a bid to cut the Gordian knot of five roads, two avenues, and one parkway that converge on the Plaza. Two French practices shared the $5,000 grand prize in a first-place tie, with second- and third-place honors going to firms from Paris and Brooklyn, respectively. The top 30 proposals are featured in an outdoor exhibition just north of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch, on view through October 13.
Every entrant faced one aggravating problem: Grand Army Plaza was never intended to be a public space as we understand the phrase today. It was a monumental gateway, an exercise in Beaux Arts composition, but ill-suited to the present taste for Jane Jacobean pedestrianism. And to tour the current exhibition is to cycle through the sadly limited repertoire of solutions.
Some entrants squeezed speeding automobiles to the very center, as did first-prize winner Please Wake Me Up!, from Paris-based team Guillaume Derrien and Gauthier le Romancer. Others pushed cars to the periphery, as did third-place winner Garrison Architects of Brooklyn, which envisions an elevated pedestrian promenade circling the plaza, with public activities in the center.
Of the winning schemes, however, Canopy, from the Nantes, France–based firm acc&s2, is the most imaginative. Ramps and paths connect a startling array of surfaces and uses, including a nod to urban agriculture. “We’ve provided for a garden so that people can grow their own vegetables and sell them at the Greenmarket,” principal Anne-Sophie Coué told AN.
While many entries were undeniably spirited, few matched the elegance of Michael Arad from Handel Architects. His Green Army Plaza expands the site’s existing wooded berms into tunnels that cover the thoroughfares. If the concept wasn’t selected to win by the 10-member jury—which included Alexandros Washburn, the city planning department’s chief urban designer, as well as landscape architects Michael Van Valkenburgh and Ken Smith—it’s likely because it would have been among the most costly to realize. We can only hope such worthy ideas shape the city’s final product for the plaza, which remains a question of money, time, and political will.