This design proposal for improvements to the pedestrian public realm of Columbus Circle rediscovers the public potential of the great urban infrastructures of Central Park, the subway systems and the city streets and sidewalks that are already present on this site. The design orients the experience of new connections between these elements of urban infrastructure that are so particular to the quality of daily life in New York City to maximize the usable realm and simplify existing vehicular flow.

The sidewalk and the Circle around the monument are united to make a great paved public threshold to Central Park which provides dedicated pedestrian access to the Christopher Columbus Monument, and makes a north south pedestrian gateway through the site. The Monument to Christopher Columbus is revealed at the IRT subway level directly below by a circular oculus which brings light down to the subway. By removing a walled-off abandoned stair, a three story light well is created that links the different subway platforms and orients the subsurface transit levels with the circular footprint of the Monument and the public realm of the surface above. The project includes the design of a set of public amenities including a farmer’s market and infrastructure for public events. The new subway entrance features state-of-the-art information kiosks, newsstands, and telephones which draw electric power and information data from networks in the existing Mechanical Gallery in the subway that lies 3 feet below the level of the city sidewalks.

The public threshold to Central Park, sidewalks and roadways are paved with unit pavers of honed granite. A striped herring bone pattern gives human scale to these generously paved public areas. Along crosswalks and pedestrian pathways, glass pavers are substituted for granite. Backlit by the light of the Mechanical Gallery below, these pavers glow to provide way-finding illuminations to assist pedestrians at night. Three planting strategies contribute to hold the form of the Circle and express the juxtaposition between plantable ground and the subway infrastructure. A staggered arcade of trees provides shade for benches along the public sidewalks and the threshold to Central Park. Annual indigenous agricultural plants, such as sunflowers, rhubarb, corn and chard, are located in large portable planters at the subway exits and entrances. These agricultural plants can be harvested, displayed or sold on the subway platforms and remind the public of the cultivated urban nature of the City and the Park.
The urban design of this project, together with the architectural design of small-scale public amenities, gives new public value to the existing features of this important urban site. The project establishes pedestrian experiences that strengthen the urban connections between the Christopher Columbus Monument Plaza and the larger public realm of the public transit system, Central Park, and the city of New York.

Date: 1999
Client: NYC Department of City Planning
Location: New York City, NY
Design Team:

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