MIDTOWN — Imagine an elevated skyway the size of Union Square Park floating above Grand Central Terminal. Or Vanderbilt Avenue permanently closed to traffic, its concrete replaced with glass to provide a view of the complicated train network just below ground. Or the Park Avenue Viaduct largely closed off to traffic and morphed instead into a public park.
Those are some of the radical and inventive ideas that came to light when several top architects were tasked with envisioning Grand Central Terminal over the next 100 years. The results of that futuristic brainstorming were presented during the Municipal Art Society's annual summit held this week.
MAS, a nonprofit focused on urban planning, design and preservation, enlisted the creativity of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Foster + Partners and WXY Architecture + Urban Design to imagine the possibilities for the future of the terminal, given the dramatic increase in ridership since the terminal opened in 1913, the changes that will come with the MTA's East Side Access Project and the future impact of proposed changes to zoning regulations in Midtown East.
The controversial zoning changes are intended to encourage the development of more skyscrapers in the Midtown East and make office space in the district more attractive to commercial tenants — all of which will increase foot traffic in an area already deluged with commuters, workers and tourists.
"There are critical issues that need to be at the core of this new, bold vision for Midtown," MAS president Vin Cipolla said in a statement. "First, the public experience must be at the center of the conversation — not the size of the buildings."
Claire Weisz, principal at WXY, said her firm's vision for the public spaces in and around Grand Central Terminal included closing at least part of the Park Avenue Viaduct, which runs around the Grand Central building, to vehicular traffic and reserving the other portion for green space accessible on foot or by bicycle.
Vanderbilt Avenue could be turned into a glass bridge to mirror the glass bridges inside the terminal and provide a view to the complex rail network lying below ground, and a massive aquarium could inhabit the public space around the terminal.
"I think we all know that Grand Central could be so much more spectacular," Weisz said.
Roger Duffy, design partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, said his firm tried to imagine "a magical 100 years."
Duffy suggested that developers of new buildings in the area could be encouraged to create thruways and access points that could connect the district's existing public spaces.
But Duffy said he also envisioned large-scale additions, such as a ring-shaped walkway made of a new-age carbon fiber that would float over Grand Central. The structure would be attached to nearby skyscrapers and could be raised or lowered to provide sweeping views of the city.
Duffy said the ring, which he imagined to be roughly the size of Union Square Park, would give the city "something that is memorable, something that is world class."
Lord Norman Foster, of Foster + Partners, closed the presentation with a plan that encouraged better sharing of the space around Grand Central between pedestrians and vehicles.
He envisioned removing the glass and retail from the terminal's East 42nd Street entrance and turning the area in front of the terminal into one large public open space, allowing the terminal to spill out onto a plaza dotted with greenery.
"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," Foster said in a statement. "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."