LOWER MANHATTAN — Imagine if there was another, more accessible entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge that thinned out the hordes of tourists and connected pedestrians and cyclists to nearby South Street Seaport.
And think about moving the iconic, bronze Charging Bull off of traffic-laden Broadway to a spot across from the New York Stock Exchange — its original, car-free home.
These were a couple of the inventive scenarios unveiled this week as part of a new initiative, Make Way for Lower Manhattan, that's meant to tackle one of Downtown’s biggest problems: its congested, often confusing streetscape.
The crowding, and jumbled pedestrian flow, is a particularly pressing issue, one that’s only getting bigger as population, business and tourism continues to balloon Downtown, said Kate Ascher, a principal with engineering firm BuroHappold, who’s spearheading the Make Way for Lower Manhattan project.
“What we’re really trying to do is make room for the growth in Lower Manhattan, and improve the quality of life here,” said Ascher, a former executive vice president of the Economic Development Corporation, during a presentation to Community Board 1 this week. “This is our most historic part of the city, but it’s hard to find your way around, and there’s no space for reflection — the history gets lost in the crowd.”
Ascher, who’s worked Downtown for more than 20 years, along with Claire Weisz, a founding partner with architecture and design firm WXY studio, and a Lower Manhattan resident, have been leading the Make Way for Lower Manhattan initiative — so far it’s been a yearlong study of the various mobility and congestion problems that plague the narrow, colonial grid of Manhattan below Chambers Street.
In a few renderings, Ascher and Weisz presented some “what if” scenarios for Lower Manhattan. Along with the idea for the Brooklyn Bridge and moving the Charging Bull, they also suggested creating new corridors on historic streets, where tourists and pedestrians could gather.
Another idea: using Castle Clinton, a historic 1800s building in The Battery that’s been used as a military fort, a theater, a beer garden, the country’s first immigration station — and even an aquarium — as a unique queuing center for the boat to Liberty and Ellis islands, another huge Downtown draw.
They also possibly envision creating a tourist hub at historic Wall and Broad streets, right by the Stock Exchange and Federal Hall.
Though still in its very early stages, work on the project began about a year ago, when Ascher was tapped by the J.M. Kaplan Fund, a philanthropic organization that supports numerous city projects and initiatives. The group has so far provided funding for Ascher and Weisz’s analysis of Lower Manhattan.
“There is so much change going on in Lower Manhattan, and it's such an historically rich area, but it's really difficult to navigate your way around,” said Amy Freitag, the executive director of the J.M. Kaplan Fund. “It felt like this is a moment we should not miss, especially with Kate’s collaboration, to really investigate this problem and help transform the neighborhood into a better version of itself. “
Over the past year, Ascher has met with several city agencies, including the Department of Transportation and EDC, as well as with city developers, cultural institutions, Community Board 1 and the Downtown Alliance, Lower Manhattan’s business improvement district, to get the conversation going and “diagnose” some of the area’s pedestrian-flow issues.
She says the response she’s gotten, just attempting to tackle the problems, has been “very enthusiastic.”
As Ascher and Weisz outlined during the presentation, the population of Lower Manhattan has more than doubled in the years since Sept. 11 devastated the neighborhood, from 34,420 people to 70,000 — as have the number of tourists, from 6.4 million in 2000 to 13 million visitors last year. But very little has been done to accommodate the influx, which will only continue to grow, as dozens of new hotels and residential buildings are being constructed — and the World Trade Center becomes a growing center for business and media.
As part of the plan, they aim to highlight tourist areas, like the Seaport, the 9/11 Memorial, The Battery, Wall Street, and connect the dots better for tourists — giving them a means to find their way, stay and spend money without completely congesting the neighborhood.
A variety of factors are at work to streamline the route, but steps like decreasing the amount of placard parking that takes up road space, figuring out how to handle the loads of garbage that can take up a narrow sidewalk and working to limit some car traffic in certain areas, could be part of the plan, they said.
They pointed to cities like London, Barcelona and Melbourne that have old grids, yet have managed to transform into more easily traversable areas, especially for tourists, like Trafalgar Square in London and Las Ramblas in Barcelona.
Ascher said that as they push ahead with reimagining Lower Manhattan, they're now looking to find an area as a test “special mobility district.” They’re also working to secure funding to head into the next phase.
"Lower Manhattan's problems are totally fixable," Ascher said. "It'll just take a village to solve them."