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Central Park South

Introduction

Central Park South

View from 35th floor of Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle looking east down Central Park South

By Carter B. Horsley

One of the first images virtually anyone conjures up about New York City, along with the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings and Rockefeller Center, is the horse-and-buggy carriages awaiting customers along Grand Army Plaza at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue - the main entrance to Central Park, the frontyard of the Plaza Hotel and the beginning of Central Park South.

Horse-drawn carriages along Central Park South

Horse-drawn carriages at Grand Army Plaza at eastern end of Central Park South

Although the razing of the Savoy Plaza Hotel to make way for the General Motors Building destroyed much of the eloquence of this location, it remains the city's finest and most impressive outdoor area. If it were not for the traffic, it would be one of the world's greatest public gathering spots, but the traffic is overwhelmingly present for this intersection not only separates midtown from the Upper East Side but also is a major gateway to the Queensboro Bridge and is heavily used, inexcusably, by suburban commuter buses.

The problem with Central Park South is that its south sidewalk is too narrow. By the time the city decided to remove the trolley line that once ran up and down 59th Street, automobile traffic was already horrendous. The obvious solution of tunneling automobile traffic from Columbus Circle to the bridge's entrance at Second Avenue was made impossible by subways that run beneath much of the route.

View from Central Park

View of midtown and Central Park South from Great Lawn in Central Park

Incredibly, the city allows parking on the south side of Central Park South, apart from the areas reserved for taxis in front of its several hotels. Although the architecture of Central Park South is not bad, it is hard to appreciate fully because of the narrow sidewalk and the fact that trees block the vista of the building's bases from within the park. Even though both 58th and 59th Streets east of Fifth Avenue are one-way running to the east, the traffic is frightful, in large part because of non-city buses and, more recently, a proliferation of tourist buses based around Grand Army Plaza at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue.

Varied Central Park South skyline

Varied Central Park South skyline

Clearly what is needed is a new bus terminal for the East Side close to the river and close to 42nd Street for connection with public transit. Such a terminal actually existed at 38th Street between First and Second Avenues but was redeveloped into a huge residential tower, but space remains in the area around and over the Manhattan approach to the Queens Midtown Tunnel and should be redeveloped for such a purpose, which would take the suburban buses out of midtown and keep them only on Second and First Avenues.

Such a solution, however, would still be insufficient to alleviate midtown's outrageous traffic. Private cars must be banned in Manhattan south of 96th Street for everyone except the handicapped. This will require the erection of many major multi-story garages at major public transportation sites in the outer boroughs, but those tremendous costs would be more than offset by the greater utilization of the city's mass transit. Obviously, a reevaluation of the city's for-hire car services would need to be made and the city could mandate that all such services use large, comfortable vehicles made to the city's specifications with roof windows to enhance the traveling experience. By mandating that use of new vehicles begin in say five years, the inconvenience and expense to the services could be phased out. If Detroit is stupid enough not to build the new vehicles, build them in the outer boroughs! If the car services refuse to comply, then ban them altogether as well and let the rich use the mass transit if they want to continue to get rich at the expense of everyone else in the city!

In the best of all cities, a stroll across Central Park South should be one of the great pastimes and an expanded south sidewalk could accommodate outdoor cafes. The south sidewalk on Central Park South must be widened by one traffic lane and taxis must lose their standing zones and the hell with street parking.

The redevelopment of the former New York Coliseum site dragged on for a decade or so and been downscaled and thoroughly botched up, thanks mostly to the vociferous, self-anointed exaggerators who think that tall towers are terrible although many of them live in some of the best tall towers along Central Park West and Fifth Avenue.

The initial plans of Mortimer J. Zuckerman, the publishing magnate and real estate developer who won the competition for the Coliseum site were boldly daring. The plan by Moshe Safdie was dramatic and contemporary and largely appropriate for the site although the plan had some rough, blistery edges that needed refinement. A second plan by a new architect, David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill was a major improvement because the design was highly complementary to the great architectural heritage of Central Park West and yet still appropriately imposing enough for such an important gateway site. A third revision, again by Childs, bowed to substantial pressure from several civic groups and lost much of its powerful imagery by being scaled down considerably.

In the meantime, of course, the economy went south, the project's major tenant withdrew and the developer could not justify paying the city about $338 million just for the land. Accordingly, he wanted to "weasel" out of his commitment, which included a $38 million downpayment and either renegotiate longer terms in which to wait for the market to improve or build a smaller project at a smaller cost to himself and a smaller revenue to the city, or, in fact, to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that owns the site. He then proposed building on only half the site, which would, most likely, thwart the potential for doing anything truly important and result in another 40-story or so office tower rather than something that would indicate the city was alive in the last quarter century as far as design is concerned.

Zuckerman finally dropped out in 1994 forfeiting his downpayment and the future of this prominent site remained very unclear for several years. The story, however, eventually had a happy ending as in early 2004 the Time Warner Center, designed by David Childs, but for a different client, opened, adding a glossy twin-towered, mixed-use project to Columbus Circle (see The City Review article).

Central Park South rooftops

More Central Park South rooftops

Central Park South itself is fully developed. Its crown jewel, of course, is the Plaza Hotel (see The City Review article). The other hotels, such as the 46-story, neo-Venetian Moderne-style Park Lane (see The City Review article), which was erected in 1971, shown at the left in the photograph at the left, and the smaller and more interesting 1931 Art Deco-style St. Moritz (later renamed the Ritz Carlton, see The City Review article), best known for its Café de la Paix sidewalk cafe and Rumplemayer's, a restaurant known for its desserts, shown at the right in the same photograph, both designed by Emery Roth & Sons, Essex House, (see The City Review article) a 1930 Art Deco design by Frank Grad renovated in 1991 by new Japanese owners and the home of Les Célébrités, a rather fancy restaurant, shown at the right in the photograph at the lower left on this page with its huge and hugely inappropriate rooftop sign, have varying degrees of charm, but are mainly justified by their spectacular park views. For a few decades, there seemed to be more prostitutes and heaps of horse dung than pedestrians along Central Park South. If its sidewalks were widened and the Coliseum site redeveloped spectacularly, the Central Park South properties would soar in desirability and value.

Hopefully, the city will also sell the former Gallery of Modern Art building designed by Edward Durrell Stone on the south arc of Columbus Circle to some museum rather than keeping it for its Department of Cultural Affairs, which has done little with this rather attractive and charming white marble building. (See The City Review article.)

Central Park South does boast one great apartment building, the Gainsborough Studios, (see The City Review article) at No. 222, built in 1908 and designed by C. W. Buckham with double-height ceilings and large windows and attractive sculpted facade with a frieze by Isidore Konti. Its other interesting apartment building, developed by Bernard Spitzer, is 200 Central Park South, (see The City Review article) whose mid-rise lower portion raps in a gentle curve around the southwest corner at Seventh Avenue providing more park views to more apartments than the city's traditional straight edge. The building looks more Floridian than New York, but surprisingly its innovative massing has been rarely imitated in Manhattan. The issue of maintaining the street wall once seemed very important and generally still should be a major contextual design concern, but exceptions sometimes work, as here, especially at some intersections and given the fact that the city's plaza zoning bonuses, now largely phased out but prevalent for a few decades, opened up lots of unnecessary gaps.

The oddest roof belongs to the Trump Parc apartment building (see The City Review article). Its regilded crown seems like some cloth cap left over by some lost wandering Sumerian. The most attractive roof is the copper mansard roof with two tall chimneys of Hampshire House, a former hotel converted into apartments, and designed by Caughey & Evans in 1931 (see The City Review article)

The most attractive private place on Central Park South is the billiard room at the New York Athletic Club (see The City Review article), the nicest pool room in the city, if not the world. Surprisingly, this club's dining facilities, while large, are not terribly attractive and because of simple etiquette less inviting even for club members if they do not get tables by the windows.

Part of the reason that Central Park South has been disappointing for so long is that the West 50's has long been an area most New Yorkers have steadfastly avoided because they were given over to tourist traps and theater throngs, which in recent decades, has meant out-of-town audiences. Fortunately, that has begun to change with West 57th Street emerging as a mecca of sorts for young people attracted to the fame of the Hard Rock Cafe, Planet Hollywood, and the Bat Bar as well as the nearby Harley Davidson Cafe on 56th Street and Jekyll and Hyde Club just north of 57th Street on the Avenue of the Americas.

It is conceivable that Central Park South could enjoy a meaningful renaissance. The rest of 59th Street is another question.

View to the west

View to the west from near Fifth Avenue

East 59th Street boasts several good office buildings, the GM Building, of course, on Fifth Avenue and 461 Madison Avenue, the mixed use tower at 500 Park Avenue, 33 East 59th Street, 499 Park Avenue, and 135 East 59th Street, which is also known as International Plaza. More importantly, it has two major magnets, Christie's, the auction house, at 502 Park Avenue, and Bloomingdale's at Lexington Avenue.

Across from Bloomingdale's lies the vacant Alexander's store, a full-block awaiting redevelopment. The obvious solution is the raze the store building and make a joint venture with Bloomingdale's to develop both blocks in a staged development that would build a new facility for Bloomingdale's on the Alexander site so that its existing facility could then be razed. The advantage for the city would be a major widening of, first, 59th Street, and, secondly, Lexington Avenue's sidewalks. Such a scheme would greatly improve pedestrian circulation as well as vehicular traffic in what is one of the world's most congested spots. Moreover, it would present a major opportunity for a spectacular project bridging 59th Street. By placing a tall tower on the southeast corner of 60th and Third Avenue, its would have great views in most directions. The low-rise base, bridging 59th Street, would offer very large floors for Bloomingdale's and its landscaped roof could be a marvelous spot for terrace restaurants overlooking the Queensborough Bridge and the midtown skyline, assuming that it would 10 or 12 stories or so high. Ideally, the city could give a special zoning permit to allow the widening of 59th Street here in return for added height. Sotheby's, the auction house, reportedly was negotiating for space in a new development here, finally recognizing that its incredible decision to abandon its facility at Madison Avenue and 76th Street for a new factory building on York Avenue and 72nd Street was less than inspired and certainly not in keeping with its pretensions.

Facades

Central Park South facades

One of the city's longest development struggles has been Harley Baldwin's "Bridgemarket" proposal to open up some of the Piranesian vaults beneath the bridge at First Avenue for use as a food market. Incredibly, local residents have fiercely opposed the project on the grounds that it would bring too many people to the area and have preferred to let 59th Street between Second Avenue and the River be a shabby, derelict area, although there are two large and expensive apartment buildings between Sutton Place and First Avenue. Another developer, Jeffrey Glick, had planned a twin-towered mixed-use project on the north side of the bridge in this area that would have lavished extensive and quite attractive formal gardens along the sides of the bridge. His project also met with severe community opposition, although it would have been a major improvement for the area and the city, but it ran into the precipitous real estate depression of the late 1980's and early 1990's and its fate is very uncertain. One would think that area residents would welcome a major extension of the Sutton Place charisma, but then that's being rational.

View from 67th Street in Central Park

View from 67th Street in Central Park

Across town, 59th Street west of 8th Avenue is dominated by St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital, which is undergoing a major expansion, and then runs into a superb remodeling of a former high school and a bunch of lackluster older buildings towards the river. Just to the north, however, is the south end of the long-delayed and very controversial Donald Trump project for the old Penn Yards.

The street, then, has plenty of assets and a fair amount of problems, but the latter are capable of being remedied somewhat.

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