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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Old Institutions Need New Vision

This is not the type of intersection you want to cross with your children to go to the zoo:

It's not really the type of intersection you would ever want to cross to go anywhere. It's too wide, and has too many fast-moving cars making turns through the crosswalk while you're trying to get across.

Of course, there is nothing much unusual about this type of intersection. This has been a fairly standard approach to designing major streets all across the continent for decades.

What is remarkable is that much of the section of Fordham Road/Pelham Parkway that begins at this intersection was just recently reconstructed here in New York City, where the Department of Transportation has earned an international reputation for its innovative street designs. Sometimes the old highway mentality can be persistent, even in transportation departments that are at the forefront of change.

This vast and expensive reconstruction also exposes the outdated views of the major cultural institutions in The Bronx. The project was initiated and moved to the top of the City's priority list by the "Four Bronx Institutions." With their drive and input, the project completely rebuilt the frontage between the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden, two of the four member institutions, so it really demonstrates the vision they have for their patrons and employees, the surrounding neighborhoods, and each other. That vision belongs in the dustbin of the past, but I am afraid we will be forced to live with this new construction  long into the future.

There are still some opportunities to improve some of the spaces, even in the form they were constructed. What will be more important, though, is changing the perspective of these powerful institutions in The Bronx. They need to become proponents of streets and public places that work better for everyone.

I have never understood why you can't cross between the zoo and the garden. The two institutions are literally across the street from each other, but the shortest walking route between their entrances is nearly a mile, navigating some truly frightful intersections. The garden has entrances just about everywhere, except for a location that would actually allow a tourist to enter after visiting the zoo.

It could seem that neither institution cares that more tourists would actually be inclined to make the trip out of Manhattan if they could get around and see more attractions once they made the trip. I don't think it's a matter of not caring, though. Instead, I think they assume, perhaps at a subconscious level, that everybody just gets around by car. If you can just pop out to the parking lot, hop in your car, drive over a few blocks, and park again, none of this seems like a problem at all. Of course, many tourists don't rent cars for their vacation in New York City.

It may also be informative to understand how much of their revenue is derived from parking fees. The business models that have developed over time may create a strong vested interest in promoting driving. Whatever the case, they are clearly oriented toward the car. Yet even if their current business arrangements make it difficult to extricate themselves from massive parking operations, it would still seem desirable to make the experience less hostile for those arriving by transit or on foot.

This is not an entrance plaza designed to welcome walk-up patrons to a world-class institution:

The City spent good money to reconstruct this whole area. The new expanse of empty pavement looks immaculate, as far as paved surfaces go. Meanwhile, all the zoo has done is throw up a few highway-type signs for the benefit of drivers heading to one of the parking lots. This is adjacent to the Select Bus Stop, so the sign could arguably be reasonable for passengers on the bus. Yet it is also on a path that tourists would take from Arthur Avenue (one of The Bronx's top destinations), and it is where visitors would walk if they were coming from the garden or Fordham University. For pedestrians, there is nothing inviting about this space. 

It takes very little imagination to envision this as an actual public plaza that would be attractive and useful. Throw in a sculptural focal point featuring some zoo animals, add a few benches, put out a few trees or umbrellas for shade, and people would feel more welcome. Walking to the zoo from Arthur Avenue might feel a bit long for some tourists who may not be in the habit of walking, so this would make an excellent location to take a rest.

This does, of course, raise the issue of how the institutions view their neighboring communities, especially Fordham Road. One of the city's busiest commercial streets, Fordham Road has an unsavory reputation. Many outsiders view it as the "ghetto." Local residents are ambivalent at best, and the trash littered everywhere is offensive to just about everybody (somehow including the very folks who are throwing it all on the ground). Sidewalk vendors, of varying degrees of legality, line the main commercial stretches of Fordham Road, adding a vibrant energy or undesirable atmosphere, depending on whom you ask. The cultural institutions have always wanted to put as much distance as possible between the seeming disorder of Fordham Road and their enclosed precincts within Bronx Park.

The Bronx is not burning anymore. I hope officials from the zoo can get out, look at the activity that is going on in the neighborhoods today with fresh eyes, and start to consider how they could leverage the positive assets of The Bronx to create good public space. If handled properly, I think they could form a good business partnership with some local vendors. 

Through a licensing arrangement with the Parks Department, which has jurisdiction over the sidewalk, the zoo could select a limited number of vendors who could activate the plaza and keep an eye on it. This could provide opportunities to some small businesses and highlight the culinary diversity of The Bronx. 

The problems extend beyond the corner. The big, highway-style sign for the zoo may be suitable for helping bus passengers get off at the right stop, but it seems to be an accidental benefit. Once transit passengers have gotten off at their stop, there is nothing that indicates which way to go to find the entrance. Hopefully they guess right, because it's an extra quarter mile walk to get to the first entrance if they head down Southern Boulevard.

The sidewalk has been nicely improved with street trees, which help to buffer from the free-flow traffic whizzing by. There is some attractive, ornate street lighting as well. This was a nice investment by the City. The zoo, for its part, has neglected for years to clear the poison ivy growing through the fence. Oblivious tourists in shorts brush into it, children who don't know any better pick the leaves. 

While the City invested in streetscape improvements, there was no attention to the needs of cyclists. They are not technically prohibited from using the street, although the highway design makes it obvious that riding there would be unwelcome by drivers and unsafe for cyclists. The cyclists make the common-sense (only safe) choice of using the wide sidewalk, but it is not formally authorized. As a result, cyclists are exposed to the possibility of prejudicial enforcement for "sidewalk cycling" if and when the NYPD decides to undertake its next random bicycle crackdown.

Many of these issues can be resolved, at least in part. I would love to see an integrated set of entrances for the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden that both embraced the bus stop and each other more fully. But there are much less ambitious improvements that really should be undertaken immediately. The sidewalk can be properly designated as a shared-use greenway to protect the rights of cyclists making appropriate use of the infrastructure that has been provided. Improvements to the public space on the corner and some basic wayfinding from the bus stop to the zoo entrance seem obvious. Beating back the poison ivy should just go without saying.

What is most important is a change in the way these institutions see their place in the city that surrounds them. They should be focused on improving the experience of their patrons who arrive on the bus or walk to their grounds, and they need to recognize their role in promoting more sustainable transportation and public space. Hopefully, next time they work with the City on a major capital project, they will create something truly envisioned with the needs of the public and their own patrons, rather than lavishing plantings and materials for the benefit of the view from passing cars.

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