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NYC Lights Up its Canyon of Heroes

By Jenny Boyle, regional editor

The Broadway Streetscape Improvement Program took nearly six years and $20,000 million to complete. The Alliance for Downtown New York developed three specific goals for the redevelopment: (1) Improve public perceptions of safety, (2) Promote an image of downtown as an engaging and welcoming place to work, live, and shop, and (3) to express the unique style and energy that defines downtown.

In 1996, the Alliance for Downtown New York commissioned Quennell Rothschild & Partners, LLP and Cooper Robertson & Partners to develop a comprehensive master plan for Lower Manhattan. The team studied a variety of issues, ranging from public perception of the district's physical layout, to pedestrian and vehicular traffic volumes, and potential open space corridors.

The Broadway Streetscape Improvement program emerged as the jewel of the new development.

The designers and other agencies involved knew they needed to make the area a better, safer place to work, live and visit. Brad Bielenberg, RLA, ASLA of Quennell Rothschild, and Alex Cooper, FAIA, of Cooper Robertson, explain the challenges and triumphs of developing a lighting concept for this ongoing downtown revival.

"The streetscape had been neglected and run-down," says Bielenberg. "There was no charm to it."

The area's businesses, institutions and waterfront are tied together by a pattern of winding, narrow streets laid out for the Dutch settlement of Nieuw Amsterdam back in the 17th century.

At inset: The designer's rendering.

"Lower Manhattan is very difficult to get around," Bielenberg says. "When we did the study, we found that people had trouble finding their way."

An even bigger problem began to reveal itself with a new enactment by then mayor, Rudy Juliani. It allowed empty office space in the area to be converted into residences. What was once only a place of activity from nine to five, was soon to be a bustling area at all hours. The substandard lighting that existed would have to be updated.

The designers chose a contemporary fixture for the light poles rather than trying to emulate the many historic fixtures in the downtown district. The standard size pole featured here stands at almost 30 feet tall. All the light poles have an octagonal base that transforms into a circular pole at the top, making them thin and preferably unnoticeable fixtures.

On Broadway

"From a safety standpoint, the lighting was so substandard it made you feel uncomfortable," says Bielenberg. "There were a lot of dark spots. You'd turn down some of these small, narrow streets and the perception made it look unsafe. People could easily lurk in dark spaces."

The city's department of transportation agreed that lighting would have to be updated, but they wanted a replacement with a fixture and light source that could be easily maintained. That's where Alex Cooper, and the rest of the designers of Cooper Robertson came in. They began looking at a new source of light, that until then, was used mainly in Europe and whose properties had not been fully tested

in the United States. They also decided to go with an original fixture design.

"Lower Manhattan is a mixture of historic fixtures," says Cooper. "I thought that a contemporary, minimalist fixture would be the least competitive one to do. I felt that the historic fixtures were too ornate and they distracted from the surrounding buildings."

Not only did Cooper want to do a completely new design, he wanted to draw special attention to Broadway with the placement of extra lighting. Known as the Canyon of Heroes, the street has played host to all 176 ticker tape parades in the city's history. An idea evolved to have light poles "marching up the street" every 40 to 50 feet on center.

The lighting fixture was designed to be as low-maintenance as possible. The sealed fixture prevents bugs, dirt and grime from getting inside so the lamp has to be taken down and cleaned less often.

"I wanted the lights to look like a military wedding," says Cooper.

Both he and Bielenberg say that this proved to be one of the biggest challenges of the redesign. The Department of Transportation had a standard fixture and they had a way of placing the light poles to maximize lighting with as few poles as possible. Having a light pole every 50 feet on both sides of the street would be costly.

"When you have so many groups working together, everybody brings their own agenda to the table," says Bielenberg. "The difficult part for us is that we had to weave it all together."

"When you try to do something special, you get the government agencies worried," adds Cooper. "It's hard to compete with [the Department of Transportation's] standard fixtures. [The DOT] is deeply conservative, but once you can convince them, they become immense supporters."

Cooper says it took a lot of coaxing to get the agency to agree to diverting from the standard, and even then, they would only allow it if the Alliance funded the cost of the extra light poles.

"But, at the end of the day," he says, "it was worth the chase."

The pedestrian pole, which was manufactured by Heritage Casting & Ironworks Ltd., of Ontario, Canada, stands at 15 feet tall. The designers chose to use induction lighting on all the area's streets because it afforded low maintenance benefits and around 100,000 hours of light.

In a Different Light

So just what was so special about these lights that were to brighten up the Canyon of Heroes and the rest of Lower Manhattan? Well, for starters, the designers wanted to go with a newer light source, known as induction lighting (remember, this was back in '96, it is now more well known). It boasted a lifespan of approximately 100,000 hours and was very popular in Europe, but was just being introduced in the United States. "We had to do a lot of testing to get it approved," says Cooper.

Induction lighting satisfied the request to use a light that would require as minimal maintenance as possible. The next step was to develop a light pole that would blend with the surrounding architecture. Cooper and his team went to work creating his 'contemporary' vision.

"I decided to be a little bit peculiar by taking an octagonal base and having it transformed into a round pole at the top," he says, explaining that the octagonal shape falls in line with a New York tradition, without creating more clutter. "It doesn't compete with the buildings, and it's thin."

Adds Bielenberg, "The whole idea was to develop a sealed fixture. No bugs, dirt, or grime, it doesn't have to be taken down and cleaned as often."

He says it took about six months for the design and analysis of the fixture and light, and that once the idea had been pitched, further development continued. But the light poles were eventually something the Alliance came to accept and in the spring of 2000, work to rebuild Broadway began.

To accommodate the development of Lower Manhattan from a workday area to one that was active around the clock, the designers drew up this proposal to show where new light should be added. Special lighting would be installed on Broadway, from Battery Park up to City Hall, while the smaller side streets would receive new, but less extensive lighting.

Further Challenges

Once construction started, new problems reared their heads. The usual run-ins that happen with utility lines and infrastructures were heightened by the layout of the narrow streets and numerous buildings.

"Working in Lower Manhattan is always a challenge," says Bielenberg. "It's a spaghetti of utilities and infrastructures. We had a subway system right down Broadway, some of the sidewalk vaults had been neglected for a long time and were in very bad shape, and all the utilities were sitting at the surface. We were constantly making little adjustments to fit the design intent into the existing structure."

In the midst of these challenges, construction came to a halt as the world watched the twin towers crash to the ground. The project was put on an indefinite hold while the city tried to come to grips with the devastation.

It took some time, but eventually the decision was made to move forward with the project in the spring of 2002 and the Broadway portion of the downtown reconstruction was completed last fall.

"Broadway is perceived as being greatly enhanced," says Bielenberg. "Comments have been positive, new stores have moved in, and it's becoming a much more 24/7 community. The light is definitely greatly improved."

The redevelopment has continued on the other streets in the area and Cooper says the entire project will take several more years to complete. Though he is making a few small improvements to the lighting, he says that overall, the choice was a good one. The DOT has now become its biggest advocate and wants to have similar fixtures installed throughout the city.

"I think it's wonderful," says Cooper, "The client is deliriously happy with it."

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December 6, 2019, 12:45 pm PDT

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