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The Greening of Greenwich Street: A New Design for a Historic Street

By Leslie McGuire, managing editor

The project narrowed an existing 80-foot wide roadbed to 36 feet to align with streets immediately north and south of the project area. The sidewalk on the west side of the street was widened to create an area for rows of trees and pedestrian lighting. The widening of the sidewalk also allowed for the installation of benches and raised planters.

Mathews, Nielsen, Landscape Architects, P.C. designed the revitalization of this significant eight-block-long thoroughfare. It was a project that was originally designed to calm traffic in lower Manhattan and the resulting streetscape was so delightful it was given a design award by the National Art and Design Competition for Street Trees.

This project will create a more pedestrian-friendly atmosphere, enhancing the area for residents, visitors and businesses," said Rudolph Giuliani, Mayor of New York at the time. "It will also dramatically improve the condition of the street. And while the Greening of Greenwich project has been discussed and debated for several years, we are now going to see some real changes for the better in this section of Tribeca."

The widened sidewalk on the west side of Greenwich Street has become a promenade where people gather, grow vegetables, soak up the sun and teach children how to ride bikes. A farmer's market is held there twice a week. The planter at the lower left is one of the community gardens used by residents.

Amid protests that a narrowed street would add to congestion, invite the homeless and be bad for business, the Friends of Greenwich Street, originally a subcommittee of Community Board One of New York City, prevailed and work was finally begun. The design process was completed in close collaboration with the Friends of Greenwich Street, a community-based not-for-profit group sponsoring and maintaining the completed project. The New York City Economic Development Corporation supervised the $3 million project and construction by Padilla Construction began in the spring of 1999, taking approximately nine months to finish.

The landscape architecture firm of Mathews, Nielsen greened the new 50-foot wide westerly sidewalk with allees of trees in double and triple rows, with areas for sitting and a local farmers market. A second row of pedestrian-scaled light fixtures illuminates the street and three lay-bys provide access for school buses, limousines and delivery trucks.

Because the east side of the street falls within a landmarked district, Tribeca West, the New York City Landmarks Commission would not permit any alteration of the character of the street. That included leaving the original granite sidewalks intact.

Historical Issues

Until the early 19th century, the shoreline on Manhattan's west side ran alongside Greenwich Street. It served as the fashionable route from the town of New York to the town of Greenwich Village, far out in the countryside. However because the road ran along what was at the time Manhattan's shoreline, when the weather was stormy--which was often--flooding rendered it impassable. By the mid 19th century Greenwich Street had become the major street on the west side since it was the only continuous road north. By the late 19th century, however, with the burgeoning of maritime activity along the land filled shoreline, Greenwich Street bore so much traffic an elevated railroad system was installed to serve the piers and docks.

In 1868, Charles T. Harvey opened the first half mile of a test elevated line along Greenwich Street. A steel cable propulsion system pulled a train car at 15 miles per hour providing grade-separated transportation of goods. It was flimsy, but extended to 13th Street. The market crash of 1870 broke Harvey's company and the railroad was sold for $960 and reorganized as the New York Elevated Railroad. It was eventually switched to steam propulsion and by 1876 the elevated line was extended to 66th Street.

The only changes that could be made had to occur on the west side of the street, which was once under water. Since that side had been extended out into the river with landfill, it was not considered to be of any archaeological or historical significance.

By the mid 20th century, the noise and pollution from the "El" had dramatically lowered property values along its route. That coupled with the deterioration of its rickety steel framework, lead to the elevated structure being torn down. The only artifacts found during the excavation for the new promenade were the foundations of the old rail lines. Sadly, nothing of any particular archaeological or historic significance was found since they only had to excavate down about three and one half feet.

The curving paver design of the new promenade was incorporated because Greenwich Street used to run along the shoreline of Manhattan. The designers wanted to replicate the indefinite lines of the original land mass.

Design Issues

The west side of Greenwich Street was where the major widening occurred in the renovation. However because the west side of the street had been basically undeveloped until the 1970s, the multitude of utility companies had complete freedom to place their lines anywhere and everywhere. This created a situation that resulted in a spaghetti of underground utilities including high pressure steam pipes, gas lines, water mains, fiber optic cable, and electric conduit--many of which were still sensitive. A larger problem was the fact that the original high-pressure steam pipes were still operational.

It took 250 test pits to locate just the electric lines. Many of those lines were sensitive because they fed into a large investment firm at the corner.

"As a result of the extensive utilities, we started by marking every location where a tree could be placed," said Signe Nielsen, principle landscape architect on the project. "This resulted in a random array, so to achieve any sense of rhythm we negotiated with each utility company to determine how we could shoehorn trees among their services." A different contractual arrangement had to be made with each company regarding how close they could put trees to each line.

The result of their winter test study of the soil temperature was that a six-inch thick, continuous longitudinal insulation trench was required to encase and protect trees planted within 15 inches of a steam line. The trench was filled with structural soil and passive irrigation pipes. to the benches.

Most complicated was the high-pressure steam line. In old New York this radical innovation was instituted to make sure that safe, dependable heat was delivered to all the row houses and brownstones. By obviating the necessity for individual fireplaces and coal heaters, the city was cleaner and citizens were provided safety from the many fires that had always raged through downtown.

Because the high-pressure steam caused extreme heat penetration of the surrounding soil, tests had to be performed over the winter to determine the amount of insulation required to maintain normal soil temperature fluctuations.

Shorter poles--called Riverside fixtures because they are replicas of the ones used in Riverside Park--are located between the trees in the middle of the sidewalk to provide additional pedestrian lighting. to the benches.

They tested all thicknesses, sizes and depths of insulated barriers to plant around the tree roots because the ground was too hot close to the steam lines, and it would kill the trees. Some trees were also located above ground in planters over water lines and some partially raised planters over gas lines. To maximize "green," shallow planters were incorporated for community garden beds.

To minimize the maintenance burden on limited community resources, they used standard Department of Transportation approved light fixtures. The tall ones--M poles--were placed to illuminate the roadway on both sides of the street. Shorter Riverside fixtures provide additional pedestrian lighting.

Some trees had to be placed in planters because the depths of the root systems could impact underground service and utilities. Some utilities required a distance of four feet with a concrete plate to protect the steam lines from the roots.
The planters were also designed to provide seating in addition to the benches.

The seating faces in two directions for maximum choice and the benches are situated in among planters and between trees. The planters also serve as seating in addition to the furniture, which is all by the manufacturer Landscape Forms.

Different paving--all pigmented concrete with a ribbon of brick--was used to highlight the promenade areas and enhance the curvilinear design. In addition, the line of paving bricks include those that are engraved with the names of local residents who donated $75 each toward the ongoing maintenance fund for the streetscape. Bollards and textured warning strips were placed at each garage exit to reduce pedestrian and vehicular conflict since cars have to drive 45 to 50 feet in order to reach the roadway.

The street and planter trees were chosen with the intention of creating specie diversity in order to avoid monocultural problems. The tree plantings include Acer rubrum 'Bowhall' (Bowhall columnar maple), Styphnolobium japonicum (regent scholar tree), Amelanchier canadensis (shadblow), Tilia Americana 'Redmond' (Redmond American linden), Geleditsia triacanthos 'Halka' (Halka honey locust), Zelkova serrata 'green vase' (green vase zelkova) and Ulmus paviflora 'Dynasty' (dynasty elm). Trees that were planted in the ground had granite block paving installed around the base to protect them from animals and weeds while providing a porous surface area.

The bollard posts seen in the center of the widened sidewalk are there to keep people exiting from garages from wandering across the 50-foot wide paving area. In addition, the driveway strip of the walkway is paved in rumbled concrete for a tactile heads-up to pedestrians, especially the visually impaired.

Impact on the Neighborhood

Washington Market Park on the east side of the street was left alone, however, some of the widened street was given to enlarge the playground area of the park. The original fencing was a straight line, but because the extended sidewalk added some shape, the new fence line now has a wave to follow the curvilinear form of the paving pattern.

The original sidewalk had to be left adjacent to the fence because it was the original slab concrete used in historical construction.

The east side of the street was, and still is, low-rise residential and former warehouses that are now lofts with ground floor retail establishments. The west side is high-rise residential with ground floor retail establishments. The high-rise buildings have an occupancy rate of about 20-percent senior citizens who now enjoy sitting outside and watching the world go by while chatting to their neighbors. At the south end of the street is Washington Market Park, which is adjacent to the farmers market. The Travelers Insurance office building is located at the north end of the renovated street.

The widened area was originally planned and executed to be a farmers market which meets on this promenade twice a week. The street is sunny in the morning and shaded from the afternoon sun.

The widened area was originally planned and executed with the farmers market that meets on this promenade twice a week in mind. But now there are also neighborhood gardens in many of the planters. There is also an early childhood learning center located on the street so there is now lots of early morning and mid-afternoon activity.

This once rutted, heavily congested street that invited speeding drivers and was filled with low valued real estate has become a delightful green street that is filled with activity all day long and is enjoyed by people of all ages. It has brought welcome splashes of color and definitely improved the pedestrian environment along Greenwich Street.

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December 9, 2019, 10:12 am PDT

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