Building Blocks: The Resurrection of Greenwich Street

Building Blocks: The Resurrection of Greenwich Street

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A quarter-mile stretch of Greenwich Street disappeared from the map of Lower Manhattan in 1967, then from the face of New York on Sept. 11, 2001.

Now, it is reappearing as an important boulevard. Three of the four World Trade Center towers have their entrances on it, as does Santiago Calatrava’s Oculus, which is the Westfield shopping mall and the trade center transit hub. Mr. Calatrava’s St. Nicholas National Shrine is taking form in the elevated Liberty Park, reached by a broad staircase from Greenwich Street. Diners overlook the street from the recently opened Eataly.

The future of Greenwich Street includes a performing arts center in 2020, named for and bankrolled in part by the billionaire businessman Ronald O. Perelman. That will stand opposite 2 World Trade Center, to begin construction when the developer Larry A. Silverstein finds a major tenant. The Cortlandt Street subway station on the No. 1 line, damaged in the 2001 terrorist attack and closed since then, should reopen in two years, with entrances on Greenwich Street.

Greenwich Street is also where the last unresolved battle over the future of the World Trade Center is being fought. The city and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation favor the construction of housing on a parcel known as Site 5, where the Deutsche Bank building stood. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey believes the site should to be used for offices, a conference center and a hotel.

The Oculus, a transportation hub and shopping mall in Lower Manhattan, which was designed by Santiago Calatrava.

Credit
Damon Winter/The New York Times

All this activity is occurring along a roadway that dates to the early 1700s, when a route was carved along the Hudson River from the southern tip of Manhattan Island to the village of Greenwich, about two miles north. New York City swallowed up Greenwich Village. Landfill separated shoreline and roadway. But Greenwich Street kept its name and its role as a north-south thoroughfare, until the first World Trade Center came along.

Parts of Greenwich, Fulton, Cortlandt, Dey and Washington Streets were closed a half century ago to create the 16-acre superblock on which the center was constructed. Greenwich Street was further cut off by the 7 World Trade Center tower and a Consolidated Edison substation immediately north of the superblock.

Critics deplored the trade center’s insular nature. No one imagined there would be a chance to rethink it.

Once presented with the opportunity, however, many planners agreed that streets should crisscross the site again and knit the new trade center into the fabric of its surroundings.

From a cafe, the view south over Greenwich Street and a park at 7 World Trade Center.

Credit
Damon Winter/The New York Times

Greenwich Street was the test case. It was vital to the recovery of downtown that the electrical substation be rebuilt quickly. That drove the timing of office tower No. 7, ahead of the rest of the trade center.

David M. Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the architects of the tower, understood that if the new building could be squeezed in a way that would accommodate Greenwich Street, a helpful precedent could be set for the larger project. This was the subject of my first Building Blocks column (then called Blocks) in 2002.

As it has emerged since then, the new Greenwich Street is largely traffic free. Security barriers limit it to authorized vehicles. It functions as a pedestrian zone but feels like an eerily and inexplicably abandoned thoroughfare, since the paving is neatly stenciled with lanes, turning arrows and crosswalks.

Yet it also offers a jumble of incongruous impressions, as the best city streets do.

A cafe in the new Fiterman Hall of the Borough of Manhattan Community College, at Barclay Street, overlooks an urbane, little private park at 7 World Trade Center, with a balloon sculpture by Jeff Koons.

Signs along Greenwich Street.

Credit
Damon Winter/The New York Times

The cosmopolitan tone set by the park and cafe is broken by a welter of security obstacles at Vesey Street, where Greenwich Street turns into a pedestrian chute squeezed between ventilating equipment for the transportation hub and the abandoned former PATH station.

At Fulton Street, the Oculus spreads its enormous wings. To the west, a dense grove of swamp white oak trees and a silvery polygonal pavilion mark the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.

Opposite the south memorial pool are Mr. Silverstein’s 3 World Trade Center, under construction and 28 percent leased, and 4 World Trade Center, which opened last year and is now 80 percent leased.

At Liberty Street are the quarters of Engine Company 10 and Ladder Company 10, with a bronze relief dedicated to the 343 firefighters who were killed on Sept. 11. Nearby, table tennis players are drawn to the Albany Street Plaza, maintained by the Alliance for Downtown New York and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. This is part of the contested Site 5.

Amanda M. Burden, who was then the chairwoman of the City Planning Commission, told me in 2002: “Greenwich Street is not only symbolically important, but it is an important first step. It’s about beginning to interconnect the totally disconnected elements of Lower Manhattan.”

Flaws and all, it feels as if the connections are taking hold. And given how this column began 14 years ago, that is as good a note as any on which to bring it to an end.

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