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Circle a target for change.

Trying to walk diagonally across Columbus Circle to and from Central Park is now not only difficult, but illegal. That is just one of many things about the prominent intersection that both city planners and community residents want to change.

"It's something that is car infested and doesn't work for cars," says Louis Riccio, the former Department of Transportation Commissioner and an urban planner with Urbitran. "There are fences to keep you from walking. Instead, this could be a Trafalgar Square," he continued, referring to the London gathering site for pigeons and people.

Over the next few years, as the Circle is being reinvented at its edges by the Trump International Hotel & Tower and its icon globe, a new and hopefully special Coliseum project on the west, the recently opened Steelcase headquarters at No. Four and a new "something" at No. Two, the way to get from here to there is also getting changed.

Not only will pedestrians get to walk safely to the Central Park gateway, but cars are expected to flow through on only one light cycle.

That at least is the goal being set by planners, who have been working with Skidmore Owings Merrill (SOM) for several years. The so-called SOM plan has been criticized, however, for not turning over more of the Circle to the people.

Nevertheless, the Planning Department is proceeding with modifications to the plan that are expected to take place over the next six months.

Those include playing with the road and interior circle sizes, adjusting the lights for the adjacent roadways and pedestrian crossings, and creating landscaping plans for an area that sits squarely over huge subway stations, tunnels and utilities and can't have roots fouling the works.

Richard Barth, a director at City Planning, says the object is to restore the Circle and create a streetscape that will make it a special place.

"The urban design will tie together all the elements," he said, with the goal to have the design restore the Circle's prominence and improve the pedestrian safety.

About 10 years ago, the Planning Dept. hired SOM to develop Columbus Circle as well as other circles around Central Park. A year and a half ago, the city received a grant from the Federal government to update the plan, the design and create the construction documents. According to responses provided to developers interested in redeveloping the adjoining Coliseum, the actual construction is not expected to take place for another year and a half.

Barth says the SOM plan basically restored the Circle to Central Park designer Frederick Olmstead's original scheme. As Commissioner Joseph Rose likes to call it, "a Beaux Arts circle."

Mary Barber, a spokesperson for Council Member Ronnie Eldridge, noted the SOM plan was done 10 years ago, prior to the extensive development of the Lincoln Square area. "It doesn't answer the needs of today," she said.

The City Council's land use division has also come up with ideas for the re-invention of the traffic circle after Council Member Eldridge asked them to take a look at the Riccio designs.

"They became excited and realized there were other ways of looking at this," explained Barber.

Some of those plans raise the statue of Columbus so that traffic flows underneath, and envision much more greenery than asphalt for the entire area.

Barth says whichever developer is selected for the Coliseum will be responsible for implementing the portion of the plan in front of that space, but the Request for Proposals isn't clear that the obligation extends past the sidewalk.

The RFP states, "The City of New York is undertaking a study of the Columbus Circle roadway and sidewalk that should result in an upgraded pedestrian environment. The Selected Developer will be responsible for reconstructing the sidewalk areas to the standards and requirements of the New York City's Department of Transportation in effect at the time of application for a building permit."

In fact, it's likely that the insulated parking area which provides a certain elegant protection for the Coliseum - reminiscent of the front of the Plaza Hotel and 30 Rockefeller Plaza as it faces the ice staking rink will be lost to any new traffic pattern.

Even the proposals fashioned by Louis Riccio, the former Commissioner of DOT, remove that benefit. One of those plans, dubbed Alternative 2, creates a triangulated pedestrian area stretching from the edges of the front of the Coliseum to encompass at its soft point the statue of Columbus. It also brings the pedestrian areas on the other comers further into the Circle.

Riccio's Alternative 5 creates raised pedestrian areas as cars flow underneath and extends Central Park's corner into a large soft blob well past the statue to the southwest.

These designs, as well as those proposed by SOM and the City Council Land Use Division, were created to shorten the pedestrian crossings and bring the parkscape into the streetscape.

"We have several different designs that make the traffic flow better and give back one to two acres to the pedestrians," Riccio said. "We believe we have a plan that works better for the Circle, improves the traffic flow, and gives so much space back so that it makes Columbus Circle a world class place to be."

Riccio's firm, Urbitran, is a full service engineering firm specializing in transportation, planning, infrastructure design and parking. They are responsible, for instance, for refashioning the area around Foley Square and the new courthouse.

The SOM plan as developed in 1986 emphasizes the Circle as a design element with extensive landscaping along the edges. That plan has been so far modified to extend current pedestrian islands further in towards the center of the Circle, and creates a much larger center pedestrian island around the statue.

"You cannot ignore the traffic but you don't want to hand over the Circle to the traffic," explained Barth. "The SOM plan reduces the amount of the Circle available to the traffic and expands the [center of the] Circle and the sidewalks, as do some of the other plans."

Laughs Barber, "They will create this public space inside the Circle around the monument. Who would want to go there. Who would want to go inside a traffic circle?"

Currently, pedestrians have to scamper to stay alive, as there is no safe harbor nor even a foothold in the center, and in fact, there are signs prohibiting such a direct crossing.

"I live a block away and it's true you can't get from here to there," said Barth.

Some schemes raise the Circle so traffic can go underneath, but Barth says that in itself may limit its feasibility.

"There are engineering and structural issues because of the subway being so shallow," agreed Barber. For instance, a fast growing Norway maple or a water-seeking willow would quickly clog up the underground wires and pipes. That means plantings, as just one example, will have to be carefully selected.

Since many municipalities and states have their own rules regarding traffic entering such Circles, the international flavor of the taxi drivers, tourists, residents and pedestrians means they all may have different ideas about what they are supposed to do while driving and walking.

Signage will have to be large and sight-lines clear so that drivers and pedestrians can confidently negotiate the area and children chasing balls won't become roadkill.

To keep cars from clogging the Circle, and to keep driver choices for yielding and merging to other traffic to a minimum, Barth says the goal is for the vehicles to enter and exit on one traffic light cycle.

But with three roads of traffic entering the Circle - from Broadway going south, Eighth Avenue going north and Central Park South heading both north and south - and four roads exiting the Circle to Central Park West going north, Broadway going north, Broadway going south and Central Park South heading east, as well as five roads worth of possible pedestrian crossings, it will be difficult to come up with a traffic light plan that doesn't leave drivers stewing, pedestrians hopping and horns blaring, while air quality deteriorates further.

Planning and DOT are now working on those issues as they update the traffic work and explore design concepts for the center of the Circle, with an idea of "how it might be used and how it can become an attractive, inviting place."

The local community boards are very interested in what takes place at the Circle.

"Everyone has his own ideas about fixing the Circle," said Edward Kirkland, a member of Community Board 4. "Some are loonier than others."

Ethel Sheffer, who heads the intersecting community boards' Tri-Board Task Force, said "We think the SOM study needs modification. We haven't studied Lou Riccio's plan as much and we'd be willing to look at it."

Barth is aware that other schemes have been suggested, but remarked "Some are old wine in new bottles. Some had been looked at by SOM in the Eighties and had been rejected for various reasons."

Even though their mandate is to update the SOM plan, Barth said they have reviewed other plans, but "our initial traffic analysis indicate they present traffic problems."

Nevertheless, Barth insisted, "If there are ideas out there we want to give them a fair analysis. We all share the same goals and that's to make this a tru???
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Title Annotation:Columbus Circle
Author:Weiss, Lois
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Date:Jun 18, 1997
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