Finally, an L Train Shutdown Mitigation Plan

Everyone in New York City likely knows by now that the Canarsie Tube, which carries the L train under the East River between Brooklyn and Manhattan, will be shut down for 15 months starting in 2019 for intensive repairs. These repairs are necessitated by damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy over five years ago. This MTA video does a good job of explaining how the tunnel was damaged, how it needs to be rebuilt and at the time, what the options were for doing this work. Since the 15-month full tunnel shutdown was chosen over a 3 year partial closure, we have been waiting with some impatience for the DOT and the MTA to release their plan to mitigate the impacts of the shutdown. On Wednesday, those plans were finally released to the public.

An MTA worker inspects flooding in the Canarsie Tube after Sandy

The highlights of the DOT and MTA plan include:

  • A 14th Street busway, which will create dedicated space and new facilities for buses while also expanding sidewalks
  • HOV3 on the Williamsburg Bridge
  • A two-way protected bike lane along 13th street (Manhattan’s first)
  • A new ferry route between North Williamsburg and the terminus of the M14 SBS bus in Manhattan
  • Increased service and capacity on the JMZ lines, which run roughly parallel to the L train in Brooklyn, and on the G line, which connects to the L at Metropolitan-Lorimer
  • Subway Enhancements at stations along the JMZ and G lines such as the reopening of closed entrances and adding of turnstiles

Overall, the plan is relatively comprehensive and checks off many items on transportation planners wish lists (though in some cases they may have to settle for budget versions). Ben Kabak of the blog Second Avenue Sagas described it as “not horrible” but also “not great,” ruing DOT’s fear of banning single-occupancy cars from certain streets. What is perhaps most troubling in my opinion are projections that 70-80% of the displaced 225,000 daily L train riders that would normally pass through the Canarsie Tube every day will continue to use the NYC Subway. This has implications for nearly every subway line in the system; in particular those lines serving Northern Brooklyn and that connect at various points with the L: the A, C, G, J, M and Z trains.

“Service Snapshot” of MTA/DOT L Train shutdown mitigation service
Manhattan-specific look at 14th Street Busway and 13th Street bike lane

Closed Station Entrances

It is great to see that the MTA will be reopening a number of station entrances along the G, J, M and Z lines, which will improve passenger ingress and egress. Residents and business owners have complained about closed entrances for years; hopefully once L train service is restored, all of the reopened stairs will stay that way.

A 3 train as seen from the Livonia Avenue L station in Brooklyn

In-System Transfers

The MTA will offer subway riders free transfers between the Broadway G station and the Hewes/Lorimer stations on the JMZ. As the blogger Vanshnookenraggen has proposed, there is an opportunity to transform this geographically proximate yet out-of-system transfer with one that is completely within the NYC Subway network. The Hewes and Lorimer Stations along Broadway would be closed and replaced with a station at Union Street, directly above the G station. Those two stations would then be connected from below ground to above, which would allow for an in-system transfer and likely for better capacity along both lines. This is however an unfunded and unplanned proposal that would likely cost tens of millions of dollars.

There is another free out-of-system transfer the plan proposes, between the Livonia Ave L station and the Junius St 3 station in Brownsville. I was surprised to see however that no work has been done yet on an in-system transfer between the two stations that literally sit one on top of the other, even though that project was approved as part of the 2015-2019 MTA Capital Plan.

Broadway Junction

Separate from the DOT/MTA’s plans for the L train shutdown is a study, recently started by the NYC Economic Development Corporation, to identify economic growth opportunities around the Broadway Junction transportation hub. East New York, the Brooklyn neighborhood where the Broadway Junction station is located, is one of the centerpieces of Mayor de Blasio’s affordable housing, economic development and job growth plan. Though the title of a NY Times article on this topic suggests potential forthcoming work on the train station itself, the surrounding area has so far been the focus. Hopefully the station, which will become an even more key transfer point for Brooklyn commuters during the L train shutdown as it connects the A, C, J and Z lines with the L, is looked at more closely for renovations and improvements in the coming months beyond what the DOT/MTA plan already proposes.

A Rockaway Parkway bound L departs Broadway Junction

Going Forward

The plan released Wednesday is not the end all for L train shutdown mitigation. There will be more time for the public and for elected officials to opine on this initial proposal. Hopefully further plans include more restrictions on single occupancy vehicles and other provisions that will improve non-subway transportation options that may shrink the percent of commuters that continue to rely on the subway. The J, M and Z lines, which are currently experiencing some of the highest ridership growth in the city, will be under particular strain. Already proposed subway improvements will help, but there is more to be done to avoid inundating Northern Brooklyn subway lines with displaced L train riders.



Emery Roth’s New York Architecture

Emery Roth and his sons Julian and Richard may be the most prolific New York architects you have never heard of. Together they formed the architecture firm, Emery Roth and Sons. Manhattan’s upper east and upper west sides are dotted with Roth’s pre-war works such as the El Dorado, 930 5th Avenue and the San Remo. Post-war, after Emery’s death, his sons went on to design dozens of Midtown and Downtown Manhattan office towers and were associated with a handful of notable projects, including the first World Trade Center and the Pan Am Building. However, unlike similarly prolific contemporary architects and their epochal peers, Emery Roth and his work lives on in relative obscurity.

El Dorado
San Remo
San Remo

The office building where I work, 2 Broadway in the Financial District, a boxy and asymmetrically massed and set-back tower adjacent to Bowling Green is an Emery Roth and Sons design from 1959. I discovered Emery Roth for the first time when I saw the name of his firm carved into stone at the entrance to the building. After that I began to notice Roth’s name on office buildings throughout the Financial District. I also discovered that Emery Roth and Sons designed my high school, the Bronx High School of Science. Combined with my time working at 2 Broadway, I have spent close to seven years in buildings of their design.

2 Broadway
Bronx HS of Science

Much of Emery Roth and Sons’ work, particularly their post-war office towers, lack architectural significance which likely contributes in no small part to their relative lack of name-brand recognition. There is a high degree of similarity between the towers they designed, most in the International Style, defined by an imposing rectilinear form and uniform glass curtain wall. This is exemplified in structures like 55 Water Street and Paramount Plaza. Others are set back in complex ways, likely to achieve their maximum floor area ratio within the confines of local zoning regulations, like 60 Broad Street.

55 Water Street
Paramount Plaza
Paramount Plaza
60 Broad Street

Emery Roth and Sons also collaborated with more famous architects on a number of New York’s most controversial skyscrapers. Many will remember that Japanese Architect Minoru Yamasaki was responsible for the polarizing design of the first World Trade Center towers. However, fewer likely know that Emery Roth and Sons was the architect of record on the project. The Pan Am building (now MetLife), which looms over Grand Central Terminal, was designed by Emery Roth and Sons along with Walter Gropius and Pietro Belluschi. The latter two and in particular Gropius, one of the 20th Century’s most famous architects, are surely better remembered.

Pan Am
Pan Am (MetLife) Building
World Trade Center 1 and 2

Present day architects as prolific in New York today as Emery Roth and Sons were in their day, like Robert AM Stern, Kohn Pederson Fox and Rafael Vinoly, are well known for the large-scale projects they have designed. Stern’s neo-classical, grandiose yet austere luxury apartment towers like 220 Central Park South and 30 Park Place even emulate Roth’s pre-war works like 880 5th Avenue and the Ritz Tower. But, while Stern continues to earn commissions for his stone-clad luxury towers, early 20th Century incarnations and their architect Emery Roth languish in relative obscurity.

Emery Roth and Sons designed over 100 buildings, primarily in Manhattan, over a remarkable 100-year period, yet occupy an obscure place in New York architectural history. It is hard to pick a stand out building from their catalog of post-war office buildings, built en-masse in the International Style in Midtown and the Financial District. Further, their work on famous, if controversial buildings is obscured by the reputations of their fellow architects like Walter Gropius and Minoru Yamasaki.

I am curious if anyone reading has ever heard of Emery Roth and Sons and encourage you to comment either way. Going forward I would like to learn more about the history of this prolific architecture firm and to hear some other opinions on their work and significance. I have included a number of pictures of their New York buildings, many of which you have likely seen or passed but never thought twice about.

Five years since Superstorm Sandy

It is hard to tell from walking around waterside neighborhoods in New York if the city as a whole is better prepared for a Sandy-like storm five years later to the day. In particularly vulnerable neighborhoods like the Rockaways, beach sand has been restored and the brittle wooden boardwalk, which broke under the force of flooding from Sandy, has been rebuilt in concrete as a flood resiliency measure. On Staten Island’s east shore, an area decimated by flooding five years ago that remains extremely vulnerable, residents have begun a managed retreat from water. However, the city has a lot of work ahead to adequately protect lives and property from flooding and in some cases contradicts resiliency measures by building new and rebuilding along vulnerable waterfronts.


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Contradictions between resiliency efforts and new development are clear in neighborhoods like the Financial District, which was among the hardest hit by Sandy flooding. There are encouraging signs, like the installation of flood barriers at entrances to the South Ferry and Whitehall Street subway stations and continued work on the beautiful and lush Battery Park, which forms the anchor of the “Big U.” Building owners have also provisioned for the installation of flood barriers to protect their property in anticipation of a storm. Yet, completion of the Big U is still years away and development along the East and Hudson Rivers, like the luxurious Seaport Residences continues apace, placing more lives and property potentially in harm’s way.

Anchors for temporary flood walls installed in the Financial District

Little flood resiliency work has been done in the Gowanus neighborhood, which suffered severe flooding from the canal that gives it its name. Here the contradictions between flood mitigation efforts and growth are quite clear. Hundreds of new apartments welcomed residents in the last year between Carroll and 2nd Streets along the banks of the canal in advance of a potential rezoning that would bring thousands more. There are plans for flood gates to protect the area, but as a recent article states, “Not Anytime Soon.”

In the days leading up to today, the five year anniversary of the storm, most articles that have been published on the topic assert that New York did not learn its lesson and continues to build residences in flood-prone areas. Indeed, owing to the enormity of the city’s waterfront (over 500 miles) and its incredible geographic and built diversity, there is no silver bullet for flooding concerns. Though in some cases new developments built to higher design standards and with waterfront esplanades, as required in places, can be contribute positively to New York’s resiliency efforts, work done so far can maybe best be described as patchwork. And like a fence or a dam, one weak link or crack can lead to inundation in spite of other efforts.

On the streets of a seemingly invincible city that welcomes and says goodbye to thousands of new residents every month, it can be hard to remember the havoc that Hurricane Sandy wrought. But, five years later, the NYC Subway system like dozens of NYCHA properties, is still recovering from the storm, causing severe disruptions to peoples’ lives. Hopefully, when the L Train shuts down in 2019, inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of people every day, we remember why it is necessary.

Flood zone
Map of NYC flood zones, graded from 1 to 6 (Source

In Washington DC, the official position on climate change of the President, the head of the EPA and many members of congress is denial, which imperils not just New York but the entire world. Storms like Hurricane Sandy are almost certain to become more frequent. In low-lying neighborhoods like Howard Beach, Queens, flooding is a daily tidal occurrence. It is perhaps up to New Yorkers then to avoid contradicting resiliency efforts by having long memories and frank conversations about the dangers and realities of flooding, sea level rise and storms fueled by a warming planet. Indeed the Federal Government and its denialist senselessness will only make things worse and in many cases, the best intentions of City and State government like “Build it Back” have failed to make New York more resilient, continuing to let people live in harm’s way.

Cough Triangle and New York’s Highway-side Parks

Cough Triangle is a small patch of green with eight benches and four trees shadowed by the sinister peeling green paint and rusted streel of the Gowanus Expressway overpass in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. As its NYC Parks page notes, the name “Cough” is not a local colloquialism based on its proximity to the pollutant spewing cars, trucks and buses of the expressway overhead, but an acronym made from the names of the streets that cut its triangular shape. That is “COUrt Street, Garnet Street and Hamilton Avenue.” However, in spite of the whimsical nature of its roots, the name Cough Triangle is provocative because of its proximity to a significant source of air pollution, the Gowanus Expressway, built by Robert Moses in the mid-20th Century.

Cough Triangle
Cough Triangle Park under the Gowanus Expressway (Source:

Robert Moses, New York City’s master builder over the course of decades, was responsible for building thousands of miles of new roads, Shea Stadium and hundreds of new parks and playgrounds through the metropolitan area. These new parks ranged in scale from the grand, master-planned grounds of Flushing Meadows to tiny playgrounds carved into blocks throughout the city. Many of the parks Moses developed offered him a loophole to build highways under the guise of “parkways,” in the absence of Federal funding for roads. This lead to the development of large, amenity filled parks like Riverside as well as dozens of smaller parks and playgrounds, crammed into fissures in the urban fabric that highways like the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (BQE) wrought.

Map from “Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City” by Pierre Christin & Olivier Balez

Though these small spaces offer play and green spaces to neighborhoods that may not have had access to them before, it is important to consider the health implications for vulnerable parkgoing members of the population (in particular children and the elderly). According to the American Lung Association, a panel of expert scientists from the Health Effects Institute “concluded that traffic pollution causes asthma attacks in children, and may cause a wide range of other effects including: the onset of childhood asthma, impaired lung function, premature death and death from cardiovascular diseases, and cardiovascular morbidity. The area most affected, they concluded, was roughly 0.2 to 0.3 miles (300 to 500 meters) from the highway.” In the case of these parks, highways are not just close, but the defining features of their locations.

One mile north of Cough Triangle, following the path of the BQE, is Van Voorhees Park in the Columbia Waterfront District. Expanded to five acres when the BQE was plowed through the neighborhood in 1956, “adjacent” does not quite adequately describe this park’s physical relationship to the highway. The highway’s six lanes as well as three exit ramps cut up Van Voorhees Park into different and distinct sections. Aside from poor air quality, highway traffic entering or exiting the BQE also endangers parkgoers moving into, out of and between the park’s distinct parts.

Van Voorhees Park with BQE in the background (Source

Further north in Williamsburg, Jaime Campiz playground is situated on a triangular lot between the BQE, Metropolitan Avenue and Marcy Avenue, which serves as an entrance ramp to the highway. The park was initially constructed in 1949, following acquisition of the land for the purposes of building the highway. Though buffered from the highway by dense trees, the presence six lanes of car, bus and truck traffic is inescapable in this small park, which likely suffers both from poor air quality and from the dangers of proximity to on-ramps similarly to Van Voorhees.

In South Slope, adjacent to the Prospect Expressway (a spur of the BQE), is Detective Joseph Mayrose Park. Built on land acquired for construction of the expressway, this park opened in 1956, six years before the road opened to car traffic. Here the expressway is in a trench, rather than on a viaduct, but the effect is no less profound as the sound of traffic echoes off of the subterranean walls. Of the four parks discussed here, Mayrose Park is the only one within a half mile of a major park (Prospect Park to the north east).

Cough Triangle’s unintended link between unfortunate name and even more unfortunate location served as a jumping off point for examining a few of these strange, small parks in New York City that were constructed in some cases as throw-ins for neighborhoods ravished by massive expressways. Each park suffers from the circumstances its creation and location as it users may too.

Map of Brooklyn highways and parks discussed

Though it is beyond the scope of this blog to say whether parks like Van Voorhees or the Cough Triangle cause more harm than they abate, all could undoubtedly benefit from closer looks at how air pollution can be mitigated in site-specific ways. Further, these parks and their proximity to sources of air pollution and particulate matter should serve as cautionary tales to city planners going forward. Even in a city like New York where land is as expensive as it is hard to come by, the green and play spaces that parks offer city dwellers should never be a throwaway add on to other projects. Parkgoers with young and old lungs and hearts deserve carefully sited and designed parks that mitigate air pollution rather than be proximate to it.


Real Estate and Transportation Funding

How to pay for large scale infrastructure projects, particularly public transportation in cities like New York, has been a historically vexing proposition. It is both a problem of funding capital expenses, such as expansions and improvements and of operating revenue. The Interborough Rapid Transit Company, which built and operated the first subway in Manhattan, fed real estate speculation by building lines, such as the 7 in Queens, essentially to nowhere.

“When it opened in 1915, it was meant to spur growth in Queens and expand the city eastward. It did just that, and in a really big way. The population of the borough increased from 284,000 in 1910 to 1,079,000 in 1930, 25 years after the launch of the 7 train.”

7 train
7 Line along Queens Boulevard in 1917 (Source: Curbed NY via G.W. Pullis)

This attitude of “if they build it they will come” worked out well for these early subway pioneers. The Queens Boulevard viaduct pictured above surrounded by empty fields was quickly filled in by the dense, midrise apartment buildings that characterize the Sunnyside and Woodside neighborhoods today. Though initial capital construction may have been achievable through cooperation with real estate developers, the IRT lines fell into disrepair by the 1930s. City policy to depress fares decimated the finances of the IRT and of the competing Brooklyn Manhattan Transit Company (BMT), which eventually led to their purchase by the city and consolidation with the Independent System.

Aside from fares that were kept below inflation by city policy, why else did these private companies fail to remain profitable and cede to purchase by the city after only a few decades? Not unlike the NYC Subway today, outside of farebox revenue, our public transportation systems have no guaranteed revenue source and are beholden to state lawmakers (often those that live hundreds of miles away from New York City) for vital capital dollars. It is almost cliché to say that the NYC Subway is the backbone of the city; the great circulatory system of the greatest city in the world. Yet, private employers reap enumerable benefits (and dollars) from the presence of the NYC Subway, a one way relationship that attracts employees and investment to gleaming office towers, while the subway rots in its 100 year old hole.

The decay of the NYC Subway, a victim of its own relative success and the success of New York City in the past 25 years, is not an uncommon story for American transportation systems. Chronic problems stemming from lack of capital investment in equipment improvements with sometimes deadly consequences plague BART in California, MBTA in Massachusetts and most painfully, Metro in Washington DC. However, in other cities, most notably Hong Kong, transportation systems are models of efficiency, capability and financial strength. “How can Hong Kong afford all of this?” asks The Atlantic’s Neil Padukone, “The answer is deceptively simple: “’Value Capture.’”

Hong Kong Subway station with full height platform screen doors

Hong Kong recognizes the value that its subway operator MTR offers businesses, and in exchange receives a cut of their profits. Hong Kong MTR is also a developer and a landlord, which generates profits just like a normal developer or a landlord; except that money is put towards the good maintenance and technological improvements that make the Hong Kong subway so clean, fast and reliable. By capturing the value that the Hong Kong subway lends to private entities in an incredibly dense metropolis of over 7 million people, it is not subject to the same political whims nor is it as depending on farebox recovery as other systems (although fares in Hong Kong do cover an almost unfathomable 185% of operating expenses compared with just 41% in New York).

The New York City Subway has in the past decade attempted to leverage the value it provides to the real estate sector in two notable ways. To build the 7 Line extension to Hudson Yards, the city floated almost $3 billion of bonds, which were expected to be paid back in full by the massive commercial and residential development on Manhattan’s Far West Side, which was only achievable with such a subway link. However, the taxes to be collected on Hudson Yards developments could fall hundreds of millions of dollars short of paying the New York taxpayers back. Separately, developer SL Green has committed to $200 million of improvements to the Grand Central Subway station, one of the city’s busiest, in exchange for allowance to build a 1,500 foot office tower. Though these improvements are not unnecessary, they do not tip the scale in the grand scheme of transit improvements that the NYC Subway needs.

Hudson Yards development under construction this year (Source: Curbed NY via NYConstructionPhoto)

What is stopping the New York City Subway from capturing some of the value it lends to private entities? The MTA is already a huge real estate presence in the city, with hundreds of stations, many with stores, newsstands, coffee shops and barber shops. The TURNSTYLE mini-mall, which was built in an underutilized corridor of the 59th Street-Columbus Circle station is a great example of what could be. However, what is stopping it from expanding into more substantive real estate development that could provide a consistent revenue stream? How does the NYC Subway avoid missing out on the benefits of the value it adds to the city and on real estate and investment booms that would not be possible without its existence?

Answering those questions to be the topic of a future blog post, but until then, your comments, ideas and opinions are welcome! Thanks for sticking with me on my first blog post.