NYC’s Park Avenue Medians Are Getting a Face-Lift
With JPMorgan and Grand Central Station set to temporarily tear up the avenue’s malls, local officials are seizing the opportunity to renovate.
February 7, 2022
A long-ignored strip of planted medians on an iconic Manhattan avenue is set to undergo a major renovation that could last decades.
New York City’s Department of Transportation plans to hire a landscape architect to reinvent the malls that divide Park Avenue along the 11 blocks from Grand Central to East 57th Street. Councilmember Keith Powers, who represents the area, says he expects the request for proposals to be sent out in the coming months. The renovations will proceed in stages and likely won’t be completed for at least 20 years.
The changes will also leave less room for vehicles. NYCDOT hopes to more than double the width of the malls in some spots by cutting out two lanes of traffic, leaving two running in each direction. In the end, the malls could expand to as much as 110,000 square feet from their current 50,000 square feet.
With a yet-to-be-determined budget provided by a public improvement fund, the exact design will depend on the future architect. But benches, walking and biking paths, and mall-to-mall crosswalks are all in the cards, says Ed Pincar, the Manhattan Borough Commissioner for NYCDOT, who calls it a “once in a century” infrastructure project.
For decades, rotating plantings of tulips, begonias and mums have made the malls pretty to look at, but inaccessible to pedestrians. Curbs are crumbling in some areas: Unlike other green spaces in the city, the Park Avenue malls haven’t been renovated since before the late 1920s, when they were narrowed drastically to accommodate more cars. In terms of the square footage of open space per office worker, the area ranks dead last behind Times Square, Bryant Park and Hudson Yards — an issue that has become more apparent as workers return to the city.
With the Long Island Railroad set to be redirected from Penn Station to Grand Central in December, the area will likely receive more foot traffic in the coming decade, making new pedestrian space all the more important, Powers says.
“We know Park Avenue is a hub for employment,” he says. “It’s a hub for people visiting the city. And it’s a transportation hub for the whole region.”
The impetus for the project goes beyond the malls themselves. JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s lofty new headquarters at 270 Park Avenue will require pulling up one mall between 47th and 48th Streets. The 2.5-million square foot project will house 12,000 to 14,000 of the bank’s employees.
Starting on the same block and extending to 57th Street, Grand Central plans to update its train shed — essentially an underground rail yard — located directly under Park Avenue. The shed renovation could take decades, and will at some point interfere with every mall in the 11-block expanse. NYCDOT plans to start the landscape redesign with the mall in front of JPMorgan, since it will be the first to be removed.
Most New Yorkers don’t realize Park Avenue is “essentially a bridge structure,” says Pincar. As a result of that, the final design team for the medians will have to coordinate closely with engineers. Pincar expects that congestion pricing — a plan to charge drivers to go through Manhattan’s central business district that the agency is currently studying — will mitigate potential traffic delays created by the project.
The rezoning of East Midtown in 2017 included the creation of a public realm improvement fund generated by fees from private development projects, such as those collected from air rights. (JPMorgan, for instance, has contributed at least $40 million from the construction of its new headquarters, according to Pincar.) Park Avenue is among several spaces that will benefit from that pot.