A grate prototype rests on Sutphin Boulevard in Queens. (Photo by David W. Dunlap/The New York Times)
When the subways flooded in 2007, the MTA knew they had a grate problem. Run-off from the storms were sloshing underground through sidewalk grates, and the tracks along Queens Boulevard — buried just a few feet underground — were quickly rendered inoperable. While in other cities, such as DC, the subways are far enough underground to escape the problems of heavy rains, in New York, cut-and-cover construction techniques resulted in subways prone to flooding.
When the last big storms hit New York City over the summer, the MTA protected their tunnels by manually covering these grates with tarps. Clearly, this would not be the most efficient way, going forward, for the transit agency to operate every time bad weather hits the Big Apple.
To that end, the MTA has spent the last year developing a new type of sidewalk grate that would push water away from vulnerable subway areas and into proper sewage canals. Pictured above is that prototype, and a few days ago, CityRoom had the story behind these aesthetic and functional grates. Wrote David W. Dunlap:
hammered stainless steel and available in three different heights, their almost sculpturally undulating form is a deliberate reference to the problem they are supposed to help solve. “You’re aware that this is here for storm water,” said Rob Rogers, whose firm, Rogers Marvel Architects, designed the new grates in association with di Domenico & Partners. “It has a didactic purpose…”
The prototype shown on Friday at the corner of Sutphin Boulevard in Jamaica was made up of one unit in each height, which formed a whole composition when combined. They can also be used singly or in pairs. The lowest unit, which would hold back flood waters up to six inches above the sidewalk, incorporates a seat. But the gentle troughs between the waves are not uncomfortable and could certainly serve as a temporary perch for someone, say, waiting for a bus.
As a flood-control device, the structure creates a protective collar, or sleeve, around ventilating grates that are typically set flush to sidewalk level. The idea is not to completely waterproof the platforms and tracks below, but to mitigate a devastating cascade of water, silt, mud and debris.
As Dunlap notes, these grates are still grates — The MTA needs to circulate air through their system as well — and water will find its way underground. But by elevating the grating, the MTA can ensure that runoff on the sidewalks will head to storm drains and not underground subway tunnels. Eventually, the MTA will install these grates in other flood-prone areas as well. Sounds good, right?
Well, I love the grates, and I’m glad to see the MTA taking a proactive step to address this problem. I have two concerns, albeit minor ones. Will the stainless steel get too hot when exposed to direct sunlight in the summer? We’ve heard about parents complaining about playground mats that get too hot. What will happen the first time someone gets burned on the bench?
I’m also less than thrilled with the reduction in sidewalk. Personally, I feel that New York as a walking city doesn’t afford its residents with enough sidewalk space. In the grand tradition of Jane Jacobs, I support widening the sidewalks, but these grates do just the opposite.
Of course, we can’t have our cake and eat it too. We can’t have flood-proof subways and enough sidewalk space, and in this case, I’ll take dry subways and trains that aren’t delayed every time it rains.