Home Second Avenue Subway Along Second Ave., building a better ancillary structure

Along Second Ave., building a better ancillary structure

by Benjamin Kabak

As the Second Ave. Subway planning has evolved over the last half a decade, the MTA has had to balance community input with NIMBYism as they’ve designed a subway that meets 21st Century security standards and 20th Century neighborhood designs. No where has this conflict been more obvious than in the handling of the various ancillary structures that come with a subway. From complaints to lawsuits, East Side residents have thrown the book at MTA planners. The authority is now trying to work with these groups to ensure designs that fit the neighborhood, but will it be enough?

This story I tell today starts with the image above. The neighbors had wanted the MTA to work with developers to find a way to include retail or mixed-use development in the structure, but when the authority determined that it would involve more real estate acquisition and higher costs, they scraped that plan. Still, the residents complained that the structure didn’t fit with the neighborhood. It’s monolithic and unwelcoming in a popular mixed-use neighborhood.

The MTA heard these cries and offered up three new renderings. The authority presented these at its October 12 meeting on the progress of the Second Ave. Subway, and I offer them up below.

So what do we see? First, the MTA has realized that buildings look better surrounded by trees. The original rendering atop this post laid bare the building for all to see. The new versions, presented with the goal of portraying the way the buildings could fit worse, now have trees, and doesn’t that look nice?

But snark over the design choices aside, the MTA is showing what these buildings would look like if different materials are used. The first one — my favorite choice — incorporates the same brick as its neighbor on 72nd St. The tan one in the middle tries, but fails, to replicate the building next to it. The bottom grey one is too utilitarian for the Upper East Side. It’s not a realistic alternative as much as a warning of what could be.

The real problem isn’t with these structures themselves. Rather, it’s the requirement that the MTA build eight of these along a short stretch of Second Ave. Unfortunately, because the Second Ave. Subway is around 70-90 feet deep and because security and ventilation standards require it, these buildings are a necessary evil. No matter how they’re presented, unless the authority and its partners are willing to spend a significant amount of money to redesign them for retail, they won’t be nice.

I’ve maintained that we’ll forget about these structures ten years after they open. They’ll just become a part of the Second Ave. landscape for better or worse. But I won’t have to see them on a daily basis or live with their towering presence. The MTA’s current substations and ancillary buildings were better incorporated into the city landscape, and we sometimes pass them without noticing. The Greenwich St. substation is a stately building while the Joralemon St. access point is just a gutted townhouse that blends with its Borough Heights neighbors.

At least the authority is going through the motions of trying to present alternatives. The neighbors probably won’t like them, but that’s the balance between community planing and NIMBYism. You can’t win all of the battles all of the time when it comes to graphing today’s urban requirements onto yesterday’s planning.

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17 comments

Todd October 20, 2010 - 8:25 am

That bicyclist is obviously about to pedal right into those two ladies in the crosswalk. I don’t like the MTA encouraging violence in this way.

But I love the trees.

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E. Aron October 20, 2010 - 8:58 am

He’s also biking in the wrong direction.

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E. Aron October 20, 2010 - 9:00 am

Thank you for recognizing that way too many of these things are required, especially for a lively stretch like this part of 2nd Ave. It’s really a shame that they need to demolish so many businesses and homes for 3 new subway stations.

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Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines October 20, 2010 - 9:11 am

[…] Can MTA Come Up With Better Designs for Second Ave Subway Ventilation Buildings? (SAS) […]

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Steve October 20, 2010 - 9:35 am

I get why housing can’t work in the ventilation buildings (small lots + large amounts of separated space for ventilation shafts = not a lot of space for housing + loud droning from the walls in said housing), but I’m surprised that ground-level retail can’t work. Even if the retail space is shallow, something that avoids blank walls for pedestrians and offsets building maintenance costs for the MTA seems like a win for all concerned. Is it a matter of the MTA wanting to avoid lawsuits from the former landowners?

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Jeffrey Early October 20, 2010 - 9:36 am

What are some examples of current substations and other ancillary structures? How do they look, how much space do they use, and how many are there on the various lines?

I’ll confess that it’s not something I’ve paid attention to.

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Paul October 20, 2010 - 12:34 pm

I’m inclined to think that other countries have found ways to make these attractive and functional.

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Al D October 20, 2010 - 10:05 am

The red and charcoal will take the longest to show the dirt and grime (since we know MTA will never maintain these things once finished!)

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John October 20, 2010 - 10:10 am

One of the problems is the corner location(s), which takes out usable space not only along Second Avenue, but along whatever side streets the buildings are located on. The IRT Joralemon St. access point for example, is in the middle of the block, so you only have one (camouflaged) side facing out into the street, while the other three sides either abut the adjacent buildings or the mid-block back yards.

Obviously, if you have a situation where you’ve got blocks with only 1-2 big buildings on them to begin with, you’re going to be stuck with a corner location. But the MTA should have really thought of making the vent shafts’ street-facing footprints as small as possible, to limit their overall affect on the area.

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Christopher October 20, 2010 - 10:24 am

I wonder what the Project for Public Spaces would do with this? Find a way to incorporate some retail? (NY has amazingly small retail spaces — why can’t these be a fruit / vegetable stand / flower market / what have you?)

Also I like the Charcoal best as I think it recedes into the background better, and since that red brick neighboring building in the rendering is not attractive — I certainly don’t want to try to match it.

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tacony palmyra October 20, 2010 - 11:22 am

What’s different about the “security and ventilation standards” for the 2nd Ave subway that requires eight structures along the short stretch of 2nd Ave? Are these standards that didn’t exist when the other subway lines were constructed? Are they grandfathered in noncompliance whereas no new subways can be built without so many ancillary structures? It seems like such a huge waste of real estate and I’m amazed they couldn’t put little shallow retail spaces for bodegas into their street frontage.

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John October 20, 2010 - 12:16 pm

The older lines that are only 1-2 levels down from the street can use the gratings in the sidewalks to provide their ventilation. The deeper Second Avenue tunnels — basically 7-8 stories underground — don’t have that luxury and need the vent houses, in the same way the river tunnels do.

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R2 October 20, 2010 - 10:52 pm

Actually, yes, they have changed. It’s analogous to ADA in that it’s an unfunded federal mandate. Our current ventilation system is not grandfathered; it’s considered inadequate and MTA’s upgrading on an ongoing basis. All the East/Harlem River crossings have been done, as far as I know. So basically, anytime you hear about vent fan plants, that’s what it’s about. New subway construction requires these buildings. Ideally, physics determines how many of these you need.

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Paul October 20, 2010 - 12:39 pm

The large “blank space” on the upper side of the building seems like the perfect place for a large art piece. Why not take some portion of the required 1% that has to be spent on art and use it there (is that still a requirement for projects receiving federal money?). You could have people in the community vote on a set of finalists or something. I don’t see why it has to be a blank wall.

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Christopher Stephens October 21, 2010 - 1:03 pm

I agree with the posters above who want to see some form of street level retail to break up the bare walls. My suggestions: a news stand (think of how small the footprint is for the shiny new news stands that have been installed of late); a “permanent” coffee cart (in the Pacific Northwest they have espresso shacks that take up a tiny footprint). The neighborhood wins because the visual blight is erased, and a few small businesses could get launched.

As for a large piece of art, well, I’m sure your heart is in the right place, but while the MTA has a better track record than most, the majority of large public artworks are failures. Exhibit 1: that steam-emitting weird clock thing at Union Square.

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Cousine October 21, 2010 - 6:10 pm

As a bait-and-switch, the FEIS showed townhouse style structures, like the one over in Brooklyn Heights. Years later, this is what has been swapped in – monolithic is the word. Townhouse style isn’t a requirement, but there must be something that comes off warmer in a neighborhood which is nearly all residential other than small retail. I keep thinking Snake Plissken will appear on the rooftop, waiting for an airlift.

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