Bryant Park Restoration: Blueprint for Hemming

October 17, 2016 6 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Bryant Park in New York is one of the most celebrated urban park change agent stories in the United States. It went from one of the most notorious public spaces in a city that was hardly short of such areas to an active park that has literally become a byword for friendly upscale tactical urbanism. There are many parallels to be drawn with Hemming Park, and we'd like to present a thinkerly article that shows (and contrasts) how NYC leadership created this transformation.

Like Hemming Park, it was a central urban park that was not only in decline, but also had become a place avoided on grounds of safety and negative perceptions.  Also like Hemming Park it is anchored by a large library and cultural institutions.  Like Hemming Park it is managed by a privatized group, while still being a public park.  Like Hemming, it has gone through a somewhat oblique process in its transformation. Here is what Wikipedia has to say about Bryant Park:

Bryant Park is a privately managed public park located in the New York City borough of Manhattan. It is located between Fifth and Sixth Avenues and between 40th and 42nd Streets in Midtown Manhattan. Although technically the Main Branch of the New York Public Library is located within the park, effectively it forms the park's functional eastern boundary, making Sixth Avenue the park's primary entrance. Bryant Park is located entirely over an underground structure that houses the library's stacks, which were built in the 1980s when the park was closed to the public and excavated; the new library facilities were built below ground level while the park was restored above it.

Even though it is part of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, Bryant Park is managed by the private not-for-profit corporation Bryant Park Corporation. The park is cited as a model for the success of public-private partnerships.

The history of the park goes back a bit.

Bryant Park is one of the signature examples of New York City's revival in the 1990s. With a low crime rate, the park is filled with office workers on sunny weekdays, city visitors on the weekends, and revelers during the holidays. Daily attendance counts often exceed 800 people per acre, making it the most densely occupied urban park in the world. A New York Times article in 1995 referred to the park as the "Town Square of Midtown" and an "office oasis" frequented by midtown office workers. The park has been extolled for its relative calmness and cleanness.

With security largely in the hands of the BPC, corporate control of the park has meant that amenities catering to white-collar professionals have been encouraged, while those that might cater to a broader urban public have been notably absent. In the early 2000s, the BPC added a custom-built carousel and revived the tradition of an open-air library, The Reading Room, which also hosts literary events. The Bryant Park Grill and Bryant Park Cafe have become popular after-work spots, and food and drink are served at four park operated concessionary kiosks. In the 40th Street plaza of the park, there is a station called Bryant Park Games where visitors can play an array of games, including Chinese chess and quoits. In the summer of 2002, the park launched the free Bryant Park Wireless Network, making the park the first in New York City to offer free Wi-Fi access to visitors; improvements in 2008 significantly increased the number of users who could log on at a given time. The Pond, a free-admission ice skating rink, opened in the park in 2005. The park's widely praised public restrooms provide New Yorkers with luxurious public facilities open to everyone, a rare commodity in the city; a subsequent renovation solidified their status as, in the words of then-New York City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, "the gold standard for park comfort stations."

The dramatic rise in real estate values in the area around the Bryant Park, as well as new construction in adjacent areas, is a consequence of the park's improvements. Increasingly, buildings and businesses in the park's vicinity are also referring to the park in their names. These trends, first noted in 2003, is shown by the new Bank of America Tower skyscraper, which is also called "One Bryant Park", at the northwest corner of the park as well as the growing trend of Bryant Park vanity addresses including 3,4,5, and 7 Bryant Park. It is also shown by the decision of the National Public Radio, located just south of the park, to name a now defunct talk show the "Bryant Park Project" upon the show's 2007 launch. Such enthusiasm to appropriate the Bryant Park name would have been nonexistent in the 1980s, when the area was described as "the Wild West"

So how did the transformation begin?

Well as so many good things in tactical urban implementation, it began with a plan by William Hollingsworth Whyte, the noted sociologist.  We ran his groundbreaking urban spaces film here, and it is well worth a watch.  Have a look at what the outcome of this change has been:

Images of the Park Today:

PAGE 1:  Bryant Park Today, similarities to Hemming Park
PAGE 2:  William H. Whyte's Report: The Problems
PAGE 3:  William H. Whyte's Report: The Solutions
Page 4:  How Hemming Could Benefit

 1 2 3 4 NEXT