Projections 10, Five Principles for Greenwich South, 2011

Projections 10: Designing for Growth & Change

“Five Principles for Greenwich South: A Strategic Framework for Lower Manhattan”
MIT Journal of Planning, 2011
Stephen Cassell and Annie Barrett

Architecture Research Office’s Five Principles for Greenwich South presents a valuable and innovative paradigm for urban design, an approach to planning that is engaged with its constituents and aligned to the complexities of growth and development in twenty-first century cities. Greenwich South is an underdeveloped and overlooked part of Lower Manhattan widely regarded by downtown residents, employees, and tourists as an obstacle to either avoid or ignore. Asked to create a masterplan for the neighborhood by the local business improvement district, ARO instead proposed a strategic framework that could frame its future around a few key overarching concepts. ARO developed a hierarchy of ideas that engage the project’s specific planning issues—a matrix of scales, scopes, and timeframes for actors to work within. These ideas, hierarchies and a series of hypothetical projects, commissioned from well known architects, were communicated to the public through publications and exhibits.


In May 2008, Architecture Research Offi ce was invited to design a master plan to guide the growth of ‘Greenwich South’ – the area of Lower Manhattan bounded by the World Trade Center, the West Side Highway, the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, and Broadway. An underdeveloped and overlooked part of the city, Greenwich South is widely regarded by downtown residents, employees, and tourists as an obstacle to either avoid or ignore. This attitude appears to be an unintended consequence of Lower Manhattan’s uncoordinated growth from a colonial settlement to a global business district, in which a legacy of large-scale infrastructure projects has rendered the area isolated from the city which surrounds it. But Greenwich South’s location and its store of developable air rights give it the potential to act as a lynchpin for Lower Manhattan if these current challenges are overcome. It was with this in mind that the Alliance for Downtown New York, Lower Manhattan’s Business Improvement District, commissioned this project to create a plan for Greenwich South’s growth that would guide the area toward the realization of its potential.

It was clear to us that this mission would be ill-served by a traditional master plan, a process which typically presents a singular vision for the future and is dependent on comprehensive implementation in order to achieve its goal. Instead of a master plan, we proposed the design of a strategic framework – a living document that could coordinate planning and development efforts at multiple scales across the short- and long-term future. Working with a team that included planner Neil Kittredge of Beyer Blinder Belle, graphic designer Scott Stowell of Open, and journalist Marc Kristal, and with contributions from additional groups of thinkers and designers, we developed Five Principles for Greenwich South, an adaptable tool designed to guide incremental change in the long- and short-term.

The implementation of urban design is a complex and messy process. It involves overlapping actors and agendas. Five Principles for Greenwich South is an urban design proposal that responds to the unique conditions of Lower Manhattan and the economic climate of past two years. Yet Architecture Research Office and its collaborators are confident that both the process used to create this strategic framework and also the structure of the framework itself constitute a valuable and innovative paradigm for urban design, an approach to planning that is engaged with its constituents and aligned to the complexities of the growth and development of twenty-first century cities.


The form of development in Manhattan is not the product of a master plan. Rather, its base condition is a framework: the 1811 Commissioner’s Plan nurtured a city whose characteristic juxtaposition of inconsistencies and contradictions, what Rem Koolhaas termed “Manhattanism,” is both enabled and coordinated by the gridiron. While Lower Manhattan is emblematic of New York in its density, diversity, and drive for prosperity, its urban fabric is different from the rest of the city. It preceded the Commissioner’s Plan, so the colonial era’s narrow, winding streets still define it today (Figure 1). Without the grid, the City’s oldest and densest district has had no mechanism to coordinate growth, producing both spectacular and deficient urban conditions.

Two hundred years of ad-hoc development in Greenwich South have generated an agglomeration of diverse building types and urban morphologies, giving the area a rich architectural character. One of the oldest Federal townhouses in the city is at 67 Greenwich Street. The historic Curb Market Building, constructed in 1921 to formalize the unregulated trading that formerly took place on the street, still stands on the north edge of the site. The former Downtown Athletic Club, which encapsulated Koolhaas’s theory of Manhattanism, has been converted to condominiums and overlooks the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel approach that occupies the southern half of the site. A long history of uncoordinated growth has also burdened Greenwich South with a succession of urban-scale infrastructure projects. The site’s western edge was once defined by an elevated railway, constructed in 1929, where today the West Side Highway begins. To the south, the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel approach makes it difficult to traverse Greenwich South safely below Rector Street. To the north, Greenwich Street has been blocked since the construction of the original World Trade Center superblock in 1977 (Figure 2).

Today, narrow dead-end streets and the presence of large infrastructure projects on all sides make it difficult to enter and depart Greenwich South, and harder still to cross along its east/west axis. The area lacks basic amenities and suffers from a lack of programming to support its 7,000 residents and anticipated additional 80,000 workers and 10,000 tourists expected with the completion of the World Trade Center complex and memorial. Development and improvements are occurring to the west (Battery Park City and the Hudson River Park), the south (Battery Park and the Staten Island Ferry Terminal) and the north (World Trade Center) yet Greenwich South has seen little development and no amelioration of its myriad planning deficiencies.

These conditions as well as its prime location and millions of square feet of developable air rights merit new attention to Greenwich South’s future. The site has potential to thrive by connecting four distinct neighborhoods to its north, south, east, and west, and this possibility is made more likely with the reopening of Greenwich Street as part of the World Trade Center site’s reconstruction. However, control of Greenwich South is held by multiple private land owners and public agencies, which sets a complicated context for the design and implementation of a large-scale planning effort. Although the Alliance for Downtown New York holds important infl uence over the district’s landowners, agencies, and authorities, as a business improvement district it neither owns the land nor possesses the authority to control its development.

These conditions made Greenwich South an ideal candidate for a strategic framework: a document that could provide the site not with a singular vision for the future, but, like Manhattan’s grid, with numerous possibilities guided by core principles. As opposed to a comprehensive, static master plan, the strategic framework is a document that can evolve over time, informing and advising future growth and change in Greenwich South.1


We created the strategic framework through a unique process—an iterative feedback loop in which we engaged constituents, design collaborators, and outside experts – and successively put forth and refi ned hypotheses and conjectures. Our process led to a project that engages stakeholders and coordinates participation in Greenwich South’s future in a broad range of directions (Figure 3).

To frame and understand the problem, the study commenced with a research and analysis phase. Our interdisciplinary team took multiple approaches to assembling information and analyzing the site. Zoning, land use, and FAR studies revealed nearly ten million square feet of developable air rights latent in Greenwich South as well as strategies for unlocking this potential. A comprehensive survey of existing conditions demonstrated the under-use of the area by residents, tourists, and area workers on all sides. Information-gathering on current and planned future projects to the south, west, and north helped set the scene for Greenwich South’s future (Figure 4).

Out of this research, the team established a set of key questions and operating hypotheses. As a mechanism for testing our assumptions and expanding our outlook, we convened an event with a group of New Yorkers concerned for the future of Lower Manhattan—engineers, historians, arts professionals, architecture critics, restaurant owners, and business people (Figure 5). Presenting and discussing our preliminary work with this group, the Greenwich South Brain Trust, helped calibrate our approach to the problem. For example, we knew that dealing with extant infrastructure was one of Greenwich South’s primary challenges. The discussion not only helped us frame how that infrastructure could be re-invented in the future, but also maintain parts of it to provide a shared memory of the past. From a programmatic standpoint, these discussions developed our working definition of Greenwich South as a future “lynchpin” with an emphasis on its integration with surrounding areas rather than its definition as a unique neighborhood. This refined set of key questions and challenges served as the foundation for the draft strategic framework written with our client and with feedback from various constituents and government agencies.

A Strategic Framework for Greenwich South

The framework had a delicate task to complete: to set forth a vision for the future in spite of an unstable present and many unknowns about the site and its surroundings; to resonate with the Alliance’s constituents, business owners and investors who would be key partners in achieving the goals of the framework; and, wherever possible, to work in concert with planning efforts already underway in neighboring areas of New York City. Architecture Research Office’s solution was based on a set of key overarching concepts, big ideas that embody the site’s main planning goals. From there, we developed a hierarchy of ideas that engage the project’s specific planning issues – a matrix of scales, scopes, and timeframes for actors to work within. This hierarchical matrix became our strategic framework for Greenwich South, a document comprised of Principles, Objectives, and Opportunities which work together to build guidelines for short- and long-term growth at all scales (Figures 6; 9-13).

At the top of the matrix are five Principles, fixed goals that encapsulate the Framework’s response to the myriad challenges facing the site and form the basis of growth and change of the site’s internal development and integration with its surrounding neighborhoods. The five Principles we developed for Greenwich South are broad ideas about the cohesion of Lower Manhattan that may be interpreted in architectural, programmatic, and economic terms. They are independent from any specific action or initiative and can remain relevant over time and through changing conditions. Principle One (Figure 9) speaks holistically to Greenwich South’s synthesis with and contribution to Lower Manhattan, emphasizing the integration of businesses, residents, and tourists to produce environmental, economic, and programmatic prosperity. Principles Two and Three (Figures 10, 11) contend with issues of connectivity: Principle Two sets an agenda to capitalize on the reconnection of Greenwich Street through the World Trade Center site, and Principle Three establishes a set of goals to strengthen river-to-river connections between the neighborhoods to the east and west through Greenwich South . Principle Four (Figure 12) deals with the millions of square feet of developable air rights sitting latent in Greenwich South and organizes a set of planning and zoning goals to guide development in a way that benefits all of Lower Manhattan’s constituents. Principle Five (Figure 13) addresses programmatic deficiencies in Greenwich South, aimed towards the development of the area as a place that provides pragmatic, pleasurable, and entertainment amenities for residents, workers, and tourists.

Each Principle is a reduction of a complex set of dynamics and agendas that are expanded in the Objectives and Opportunities underlying each Principle. The simplicity behind the Principles ensures that they are easily communicated though also durable. But it is only in conjunction with the rest of the framework matrix that their content and meaning are clearly revealed.

Three to five Objectives describe the key components of each Principle, grounding the Framework in the specificities of the site. For example, Principle 2: Reconnect Greenwich Street – is elaborated in terms of scale, scope, and program through three Objectives that describe the application of the Principle at the scale of the building, the neighborhood, and the street. Objective 2A addresses infrastructural, landscape, programming, transportation, and architectural initiatives that could capitalize on the planned reconstruction of Greenwich Street through the new World Trade Center site. Objective 2B calls for the re-conception of the base of Greenwich Street as a landmark for Lower Manhattan and gateway to both the district and the city. Objective 2C looks towards initiatives to make the street a center of activity for the area (Figure 10).

Associated with each Objective is a list of Opportunities. It is at this smallest scale of information that design, policy, and planning initiatives are specifically recommended. Unlike Principles and Objectives, the Opportunities can be executed and are intended to be embraced, rejected, re-written, adapted, developed, changed, and replaced. Opportunities represent the many ways, from the pragmatic to the speculative, to achieve a given objective. For example, Objective 2C includes as Opportunities retail strategies, arts installations and zoning guidelines (Figure 10). The proposed Opportunities serve as examples to additional future changes that may be suggested and executed by others. Indeed, we assume that many of the opportunities described in Five Principles for Greenwich South may never be executed.

Envisioning Greenwich South

Like an open-source application, the strategic framework is designed to inform public consciousness, able to evolve, adapt and engage with diverse constituencies and forces at work in Lower Manhattan. Following the completion of our final draft of the strategic framework, we submitted the document to a final phase of testing and refinement before releasing it to the public. We invited teams of architects, environmental engineers, artists, planners, landscape architects and graphic designers to join our internal team in a “Visioning” phase 2 with two objectives: first, gain feedback from our peers that would help us refine the framework, and, second, produce material that would serve as an illustration of the principles themselves (Figure 7).