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Restoring Central Park’s 19th-Century Arches to Combat Its Traffic Chaos

Playmates Arch (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Playmates Arch in Central Park (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Two Central Park pedestrians were killed in collisions with bicycles last year, devastating signs of the increasing chaos of its intersections. Walkers move perpendicular against quicker bicyclists, rollerbladers, and joggers all along the Manhattan park’s encircling loop. A group called the Central Park Arch Project started in October is advocating one of the 19th-century park’s original design features as an alternative solution.

There are 36 arches and bridges in Central Park, and most visitors don’t realize they’re much more than ornamental. When Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed the original 778 acres in the 1850s, pedestrian, horseback, and carriage paths were separated for safety and traffic flow. As the use of the park changed, so did the usage of the infrastructure, and 20th-century alterations under New York City’s prolific “master builder” Robert Moses tore down three arches. “One of them, Marble Arch, is in a position where there is a terrible crosswalk,” Matthew Falber, who started the Central Park Arch Project, told Hyperallergic. Falber gives tours with Central Park Sunset Tours, and his familiarity with the history of the park and its current state drove his interest in the arches.

Willowdell Arch, with a view to the state of Balto the sled dog (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Willowdell Arch, with a view to statue of Balto the sled dog
Playmates Arch (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Playmates Arch

Another lost structure — the Green Gap Arch — was made obsolete in 1934 when Robert Moses expanded the zoo, a project which included the demolition of the Outset Arch. Green Gap was the west entrance for the zoo until 1988, when it was again renovated and the arch was basically turned into a storage space. “In order to cross the road now, you need to climb up stairs and cross the street without a crosswalk,” Falber explained.

The restoration of those lost arches at critical intersections, the remains of which are still buried in the park, is part of their proposal, along with revising pathways to emphasize existing arches for pedestrians. A petition for the plan is underway for the attention of the New York City Parks Department. Additional outreach is ongoing for all involved parties, along with plans for events. Last weekend as part of Jane’s Walk, which had free walking tours across the five boroughs in honor of urban activist Jane Jacobs, Falber led a six-hour tour of all 36 arches.

Pedestrian sign on the Central Park loop (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Pedestrian sign on the Central Park loop
Map of the Winterdale Arch as an alternative to the pedestrian crosswalk (courtesy Central Park Arch Project)
Map of the Winterdale Arch as an alternative to the pedestrian crosswalk (courtesy Central Park Arch Project)

The Winterdale Arch, for example, could easily be an alternate route to the Great Lawn and its surrounding features like the Delacorte Theater, rather than the nearby crossing on the loop. A map from the DOT showed this West Drive area as being the park’s most dangerous last year. And Falber points out that three arches do get a lot of current use: Willowdell, Driprock, and Playmates arch, all passing beneath a carriage path. “We actually use a lot of them, people just don’t necessarily realize that they’re using them,” he said. He also cites the 2009 rebuilding of the Oak Bridge by the Central Park Conservancy as a precedent of recreating the original park architecture. “It’s something that’s been done, it just hasn’t been done to solve traffic problems,” he said.

The city has already responded in some ways. A plan to lower the bike speed limit to 20 miles per hour was implemented last year, bringing it down from 25. An article last September in the New York Times mapped how in some parts of the park, speeds were exceeding 30 miles per hour on average. The blame is on neither bikers nor pedestrians (the same article quotes from a cyclist who broke his leg when avoiding a pedestrian), but from a multipurpose, busy roadway with increasing use. According to a report from the NYCDOT, collisions between bicycles and pedestrians went up over 25% between 2012 and 2013. Currently the Central Park Arch Project is researching the feasibility and cost of restoring and promoting use of the arches in a way that would respect and even resurrect the park’s original design, while clearing its current congestion.

Dalehead Arch (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Dalehead Arch
Arch in Central Park (1860-1900) (photo by W. M. Chase, via New York Public Library)
Arch in Central Park (1860–1900) (photo by W. M. Chase, via New York Public Library)

h/t Curbed; Jane’s Walk

Read more about the Central Park Arch Project at their site, where they are collecting names on a petition for the New York City Parks Department.

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