Best of 2005 Awards
Columbus Circle Reconstruction
Project of the Year - Overall Winner
Law Olmsted's 1858 vision for Manhattan's Central Park called
for four grand plazas at the corners where the great rectangular
space blends into city streets. But on the southwestern corner,
it didn't work out that way.
It took until 1892 for the corner to get its signature feature,
a Carrara marble monument to Christopher Columbus, under whose
1.5-million-ton foundation the IRT built its subway tunnels
and Columbus Circle station 10 years later. Then, the advent
of motor vehicles soon made the circle where Broadway, Central
Park West, Central Park South, and Eighth Avenue meet into
one of the city's busiest intersections - prompting municipal
authorities over the years to shrink the center plaza in order
to accommodate traffic.
The circle underwent various facelifts as the decades rolled
past, none that had staying power. By the time the area's
dominant modern feature along its western flank, the New York
Coliseum convention hall, closed its doors in 1998, Columbus
Circle had become one of the city's most forgettable public
"It was just a sad place," said one of the Best
of 2005 jurors. "You had this monument sitting in the
middle of nowhere. You could see it better two miles away."
But by that time, the wheels were already in motion for a
reconstruction. The plans began in 1987, took shape in 1996,
entered final design in 2000, broke ground in 2003, and finally
finished this fall - ultimately earning the jury's vote for
Project of the Year.
"It took what was an inaccessible place for decades
to a place that all of a sudden people flow to," said
one juror. "It was a place that no one could touch. And
now it's a real part of the fabric."
The goal of the latest $21 million transformation was to
make the junction useful again, said David Burney, commissioner
of the city's Department of Design and Construction, which
oversaw the project.
"It was never a pedestrian-friendly space," Burney
said. "It had gotten butchered around. Our goal was to
make the traffic flow properly and to make it a pedestrian-friendly
When Tully Construction of Queens began working onsite in
2003, the circle was barely functional, said Fred Hartmann,
project manager for the company.
"There was a small 10 to-15 ft.-diameter fountain that
was not working," he said. "There was no circle.
It was a series of traffic medians out there. There was no
The work in the 225,000-sq.-ft. project scope would encompass
relocation of utilities, waterproofing of subway tunnel roofs,
construction of new roadway, and building the fountain and
plaza - all while 60,000 vehicles used the circle daily.
"If we could have closed all the roads, we could have
done it in half the time," Burney said.
Along the way, the project team had to consult with the city's
departments of parks, transportation, and city planning; the
Landmarks Preservation Commission, which designated the statue
as a landmark; the Metropolitan Transportation Authority;
and Manhattan community boards 4, 5, and 7, each of which
has a chunk of the circle within its jurisdiction. It was
a large coordination effort, said Yun Poy "Dino"
Ng, DDC's assistant commissioner for design.
"This is a high-visibility project," he said. "We
have to deal with anybody who's anybody in that area, from
the building owners to the parks department. Everybody has
an opinion about what should and should not be done.
"A cast of thousands reviewed these drawings - 50 or
60 sets would go out," Ng added. "And when there's
an issue, they don't just call us - they call City Hall."
A Long Road to Reach Final Design
Ng was around for the reconstruction's 1987 roots - he worked
at the city's department of transportation when preliminary
designs took shape, but then sat unused. Design firms on the
early plans included San Francisco-based URS Corp., New York-based
Skidmore Owings & Merrill, and New York-based Daniel Frankfurt.
In 1996, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's administration began planning
to shutter the Coliseum and usher in a major redevelopment.
The circle reconstruction plans got new attention, just as
oversight of the project - along with Ng and others - moved
to the newly created DDC.
"That's when they did the temporary circle with some
landscaping and found the traffic configuration worked,"
In 1998, the city implemented other adjustments to the roadways
and vehicle flow - reintroducing the traditional traffic rotary
by removing lanes that had cut through the circle's center
- and in 2000, Vollmer Associates of New York began to develop
final designs. While the drafts incorporated utility upgrades,
coordination with adjacent property owners, and improvements
to the subway station, the critical task was engineering traffic
"In the world of traffic modeling, there aren't a lot
of circles being built in >> high-traffic urban areas,"
said Brian O'Donnell, senior associate at Vollmer.
Rotaries are rare in New York, so most of the modeling for
Columbus Circle was custom-developed from analysis of the
test configurations, said Andrea Nuñez, a civil engineer
"We used simulations to develop the final plans,"
she added. "The test circle was in place in early 1998
and we didn't disturb it until 2003."
Taking on a Crowded Urban Space
After an extensive round of drawings, surveys, and test pits,
Vollmer's final design set the stage for bids in February
2003 and construction to start that July. About 30 carpenters,
electricians, concrete workers, lathers, plumbers, and others
were onsite at a time - the most that could fit without "tripping
over each other," said Tully's Hartmann.
Further crowding the area was construction of the 2.8-million-sq.-ft.
Time Warner Center on the Coliseum site, along with the 1,
2, and 3 IRT subway lines under Broadway and the A, B, C,
and D IND lines under Eighth Avenue and Central Park West.
The circle reconstruction team worked from the outside in
and from bottom to top. It began with relocation of sewers,
water and steam mains, and electric, telephone, and gas lines,
said J. Evans Doleyres, DDC's assistant commissioner for infrastructure
"We had a steam pipe and a sewer line that we moved
west under the roadway, away from the circle," he added.
"The object was to clear the area to fit the underground
chambers for the fountains. Room was at a premium."
The upgrades went beyond the circle - up to 62nd Street and
down to 59th Street - in hopes to avoid the need for other
agencies or utilities to dig up the new pavement or plaza
The team next focused on building outer curbs and sidewalks
before tackling the circle's lanes. It rushed to complete
the road before August 2004, because the then-complete Time
Warner Center was hosting events tied to the Republican national
"We blitzed that portion, two shifts per day to bring
it in on time," Doleyres said.
Instead of standard asphalt paving, the team poured more
durable reinforced concrete, Ng added. Though requiring more
precise equipment and longer curing times, the concrete should
prevent the need for frequent repaving.
Concrete also gives vehicles in the circle more traction
to compensate for a counter-intuitive pitch. Instead of banking
inward, which would complement the tendency of tires to hug
the inside of a curve, the lanes bank outward to let drainage
flow away from the central plaza.
Almost an Urban Archeological
The next chore was digging out the center around the statue's
foundation. The team had to carve solid Manhattan schist to
create the 28- by 36-ft. pump room, which is 15 ft. below
grade and has a sump pump 8 ft. deeper.
The digging was delicate because of adjacent utilities and
subway tunnels, Tully's Hartmann said.
"It took us a while to get rid of that rock," he
added. "We drilled and split for the better part of a
month. There was no blasting, and we also couldn't use the
large hoe rams to bang it out."
Crews also dug to the subway tunnel roof to install catch
basins and other equipment for the fountain. In another bid
to avoid future excavation of the plaza, the team added elevator
shafts to the MTA's station as part of that agency's separate
effort to meet federal Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.
"It looked like an archeological dig," Doleyres
The team blew out the top of the subway roof in three spots
to install structural steel and modify the structure to fit
the shafts, which are below grade and serve parts of the subterranean
station. It then sealed the roof with a waterproofing liner
and >> backfilled with a 3-in. layer of protection concrete
and another layer of sand that also serves as the bed for
extensive piping and mechanical equipment serving the new
The team shifted to above-ground work on the central plaza
in November 2004, logging 12 to 14-hour days through the winter,
said Rudy Giaccaglia Jr., Tully's onsite superintendent. A
major task was building three pools for the fountains, whose
waterproofing required minimum curing temperatures of 70 degrees.
"We built enclosures over all of the pools," Giaccaglia
said. "We had 60,000-btu heaters in each of the tents,
which made the temperature inside 80 degrees."
The fountain circulates 60,000 gallons, recycling water into
the pump room, which has pumps for the cascades and 99 nozzles,
as well as a debris strainer, filter, brominator, municipal
water hookup, and wastewater discharge system.
The room also houses systems powering the park's 300-plus
lights and features such as a sensor that assesses wind direction
and adjusts nozzle patterns accordingly to avoid spraying
water outside of the basins. The fountain's manufacturer,
WET Design of Sun Valley, Calif., can monitor and control
the equipment remotely.
By spring, the team was installing granite slabs for the
fountains and plaza, Giaccaglia said. Above the recycling
drains, the fountain basin has Mesabi Black granite, while
the plaza area, planter section, curbs, and ring walls use
other types of granite pavers, coping, and veneer.
In summer, the team installed custom-built, 55-ft.- to 74-ft.-long
benches made of sturdy tropical Ipé hardwood that can
last 25 years outdoors, Doleyres said. The three benches are
wide and flat with no seat backs to accommodate more visitors.
By late summer, the city's parks department was already managing
the plaza through its Central Park Conservancy arm. In late
fall, the construction team was adding final touches, including
a high-water alarm system for the pump room.
A Rare, Clear Consensus of Praise
The final product handily impressed the awards jury.
"The end product is beautiful," one juror said.
The jury also noted how the project won over the public.
"It's jammed with people," said another juror.
"That's a real plus for the city. It's a Mecca."
Crowds were even gathering in early summer at the central
plaza's perimeter, before construction was complete. The demand
pushed the city to open it even before the benches were installed,
said DDC commissioner Burney.
He said the early reviews are welcome, because the trees
in the planters - intended to help the fountains drown out
traffic noise - are not yet mature.
"With all of that traffic swirling around, you might
think people would be intimidated getting in there,"
Burney added. "But people are enjoying it. I think they
find it a bit of a sanctuary."
Owner: N.Y.C. Department
of Parks and Recreation; Central Park Conservancy; N.Y.C
Department of Transportation; N.Y.C. Department of Environmental
Protection; Metropolitan Transportation Authority
Program Manager: N.Y.C.
Department of Design and Construction
General Contractor: Tully
Resident Engineer Inspector:
Ammann & Whitney
Fountain Designer: WET
Lynch & Associates
M-E-P Engineer: Cosentini
Electrical Contractor: Hellman
Garden City Irrigation & Maintenance Services