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Cover Story - December 2005

Best of 2005 Awards

Columbus Circle Reconstruction

Project of the Year - Overall Winner

by Tom Stabile

Frederick 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 spaces.

"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 plaza."

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 park area."

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," Ng added.

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 flows.

"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 at Vollmer.

"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 construction.

"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 anytime soon.

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 convention.

"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 Dig

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 said.

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 fountains.

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."

Key Players

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 Construction

Civil-Structural Engineer: Vollmer Associates

Resident Engineer Inspector: Ammann & Whitney

Landscape Architect: Olin Partnership

Fountain Designer: WET Design

Lighting Designer: L'Observatoire International

Irrigation Designer: Lynch & Associates

M-E-P Engineer: Cosentini Associates

Plumbing Contractor: WDF

Electrical Contractor: Hellman Electric

Paving: Professional Pavers

Landscaping-Irrigation: Garden City Irrigation & Maintenance Services

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