Subway planners present the No. 7 extension, with room for improvement

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Rendering of a concourse for the No. 7 subway extension. (via Dattner Architects.)
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The thing about the planners and engineers and architects whose job it is to create municipal infrastructure—for example, the extension of the No. 7 subway line from Times Square to 34th Street and 11th Avenue—is that they tend to think of people as problems to be solved. People can't be allowed to stand still for too long; they can't be packed too tight in enclosed spaces; they can't be encouraged to move aimlessly, or in ways that will interfere with the more purposeful movements of others.

This explains the emphasis placed by Beth Greenberg, a principal at Dattner Architects and the chief architect for the No. 7 Line Subway Extension, on “intuitive wayfinding.” As she put it in a lecture at the Center for Architecture last week, that means that in the new subway station at the end of the 7 line, “although there will certainly be signage, the architectural form should clearly direct passengers along their route.”

At the same event, Mark Walker, the senior supervising planner for the engineering firm PB Americas, used computer models based on surveys at Grand Central Station to ensure that the “level of service”—a measure of pedestrian congestion—only rarely, on a scale between A and F, gets down to D on the No. 7.

And Patricia Kettle of Dattner Architects, the architectural project manager for the No. 7 line extension, said she hoped the new station can “maintain a clean and bright, clear environment that the passengers of New York City Transit hope to enjoy.”

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The planners of the new station have to achieve their aims while operating within a fairly strict set of parameters, because they have to take into account the opinions of numerous institutions, and because each of those institutions has rules and regulations governing how things should be done. The specifications have to adhere to building codes and structural requirements of the city, the M.T.A., and the National Fire Safety Protection Association. (There are also mandates for security, but they can’t be publicly discussed.) Furthermore, the project is funded by the city, managed by the M.T.A., and designed by a team from Dattner Architects working within a team from the engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, which also did some basic planning, design consulting, and the environmental impact statement. There’s also Related, the firm putting up the development the subway is meant to serve, whose interests are represented by the city, but whose input is certainly influential.

The westward extension of the 7 line, which currently runs from Flushing to Times Square, is part of the M.T.A.’s capital plan and also of the city’s master plan. The area whose development is meant to be catalyzed by the new station is in a sense the last frontier in Manhattan, a fairly large plot of land running approximately between 42nd Street and 30th Street, and between Eighth Avenue and the river. The only real landmarks along this route are the Javits Center—which, under the city's plan, will be expanded—and the West Side Rail Yards. Rezoning was approved for the area east of 11th Avenue in 2005, and for the far west section, which includes the rail yards, in 2009.

The subway terminal at 34th Street is going to be the only new station created by the extension of the line, but it is expected to be wildly busy, handling 26,000 passengers going out during morning peak hour and 15,000 coming in at the same time, by the time the development is completed. It sits at the end of Hudson Boulevard, which the city calls a "greenway," and which cuts diagonally across the development, looking something like Broadway over Manhattan, except it cuts the other way.

Because the station is, in a sense, the capping off of the park, and because this development is so carefully planned, so preciously designed, the terminal is a big deal. And complicated.

At the event at the Center for Architecture, Judith Kunoff, the chief architect of New York City Transit, hinted at the granularity of the coming presentations in her opening statements.

“We will learn how life-safety requirements, including NFPA 130, affect station design and form," she said. "We will specifically focus on smoke evacuation systems and how they are absorbed into the architecture and in many cases in fact drive the form of that architecture and what’s experienced by the public. We will learn about passenger circulation, the requirements that drive station design.”

Greenberg also said that the station will be compliant with National Fire Protection Associaton 130 (“really an overlay of NFPA 101”), which requires that in case of fire, a platform can be cleared in four minutes and that riders can get to a point of safety, usually outside the station, within six minutes. In the event that is impossible—the 34th Street station is way too deep—there must be a tenable environment for the length of time it takes all riders to evacuate.

Mark Walker used "pedestrian-simulation software" to work up a model of what traffic in the station will look like. He put the model up on the screen. It showed the layout of the station from above, including all the corridors and escalators, and there were herds of dots in different colors. It looked sort of like Pac-Man, except with tons of little Pac-Mans.

Each color of dot represented a different type of commuter. This was a model of the afternoon peak rushhour, so most of the dots were future Hudson Yards-area residents arriving home after work. The green dots were going out the 35th Street entrance; the red were leaving by the 34th Street entrance; the yellow dots were coming into the station.

Another model. This one was was closer in, showing the dots entering and exiting the trains. Crowds of little dots pushed out of the subway doors while a few other dots tried to get through to the train; this looked a little bit more like a pinball game.

There was a little laughter from the crowd: There was something funny, if not inaccurate, about the reduction of harried commuters—sweaty clothes, swinging backpacks, hostile glares and shouted demands to shove in toward the middle of the car—into colored dots vying with each other for breathing room.

“We go into a dark room and we literally look at the dots moving,” Walker explained, concisely.

The prose describing the aesthetic aspects of the design was somewhat more flowery. In the renderings of Hudson Yards, the station appeared as a big glass bubbly thing in the near distance. Kettle described it as a “glazed canopy at the station entrance that will allow light to come down into that upper mezzanine the structure—the facia of the structure—the entrance facia is curved to further optimize that sunlight to come in.

“Passengers will enter under a glass canopy move into the upper mezzanine level, which houses the fareway, and from there we’ll move through and into the two or three tunnel portals.”

And “above the mezzanine level, emphasizing the curved form of the station cavern structure, we have a mezzanine wall panel, a curved ceiling panel, and then a curved—what we call the central ceiling cloud—and this encloses those massive tunnel ventilation ductworks. “

On the mezzanine, “The elegant form of the oval helps tie together the three main vertical circulation elements to allow clear and direct uninterrupted passenger flow through that fareway.” There will also be public bathrooms.

From the lower mezzanine, looking up, the public will see ”that curved form, where there will be that public artwork allowing, optimizing that natural light that will come down.”

In the lower mezzanine, “the wall panels and ceiling panels take on that curved cavern structure while that center ceiling cloud, again, houses the mechanical ducts above and provides direct and indirect lighting along the lower mezzanine. The reflectants, the use of indirect lighting, allows a soft sort of glow and is much more energy efficient; we’re utilizing the wall panels and the materials. The light colored nature of these helps contribute to reflectivity so you can lower your lamp usage.”

The platform itself is 35 feet wide. “And many stairbanks provide a clear and direct path of travel. In addition signage will be along the length of the platform and signage identification incorporated into the the track walls provide further passenger orientation.”

“Materials selected are light-colored; transparency of the stair balustrades and the continuous lighting along the platform all contribute to a clean and light, bright environment.”

There are a number of pre-approved materials, all of which are supposed to last for 100 years, and all of which are based on New York City Transit guidelines, which require, among other things, slip-resistance.

Granite tile, ceramic tile, stainless steel panels and mesh are several of the choices. “We tried our best to keep them light-hearted, but they’re very rich and provide a variety of textures and colors,” Kettle said.

Passenger experience will be influenced by light-colored materials, transparent materials and lighting along the platform.

Maintenance will be facilitated by storage rooms on the lower mezzanine level that provide ladders, scissor lifts and scaffolding. In line with general guidelines, the track panels will be pre-fab porcelain in three-by-five slabs, a size that means two transit workers can install or replace them without additional help.

It's rare in New York to build in a space where there is, from a planner’s point of view, nothing. Approve or not, the Hudson Yards development is a reflection of what Michael Bloomberg and his consultants consider to be the ideal neighborhood. And they have a clean slate. Similarly, it’s rare that anyone gets to build a whole new subway station, with no interfering old infrastructure.

So the 34th Street stop is, in some ways, a reflection of what subway station builders consider to be the ideal subway station. That includes, among other things, new technology that can be built right into the station. For example, there will be two inclined elevators, which have plexiglass walls and slide up and down along a track built between the two escalators, sort of like an elevator on an escalator. This is apparently a better experience for elevator-riders. Also, they now have escalators that can sense how many people are passing through, and slow down or speed up accordingly.

The big issue, raised gingerly by one member of the audience during a question-and-answer portion of the event, is “the 10th Avenue station.” The issue, to be precise, is that it doesn't exist.

The route of the No. 7 extension goes from Times Square west on 41st Street, then bends south to 11th Avenue and 34th Street, the end of the line. There are no stops between Times Square and the new station at the end of the line. It’s an odd route.

In the original plans, there was also a station stop at 10th Avenue and 41st Street, right before the line turns south. It would have made the extension considerably more useful to members of the public who do not live in Hudson Yards. (As anyone who has had an appointment on 10th Avenue in west midtown knows, it would be nice to have a train that went a little farther west at that latitude.)

The problem is there’s no money for the 10th Avenue station. The city applied for, but did not win, a federal TIGER II grant for $3 million to study the feasibility of building a shell of a station that would allow a functioning one to be built there in the future. There’s a push now to try to get some of the $3 billion dollars set aside for the now-canceled ARC project, but it’s not at all clear if that will work.

The shell station is one of several sites that designers would like to build in a way that would allow some projects—ones that, ideally, would be a part of the project now—to be done in the future. It’s one way to get around the burden of a moment in time in which the government cannot provide enough money for municipal projects, and even private developers are uncertain as to whether they can draw tenants to help defray costs of the access points, and whether they can sustain funding.

The same sort of future-planning—building capacity for improvements when more money is available—applies to individual components of the station of 34th St. and 11th Ave.

“All stairs we have designed so that in the future, and when budget permits, we can introduce escalators into that rise between the low mezzanine and the platform,” Greenberg said.

Things that were not going to be built anytime, in fact, turned out to be sort of a running preoccupation at the event. At one point a member of the audience, having been handed the microphone, said, "I won't ask about the sort of 800-pound gorilla of further extensions, but maybe the 200-pound gorilla of—could you speak a little bit about the complexity of putting in the 10th Avenue station once the line is operating?" (The 800-pound gorilla was presumably the proposed extension of the No. 7 line to New Jersey, which has been in the news recently. It was not discussed further.)

There was a pause, and some collegial laughter from the audience.

“Um,” Kettle said, speaking slowily and carefully. “I will say that there would have to be design changes to accommodate that, specifically, at the, what we call ‘site L’ systems building. Because that building is designed for a running train circulation. Being however that that building is off of the alignment itself it’s not, um, necessarily going to have a significant impact on the running tunnel. But we do know is that the design we’ve shown, which is based on a cut-and-cover situation, is—was found really to be a very costly construction methodology and based on applications that were made to the feds for funding for additional design studies, should future design studies be done on that, there would probably be alternate design directions, um, pursued.”

"It wouldn't be impossible," said Jim Wright, the co-chair of the AIANY transportation and infrastructure committee.

“It’s not incorporated, but, possible?” Walker said.

“Correct,” Kettle said.

“It’s not precluded,” Greenberg said, “but it’s not set for an easy ...”

“It’s not made specifically for future caverns,” Wright said.

“Right,” Greenberg said.

Correction: A quote from Patricia Kettle about the "site L systems building" was incorrectly attributed in the original version of this article to Judith Kunoff.

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