City Begins to Reclaim Space for Pedestrians at Fordham Plaza

The multi-year project to improve Fordham Plaza in the Bronx — a critical transit hub — entered its latest phase yesterday with the groundbreaking for a bigger and better public space for pedestrians.

Each day, more than 80,000 pedestrians flow through Fordham Plaza, the crossroads of a dozen bus lines (including two Select Bus Service routes) and the fourth-busiest station in the Metro-North system. The adjacent intersection of Fordham Road and Webster Avenue ranked in 2010 as the city’s third most dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists.

The plan realigns bus stops and increases pedestrian space by 25 percent. Image: DDC [PDF]
The plan realigns bus stops and increases pedestrian space by 25 percent. Image: DDC [PDF]

Once complete in fall 2015, the project will increase pedestrian space by more than a quarter and reduce the amount of asphalt by almost 40 percent. While yesterday marked the beginning of a new phase of construction, the event was really one of many milestones along the way to transforming the plaza.

A conceptual plan for the space was prepared for EDC by WXY Architecture + Urban Design in 2010. Later that year, DOT received a $10 million TIGER grant from the federal government, and the Department of Design and Construction began work soon after. The area has been in a near-permanent state of construction ever since as the project proceeds through various phases.

Earlier work focused on reconstructing nearby roadways, including the addition of new curb extensions. The latest round of improvements turns inward, to rebuild the plaza itself [PDF].

The plaza, constructed in the mid-1990s, is a rectangle between Fordham Road and East 189th Street, with Third Avenue running along its east side. Currently, bus stops and bus parking line Third Avenue, with an “L”-shaped brick driveway running through the plaza. Bus shelters, retail kiosks, and merchants’ tents sit in the middle of the plaza.

In the new design, buses will use a shorter driveway closer to Third Avenue, opening up a continuous pedestrian space in the middle of the rectangle that’s better connected to retail along the plaza’s western edge. The plan adds vegetation by installing two large concrete planters and ten smaller steel planters with attached wooden seating.

The new plaza will also include wayfinding signs, three kiosks for vendors, and a larger café structure with a canopy. This structure will replace the existing retail building at the north end of the plaza.

Additional pedestrian space on the street isn’t the only improvement on tap. As part of an $18 million station upgrade begun last year, Metro-North says the northbound platform at Fordham station will double in width, creating space for benches and heated shelters. The railroad is also working with the Parks Department to add a direct connection from the intersection of Webster Avenue and 193rd Street to the southbound platform.

Buses currently separate the rectangular pedestrian area in Fordham Plaza from adjacent retail. The redesign will create a larger, more cohesive public space. Photo: NYC EDC

The press release for yesterday’s groundbreaking cites jaywalking as a safety issue in the area, but the city’s design doesn’t appear to address the most common spot where people cross without a light. Although an entrance to the Metro-North station sits opposite the plaza on the north side of Fordham Road, there’s no crosswalk directly connecting the two. EDC’s 2010 study found that nearly as many people cross midblock as at either of the closest two crosswalks, but the plan that’s now under construction does not include a new midblock crosswalk.

Update: DDC says the installation of ticket machines and other improvements to the station entrance on the south side of Fordham Road will reduce the incentive to cross Fordham Road, but confirmed that the plan does not include a midblock crosswalk connecting the plaza to the station entrance on the north side.

The area, already the city’s third-busiest retail district, has seen above-average increases in retail sales after the addition of the city’s first Select Bus Service route along Fordham Road in 2008. Businesses at the large One Fordham Plaza tower are working with Council Member Ritchie Torres to extend the Fordham Business Improvement District one block east, from Third Avenue to Washington Avenue. The BID would then encompass more of the area surrounding the plaza and position it as a likely maintenance partner for the space once construction is complete.

What might be next for Fordham Plaza? A new Department of City Planning report recommends transit-oriented development around Metro-North stations in the Bronx. We’ll have more on that in an upcoming post.

This post has been updated with a site plan image from DDC.