Street Smarts

Street Smarts
Neil Vigdor '95

How and why John Massengale '69 is trying to make New York City streets safer and more enjoyable


"There's a saying, 'You can judge a culture by what it builds,'" says John Massengale '69.

The New York architect and planner is trying to spread the fundamentals of New Urbanism in his venerated city to help bring harmony to the hustle and bustle of vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists.

Massengale is a key voice in the debate—one raging from City Hall to the state capital in Albany—about vehicle congestion pricing, traffic calming, and street design in the Big Apple.

What's old is new for this longtime New Yorker, who is collaborating on a team that's working with residents of the Financial District downtown on a redesign project for the fast-growing neighborhood. It would redirect Brooklyn Bridge traffic entering Manhattan and transform Park Row into a pedestrian and bike area, as well as create a tourist trail ending at Bowling Green.

"We looked at streets in places like the old parts of Amsterdam, where cars share the street with people," Massengale says. (Interestingly, the Financial District was once New Amsterdam.)

While the number of traffic deaths is on the decline in New York, there's been an uptick in cycling fatalities. It parallels the popularity of CitiBike, which is modeled after similar bike-share initiatives in Europe.

Now planners like Massengale are once again looking to, and traveling to, Europe—from Amsterdam and Copenhagen to Stockholm and London—for solutions to the deadly conundrum. He supports a congestionpricing proposal for vehicles traveling below 96th Street in Manhattan. The plan embraced by Governor Andrew Cuomo would charge motorists—but not taxis, buses, or public transportation—a premium for entering the borough during rush hour.

"People who live in Manhattan want to see fewer cars, while people in the rest of the state think they have a God-given right to drive in and out," says Massengale, who lives on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

Until politicians and planners recognize that speed kills, Massengale laments, the grim trend of traffic fatalities—pedestrians, cyclists, people in cars—will continue to plague the city. In addition to expanding red-light cameras, which he bemoans has been blocked by some lawmakers, Massengale says the city needs to devote less of its precious real estate to traffic lanes and more to space to make it attractive for people to walk and ride bikes.

A rendering of Jane Jacobs Square depicting a plan for people-friendly improvements. The trapezoidal space, where two old street grids come together, is the historic center of Greenwich Village. © 2018 MASSENGALE & CO LLC; RENDERING BY GABRIELE STROIK JOHNSON

But this award-winning architect and author is under no false illusions of how incremental progress can be in a city known for the "New York minute" and obsessed with skyscrapers. All he has to do is look at the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site, which Massengale says is a microcosm of the larger problems facing the city.

Some of the biggest developers, he says, wield too much power. The New York City Department of Transportation has earmarked $500,000 to look at the redesign ideas for making the Financial District safer and better for pedestrians. It would be a study, Massengale says, and a political process.

Massengale's eponymous architectural and urban planning firm is near Ground Zero and the soaring transportation hub known as the Oculus, which resembles a fish spine. Like many of his fellow New Yorkers, he's not easily impressed. "It's a glorified shopping mall," he says. "I go there for the Apple Store." It's not Grand Central Terminal or New York Public Library, two great public buildings Massengale finds appealing.

A Harvard graduate who has a master's degree in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania, Massengale is a former board member of the Congress for the New Urbanism. The group is renowned for its work promoting the lost art of placemaking. The New York Times called New Urbanism "the most important phenomenon to emerge in American architecture in the post-Cold War era."

"A lot of modern architecture is about the 'wow' factor," he says, quoting one of his colleague's favorite sayings. "It's not a place if nobody's there."

Growing up in Darien, Connecticut, Massengale says he developed an early appreciation for architecture. His mother was an art historian. While visiting his grandmother in Maine, she would often take him to see examples of 18th-century architecture. By the time Massengale went to college—he spent his freshman year at the University of California, Berkeley and attended an English-Speaking Union scholars program in London—he says he was drawn to New Urbanism and Postmodernism.

His father worked in Manhattan at 57th Street, and the younger Massengale would take the train to the city, where he was allowed to roam from Lexington Avenue to Fifth Avenue. To think that a 1,400-foot skyscraper known as One Vanderbilt will soar immediately next door to the Beaux-Arts gem Grand Central is an abomination to Massengale. "I think it's too big, and its sparkling glass facade sticks out like sore thumb," he says.

Massengale's vision and institutional knowledge have earned him acclaim far beyond New York. In 2013, he cowrote Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Towns. The foreword was written by Prince Charles (the two were connected by a friend who worked for The Prince's Foundation, a charity established by the Prince of Wales). John Norquist, the former mayor of Milwaukee and former CEO of the Congress for New Urbanism, said Street Design is "the best book on street design ever written."

"We must make the most of the glorious new opportunities to build more walkable towns and cities by creating streets that are places where people actually want to be." —John Massengale and Victor Dover, coauthors of Street Design

In 2015, Massengale's firm was chosen by the Walton Family Foundation as part of a pool of designers for the Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program. It was tasked with the design of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) as an affordable housing initiative, with Walmart's founding family paying the firm's architectural fees.

The work of Massengale is more than just bricks and mortar. It's more than bike lanes. It's also cerebral. Last September, he cochaired a symposium in Engelsberg, Sweden, dedicated to the study of the neuroscience of space and how people react to spaces. "Place is...the common denominator for me," he says.

Massengale is also the coauthor of New York 1900: Metropolitan Architecture and Urbanism 1890–1915, which was the first architectural history book to win a National Book Award. The book chronicles the transformation of the city from the end of the Civil War to the Great Depression, when Robert Moses started to put his permanent fingerprints on the area as a prominent public official.

He credits Moses with helping to develop what is now the Henry Hudson Parkway and Riverside Park. But after World War II, Massengale says, Moses championed federally funded utilitarian projects that changed the course of the city and region, not always for the better. "You could never build the Taconic Parkway today. You cannot build the Merritt Parkway now," he says. "You'd have to build Interstate 95."

He sees many of the same challenges facing planners and politicians today as they jump at federal dollars for infrastructure projects.

On his iPhone, Massengale scrolls through an artist's rendering of the Financial District redesign that he is advocating for showing Park Row from the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall, minus cars. Next, there is the tourist trail down at Bowling Green, which used to have streets on three sides. Now, it has two—the goal is to eventually go to one. "They're small, crooked, medieval-style streets that don't work well for lots of cars," he says of the Financial District, which has 75,000 residents.

Massengale on Broadway outside City Hall Park

In May, Massengale penned a 1,600-word New York Times op-ed ("There Are Better Ways to Get Around Town") extolling the virtues of the redesign as part of a broader initiative by Mayor Bill de Blasio called Vision Zero, which seeks to eliminate all traffic fatalities in the city by 2024.

Not everyone shares Massengale's fervor for change with the redesign. "It's not a coincidence that many of the critics are over 65," says Massengale, who is also 65. "They enjoy driving around, and they don't want that to change." But like more than three-quarters of Manhattan residents, Massengale and his wife no longer own a car.

Neil Vigdor '95 covers politics for The Hartford Courant