Welcome to the (Recently-rebranded) Neighborhood

I just spent a week in New York spitting out the portmanteau poetry of urban branding. SoHo! NoHo! TriBeCa! NoLiTa!-all innocuous neighborhood names picked to boost property values and spur development. Of course, some names don't stick as well. The neighborhood north of Madison Square Park is aching to be known as NoMad (or sometimes, the ill-fated NoMaS). The area everyone still calls Hell's Kitchen was supposedly deemed the less-fire-and-brimstone Clinton (where, as it abuts Chelsea, you could very well find yourself living in Chelsea-Clinton). But can a new name, with some spiffy branding and nice signage, really make a new neighborhood? Can an area's stakeholders up and decide what will make people want to come for a visit, stay for dinner-or live for a few years? And what if, instead of the neighborhood being defined by what it was, it was defined by what it could be? That's exactly the question being asked by one New York neighborhood-to-be: What if?

The neighborhood in question is Greenwich South. Never heard of it? That's because it doesn't really exist-yet. Greenwich South is a campaign mounted by the Alliance for Downtown New York, re-claiming 41 acres of land between Battery Park City and the Financial District. At its center is Greenwich Street, severed by construction of the World Trade Center in the 1960s. With the plan for the new World Trade Center site development, Greenwich will again run uninterrupted through the quickly-changing area, with a chance to be the spine of a high-density, highly-desirable center for living and working. A September study revealed "Lower Manhattan is emerging as a model for the 21st century business district, and ... Greenwich South can play a greater role in this transformation." So the Downtown Alliance wants to declare South Greenwich Street as the Main Street of a brand-new neighborhood.

As part of the Downtown Alliance's campaign, 10 architectural firms were tapped to give their interpretations of what Greenwich South might look like. The ideas range from the totally do-able to the just plain zany. (Just the kind of urban speculation we like to see at our GOOD Design events.) Morphosis re-envisioned the entire southern tip of Manhattan (above) as a sustainable "Battery North." WORKac's "plug-in" tower, a mixed-use, cantilevered structure, would have rows of brownstones six stories in the air. (If you think either of those is a tall order, consider that New York has managed to physically create a nearby neighborhood out of thin air: nearby Battery Park City was built on fill created by excavation of the original World Trade Center site.)

A few firms specifically wanted to tackle the six-acre hole of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, a gaping scar across Greenwich South. Architecture Research Office wants a public market, park, and recycling center over the tunnel approach. Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis and Transolar Climate Engineering (above) want to build a vertical park over the tunnel's entrance that cleans and filters the air emitted from the cars entering it. And for reasons that aren't quite clear, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer wants to use the space to project images of a sun onto a 30-meter meteorological balloon (to remind us that global warming is closer than we think?).

The ideas are meant to encourage conversation, so the Downtown Alliance have placed an installation in a park on Broadway (designed by OPEN, founding creative directors of GOOD) where people can lunch among the renderings, and even pick up a 14-page broadsheet booklet of the plan from a small window on the site (you can download the PDF online). It's good community outreach, for sure, and for each flashy rendering, there are several actions listed which the area can take now. Like before the floating sun-balloon is complete, for example, the neighborhood could place some public art on Rector Street or create a temporary gallery in a storefront.

The two major objectives highlighted by the initiative, shared by any neighborhood hoping to attract economic development, were simple: "To come and to stay." I spent a lot of time in the area during my visit to New York, and I can say the people are already coming-the flow of tourists who, for now, solemnly march a slow path around a construction site, will never cease. The whoosh of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, the clanging of construction, the influx of corporations moving to the area; it all buzzes with possibility. After all, how many major metropolitan areas get a chance to rebuild themselves? To start over, smarter?

But will they stay? And what will make Greenwich South-and its lofty ideas-stick? Asking the people who live and work there to help with some of the initiatives might be a start (call them community organizers, if you will). Making a commitment to transform the area into the world's premier green business district is another. The campaign itself is the first step in helping the neighborhood become earnestly rebranded. I say expand it, with more ideas from designers, artists and architects exhibited as public art. And more great signage just might do the trick.

But what emotional connection will these people have to a neighborhood name that was chosen for them? SoHo, to its credit, was picked by the artists themselves who inhabited the low-rent cast-iron buildings. So in the spirit of economic revitalization and responsible development, I'm suggesting an even more appropriate and marketable abbreviation for the wannabe hood and its super-sustainable aspirations: SoGreen.


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