Columbus Circle Subway Renovation Shows What New York Can No Longer Afford

NEW YORK -- To read about mass transit here and around the country these days is to learn of budget cuts, service disruptions and disgruntled passengers. It is to understand why Jay Walder, the head of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, plans to leave his job in October.

There's very little good news, and for that reason it's worth taking a moment to acknowledge the masterful rehabilitation of the Columbus Circle Subway Station that is set to finish in the next few months. The $120-million project, in the works since 2002, brings new life -- and air and light -- to the station, while also providing a new entrance, expanded handicap accessibility and improved navigation for all riders.

Even so, there's bad news to report on the project: It's one of the last complete station renovations New Yorkers will be able to enjoy in the foreseeable future. Judith Kunoff, the chief architect for MTA New York City Transit, said on a tour of the station with The Huffington Post last week that while she still has a "five-year construction program, there's no longer the money for it."

For now, Kunoff says her agency is focusing its efforts on smaller, more urgent fixes to the subway system until legislators in Albany allocate enough funding for more comprehensive work. Organizing these Band-Aid repairs is itself a Sisyphean task for Kunoff, and part of what's lost is the opportunity to reorganize and reimagine major subway hubs.

At Columbus Circle, the firm Dattner Architects, led by principal Jeff Dugan, has done just that. The project thoroughly addresses almost every space in the sprawling hub that connects the A, B, C and D trains with the 1 train for some 20 million passengers each year.

The Broadway island entrance has been completely rebuilt to allow better access from the Time Warner Center. Small pieces of glass have been embedded in the concrete of the sidewalk, allowing light to filter down into the station below.

An entirely new entrance was built at 60th Street and Broadway, expanding the station even further. (Passengers can enter from as far south as the Hearst Building at 57th Street.)

Underground, landmarked wall finishes -- and even some original tiles -- have been preserved or replicated where possible. Circulation was improved by reworking entrances, removing token-collection booths and installing new signage.

The most noticeable change is undoubtedly the installation of two major works by Sol LeWitt, designed shortly before his death in 2007. A 53-foot-wide porcelain tile piece, called "Whirls and Twirls (MTA)," was installed in 2009 near a major stairwell in the station, and a compass-rose pattern can be seen on the floor near the mezzanine entrance to the south.

But some of the less colorful changes to the station have proven just as important. A previously closed center platform was reopened to allow easier transfers to the 1 train from the other lines at the station. This helps relieve pressure on the other platforms and also provides a unique space in New York where you can walk between two active tracks without having to deal with crowds; nobody is waiting on the platform because the trains don't open onto it.

In interviews this week, more than a dozen passengers had only positive comments to make about the renovation. "Even though it took forever, it's worth it," said Eleanor Thompson. "This is the way the city should be. It's clean, it works, it's just better than before."

And, Kunoff is quick to point out, all of the city's subway stations could resemble this one if only there were more money to make improvements. After all, the talent is ready -- even the lighting in the Columbus Circle station has been enormously improved, through the efforts of the lighting designers at Domingo Gonzalez Associates.

The extraordinary care from Dattner Architects took can be especially seen in the smaller details, like a a circular piece of glass that will soon be installed in the floor with a light beneath it, directly beneath where the monument to Christopher Columbus stands above ground. You don't work on civic projects like this one unless you truly care about the city, and Dugan and his fellow designers surely do.

"If we let the arteries of the city corrode," Dugan said, "they will clog and we'll have a heart attack."

To see more images of the renovation, click through the slideshow below: