Thinking outside the grid

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Founder of ReThink Studio on his aspiration to transform our transportation systems


  • Photo: ReThinkNYC

  • As Jim Venturi’s firm, ReThink Studio, envisions it, a more efficient LaGuardia Airport would be ful­ly inte­grat­ed with an inter­modal trans­porta­tion hub in Port Morris, the Bronx. Illustration courtesy of ReThink Studio

Jim Venturi wants to change how we envision public transportation and created a think tank that aspires to do just that. In 2014, he launched ReThink Studio in his apartment on the Upper West Side. The firm has since grown into an office on West 103rd Street and Riverside, where a team of architects and urban and transportation planners brainstorm and research solutions to the way we commute in New York City and beyond.

The venture was born as he worked on a film about his parents, renowned architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. “I was told I could give a presentation on anything, so I had this idea to expand LaGuardia Airport and close Rikers Island.... I wasn’t sure what to expect and got this fantastic reception,” he explained.

ReThinkNYC is the firm’s first project, which focuses on the tri-state area, and includes not only those plans for LaGuardia, but also an expansion of the Second Avenue subway into the Bronx, and a contraction of Penn Station to reduce commuter overcrowding.

What is a brainstorming session like at the office?

We play with things, frankly. We look at historicals and do a lot of research. We often realize that we have a hunch on an idea and then find out that actually our hunch of the way to solve it had either been proposed or been the previous way that was solved. There’s a person that’s an architect of a system and sees it as such, and then later another generation comes along with a different set of needs and it’s ruined. And it’s not because of anyone’s fault, it’s just the nature of the demands of society. In the context of New York City, that was a twin decline of both popularity of public transportation as the automobile was the new thing and the decline of the city, the fact that there was suburbanization.

What are your thoughts on the Second Avenue subway?

The original 1968 proposal for that had it going to the Bronx. The Second Avenue subway is considered very expensive and so a lot of people say, “How can we afford X if the Second Avenue subway with just three stops, costs so much money?” So what you’re looking at is a ratio. You’re looking at what was the cost of the Second Avenue subway and what are the benefits. The benefits are in part diminished because it’s so deep to go down. So if you’re on Third Avenue, most likely you’re going to go over to Lexington because you can catch a train quicker. Whereas if you’re on Second or First, there’s a greater chance you’ll go onto the Q, depending on where you’re trying to go. So in our view, because it’s expensive and very different from the original, it really can’t be used as a tool to deal with transit deserts, unless they’re in the commercial core, such as the 7 train. It has to have, in addition to the benefits of stops serving customers, a network systemwide benefit that adds to the benefit side of the equation to make the cost-benefit ratio work.

You said that there are many tracks in Penn Station that are redundant.

Penn Station is being used today in a way it wasn’t originally designed for. And that is to support most of New Jersey Transit commuter railways. At the time it was built, the Pennsylvania Railroad handled 10 percent of commuter rail in New Jersey. Penn Station was really a landmark station for the Pennsylvania Railroad, which at the time, extended to Chicago and through the South. In other words, its platforms were narrow because it was for long distance trains that were less frequent than commuter trains.... Now commuters want to get to Midtown, so you have overstimulation at Penn Station, so the situation has to be rethought along with the need in general for regional transportation.

How do you propose to fix the problem at Penn?

Cities such as Paris, Berlin, Philadelphia and London have moved beyond the model where you have a terminal like Grand Central in the center. What they’ve done is built tunnels that connect tracks heading to those terminals to tracks heading to other terminals. And then have service that would run from one side of the region, in our case let’s say Long Island, through to the other side of the region, let’s say New Jersey. That is the more practical way to do it.... ReThinkNYC widens the platforms. By doing that, we’re able to triple the amount of vertical circulation, escalators and stairs and allow people to get up and down and have more space to wait. Because the trains run through and are not terminating, you don’t need as many tracks. You need that many tracks now simply because the trains operate in a very inefficient way. They go into the station and wait for people to get on, so can be in the station for 20 minutes. That’s called a terminal, even though Penn Station is both a station and a terminal, it’s mostly operated as a terminal. This is not a good future.

You talk about how LaGuardia could potentially be the most rail-connected airport in the world.

I think the best airport in the world. It has the potential to be really terrific.... The opportunity at LaGuardia via the Port Morris station in the Bronx would be to connect all of Metro North and New Jersey Transit lines directly to a global airport. Which would mean, if you’re in a suburban context, you could catch an Uber, let’s say, five minutes to your train. And get your bags up the stairs, roll them off the train, catch an escalator, check in and take an air train under the East River to check in to take a flight anywhere in the world.... There would be opportunities for a convention center adjacent to the airport, that had been first envisioned at JFK by Governor Cuomo, but in a way that’s much closer to Manhattan and much more attractive.

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