Broken Spaces: Imagining a new four-acre St. John’s Park

Where, you say? Me too. Turns out St. John’s Park is the name given to the traffic circle made by the off ramps to the Holland Tunnel, named for St. John’s Chapel that once anchored the area. Or maybe it’s better to say that the traffic from the Holland Tunnel was built over what was St. John’s Park in 1927, and now a pair of architects want to bring it back to life. Could be a very nice 100th anniversary present to the city from the Port Authority, just saying.

Dasha Khapalova and Peter Ballman live in Ithaca but went to Cooper Union and have a passion for “broken sites” — spaces that have been written off, or left to rot as leftovers from poorly executed infrastructure (more on this from the east side and the Brooklyn Bridge soon). It turns out that spot is actually four acres and in their mind, they can create a series of open, covered and interior spaces by sinking the center of the circle and floating the roadbed at grade. The pictures explain it best.

They are taking their proposal on the road, with the idea to build support over time, and will present to CB1’s Waterfront & Parks Committee tonight online.

“The project started out as a conceptual proposal -– it was always meant to be buildable, but we were not necessarily thinking at the time of design that we would realize,” said Khapalova (their firm is called Ballman Khapalova and they have gotten all sorts of talented folks to help them pro-bono with this: Thornton Tomasetti, Transsolar, Sciame Construction, BPDL, Persak & Wurmfeld). “But as we showed the project to more and more people, almost everyone’s response was: Why is this not reality?”

The space — between Laight and Ericsson/Beach, Varick and Hudson (that’s my pic from the Laight Street bridge) — is owned by the Port Authority, which of course won’t be paying for anything special anytime soon, but still, it’s an amazing idea — provided it would get traction with the public (I don’t spend enough time in Freeman Plaza at the tunnel entrance at Watts — has that?). And as we know, in a recession, funding for parks is the first thing to get cut, and cut big. But all great ideas start somewhere, and here’s hoping a few years from now the city’s economic outlook is a bit healthier.

The overall concept is to create an integrated community park space that is completely protected from traffic — sort of like a European plaza where, for instance, parents can be at a café on the perimeter as their children play within eyesight on the playground. The couple was travelling in Spain last summer with their 2-year-old when the idea occurred to them.

“It was a bit of a revelation in relationship to the playgrounds we have in the city — why could they not be more incorporated into ‘regular’ life?” said Khapalova. “Part of the issue is that we have so few pedestrian only areas where it would be safe enough to do this, and with the central sunken park the project could be exactly that. We imagine this as a kind of neighborhood square, but at the scale of the city.”

Of course I can’t help but think the air quality in a depressed pocket of a park surrounded by thousands and thousands of cars would be pretty toxic, but the designers have given this some thought. Car exhaust, they said, goes up, not down. And with added plantings within the four acres, in theory the air quality would be better than it is now at street level, where thousands currently work and live. There’s also the beggars can’t be choosers notion.

“The reality of the situation is that New York is running out of public space opportunities while the population gets more and more dense,” said Khapalova. “We no longer have the luxury of creating new Central Parks. A lot of New York’s more recent public parks are actually in areas of heavy car exhaust. None of these are ideal scenarios, but it’s the best we’ve got with the urban reality of the city.”

The proposal has a list of fun potential uses, such as yoga studios and publics baths, but I was confused by one: “watch the sunset.” Turns out that during summer months, their environmental engineer determined that there is a spot on the edge of the site that will be exposed to the sunset over the Hudson. “It’s a small thing, and based on a very preliminary analysis,” said Khapalova, “but we thought it was very unique and interesting.”



  1. I love the idea of converting this space into green park space. My only concern would be whether the various shadowy under-roadbed areas become a magnet for crime. But it’s a clever solution to the pollution problem from car exhaust (and reducing congestion would of course help alleviate that problem as well).

  2. Love this idea. It is a lot of unused real estate, currently. Less worried about crime and more worried about rats. Very encouraging points made about the car exhaust!

  3. We can call it… The Low Line* (sorry).

    I do really hope this project becomes reality…

    * Even though it’s a circle. Inside a square. But The Low Circle lacks poetic consonance.

    • There already is a Low Line! It’s actually really cool — I went to a couple of dance performances there — but it’s on hold until they scare up more funds.

      • Oh right! I forgot about that. Was it only done as a proof-of-concept or is something permanent in the works?

        • NY1 reported in February that the founders were unable to raise the matching $10mill that the city asked for when they put up money for it. The hope was to try to raise that by 2022.

      • Would this park be closed on weekends like the other parks near the tunnel entrances north of Canal? It would definitely seem like a space that would likely be locked up at night

        • There are no fences and nothing to lock. It’s an open plaza, not a park. If you walk through it you will understand what I mean.

  4. Creativity and ingenuity, NYC is a magnet for them both. Would love to see this gain momentum. Wonderful to have a pleasant image of NYC’s future..

  5. I think about this often as I walk by – this space could be used so much more efficiently and additional green space would be welcome. I would do the following:

    – instead of raising the exists and having park below, tunnel the Hudson exit further underground into the square and roof/dome over with the new park.
    – I would cut one or two off ramps to provide a more continuous park space.
    – I even think if done well, developing a small corner over the ramp could be beneficial if only to provide the funding mechanism for the project.

  6. It’s a good idea and do-able

  7. It’s disappointing that this entire plot of land has to be used for a roundabout. Couldn’t they just terminate the Holland Tunnel exit at Laight and Varick st and repurpose that whole square as green space?

  8. It was a New York Central Railroad Freight Depot prior to the traffic circle, not a park.