For a moment, Uday R. Durg, who directs Lower Manhattan projects for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority‘s capital construction unit, looks out of place in his hard hat and reflective orange safety vest. He is standing just a few yards from a construction zone at the Fulton Street Transit Center, but he is surrounded by ordinary straphangers in ordinary street clothes.
Whether hurrying through the handsome new straightaway that has replaced the maze of switchback ramps along the A and C lines or standing on the widened, ornamented and newly opened southbound platform on the R line, the traveling public has begun to occupy completed portions of the sprawling complex. “For the first time,” Mr. Durg said, “people are walking through the transit center.”
It will be more than two years before they can gaze up at the 110-foot-high dome — which transit officials are calling the oculus — that crowns the main transit center building, at Fulton Street and Broadway. But the volume already exists in the raw structural steel, and it’s impossible not to be a bit awe-struck when walking into the soaring space, whose complexity calls to mind the drawings of Piranesi. “Every time I see this, my blood races,” Mr. Durg said. “This is what an engineer dreams of.”
The Fulton Street Transit Center is the sum of many parts. From west to east, they include a new concourse between the E and R lines; a rehabilitated R train station; a passageway under Dey Street that links the PATH, E and R lines to stations on the 2, 3, 4, 5, A, C, J, M and Z lines; a new entrance (or headhouse) at Dey Street and Broadway; the main transit center building and the rehabilitated 19th-century Corbin Building on Broadway, with 70,000 square feet of retail space; the new mezzanine along the A and E lines; and a rehabilitated station on the 2 and 3 lines.
If there is a single underlying design philosophy, it is to try to make some logistical and visual sense out of the tangle of subway lines that converge in the blocks east of the World Trade Center. But there is more. James Carpenter, a master in the use and manipulation of light, has been involved as collaborating artist in the design of the oculus and the long Dey Street passageway. “We’re trying to create a great public space, not just connect stations,” Mr. Durg said.
When its design was unveiled in 2004, the center was to have been completed in 2007 at a cost of $750 million. The schedule now calls for its completion in 2014 at a cost of $1.4 billion. Like so many other projects in the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan, the transit center was announced with an understated budget and an overstated timetable. Officials were eager — probably too eager — to reassure New York that downtown could be instantly rebuilt after the catastrophic destruction caused by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Inevitably, problems and complications played havoc with the estimates. When timetables slipped and the budgets grew, again and again, a general skepticism took hold about reconstruction efforts. But at the opening of the memorial on the attacks’ 10th anniversary, as the public focused again on the area around the World Trade Center, it became clear that many of the grand plans were finally taking three-dimensional form, in steel and concrete.
In the last few months, at the transit center, parts of the A and C mezzanine have opened, as has the southbound platform of the Cortlandt Street station on the R line. The rehabilitation of an entrance at 135 William Street and the northbound platform of the Cortlandt Street station had already been finished, as had a temporary passageway from the A and C lines to the 4 and 5 lines. In the spring, the transportation authority expects to begin in earnest its search for a retail operator who will run the space in the main building and in the Corbin Building under a master lease. By the summer, Mr. Durg said, the Dey Street headhouse, passageway and concourse will be completed.
When that happens, the public will once again have a chance to see all the panels composing Margie Hughto’s “Trade, Treasure and Travel,” a series of 10 ceramic relief murals that were installed in the Cortlandt Street station in 1997 as part of the Arts for Transit program. Her work, influenced by the Ishtar Gate of Babylon but featuring contemporary imagery as well, was meant to evoke an archaeological treasure house. One panel shows the World Trade Center, rising in the distance over the Brooklyn Bridge, against a blue sky and a cumulus cloud. The transportation authority will place a plaque next to this work explaining that the murals survived the attacks.
Besides maintaining the artistic integrity of Ms. Hughto’s composition, the inclusion of the World Trade Center panel will enrich the sense of history that the Fulton Street Transit Center carries forward. Those who care to do so will be able to pause for a moment and recall a time when a billowing form behind the twin towers could only have been imagined as a passing cloud.