Is that Brooklyn’s Surrey Street?

Written by Carma Hassan, CNN

With its pedestrian-only design and stingy seating area, Surrey Street in Manhattan feels like an odd pit stop for normal day-to-day commuters.

Amid the peeling paint and popping clouds of dust, the mostly concreted alleyway between Oak and Essex streets doesn’t offer much in the way of architectural joy. In fact, it doesn’t seem like an especially good place to spend an afternoon or evening.

“I don’t think anybody really benefits from walking through here,” says Steven Poulton, a New York-based architecture critic. “Everyone’s life could be better.”

Over two decades ago, a group of designers wanted to change that. At the time, Poulton notes, architects’ approach to street design was “trying to shield pedestrians from cars.”

“It seems to me, and I think it’s a perfectly sensible view, that the best way to encourage pedestrian use of streets and buildings is to make them a little more fun,” he adds.

The design and aesthetics of Surrey Street do make it a better place for cyclists and pedestrians to encounter each other than a four-lane thoroughfare like Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. (Courtesy Manjesh Shah; Mercury Press; Kitty and the Butterfly Magazine; Manjesh Shah/Courtesy Manjesh Shah; D.C. Vivante Architects / Courtesy Kitty and the Butterfly Magazine)

What this essentially meant for Surrey Street was to create an “anomaly” and be designed so that people could cross the street on foot in front of the shops and cafes without much incident.

Decades on, Poulton says that the approach has proved to be successful for both commuters and local residents.

“For pedestrians, the result is that they actually find more places in which to move around and don’t feel like they have to cross five lanes of traffic.”

But there’s also something about Surrey Street that makes it particularly awful for people who use wheelchairs, as they must cross the street with traffic.

“You’re pretty much at the end of a winding, very, very dirty street where it’s hard to see anything,” says Joe Cirelli, one of the four architects on the project, which was conceived for San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood.

It was “easier for us as architects to think of this as something for people on bikes to use, and for pedestrians to use. That way, everyone’s happy.”

However, Cirelli notes that while it’s important for a neighborhood to create “a little bit of fun” with its street design, he acknowledges that it shouldn’t be reduced to a “passenger railroad in the middle of the street.”

“You can’t be too snobbish about things like that,” he says. “If it’s too crazy, people will just get sick of it.”

Residents in Tenderloin, Washington Square’s West Block, South Street Seaport in Brooklyn, and the neighborhood of TriBeCa may soon be finding themselves with a more welcoming design for pedestrians. The neighborhood known as District 7 — a small section of Manhattan that is considered part of the city’s “Music Mile” — was recently identified as the next city for an ambitious pedestrian initiative.

“I think it’s a very good idea,” says Melinda, a resident of District 7, who we chose not to name for security reasons. “I don’t see anybody hurt walking on the sidewalks here.”

Having seen the Tenderloin recently, Melinda says the design for the neighborhood’s arterial street isn’t nearly as bad as Surrey Street. But she nonetheless calls the design “ridiculous” and praises the neighborhood for the minimal amounts of traffic — something that will improve under the design.

“The streets are about putting things in place that will get people to walk and move around,” she says. “It makes more sense to just make the streets walkable.”

Leave a Comment