The single-purpose commercial district is a staple of the city’s urban patchwork, whether it is the Diamond District at 47th Street and Fifth Avenue in Midtown, the Lighting District along the Bowery, or the former Radio Row in Lower Manhattan. Among these spaces, the Flower District in Midtown South is among the most unique. The concrete jungle meets the green jungle on sidewalks lined with rows of flowers and shrubbery. Yet while the District has been around for over a century, ongoing transformations are shaking its identity to the core.
At the end of the 19th century, a neighborhood of flower wholesalers had planted itself around Sixth Avenue between 26th and 29th Streets. The location was convenient for the shoppers at Ladies’ Mile, the department store clientele along Fifth Avenue to the east and around Macy’s at Herald Square to the north, and the dining and entertainment districts nearby. By 1977, more flowers were sold in New York than anywhere else in the world except for Amsterdam, and the District was the crowning jewel of this green empire.
As demographics shift and commercial interests change, neighborhoods evolve accordingly. Chinatown has almost completely encroached upon Little Italy. Radio Row was bulldozed to the ground to make way for the World Trade Center in the 1960’s. During the past few decades, particularly since the onset of the 21st century, the Flower District has been rapidly shrinking as developers began chipping away at its fringes, taking advantage of Midtown South’s increasingly lucrative real estate. Green markets that once populated the ground lots on Sixth Avenue between 25th and 30th Streets have been replaced with an echelon of residential towers. The once-ample sidewalk forests have been whittled down to a few sporadic holdouts.
The core of the district is still going strong on the West 28th Street block between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, and offers a pedestrian experience unlike anywhere else in Manhattan. The concrete jungle becomes a green jungle as pedestrians pass between rows of flowers, shrubs, and potted trees that obscure both the building facades and the traffic on the street. Delivery trucks line the curb, with workers unloading their green wares into the lush, leafy storefronts.
Yet even here, vendors share space with an ever-increasing number of hotels. Within the past ten years, four hotels designed by architects such as Gene Kaufman and Nobutaka Ashihara rose on either side of this block’s plant-lined sidewalks. Three stand side by side on the north side of the street: Hotel Indigo, Hotel Cambria, and a Hilton Garden Inn. Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott stands across the street.
All four are rather standard examples of the midrise budget hotels that have been rising all over Manhattan over the past ten years. Each one occupies a small footprint, averages around twenty stories, breaks the street-wall, and for better or worse, features a distinctive facade.
Fairfield Inn, with its minimalist façade, barely noticeable air conditioning grills, and striped vertical accents at the base and at the crown, makes for a reasonable background building. Its plaza is rather attractive as far as budget hotels go, and the street-wall break is mitigated with planters, which are augmented by the plant vendors’ wares displayed in front. The white base is plain and clashes with the more unfortunate choice of dark brick for the rest of the facade, which leaves a gloomy presence.
With its red brick façade and white stone corner trim, the Nobutaka Ashihara-designed Hotel Indigo makes a respectable attempt at paying homage to its context. Unfortunately, its lack of window articulation and humdrum brick quality diminish the composition.
Hotel Cambria, completed in 2014 and thus the latest to join the bunch, is the most appealing of the group. Two rows of stone-capped windows line a glass expanse in the middle, framed with a wide, protruding white band that connects at the top and provides a defining visual anchor for the façade. Even the light purple brick and air conditioner grills, which match the windows in width, are inoffensive and work with the overall composition. The sunlight plays well with the brick glaze. Although not an architectural masterpiece by any standard, the design is not detrimental to the block. As with the other new hotels, its most glaring transgression is the setback that breaks the uniform street-wall.
Built in 2006, the Hilton Garden Inn was the first to rise on the block and may be considered a failed first attempt along the stretch. The facade is plain and lacks any articulation whatsoever, except for the garish zebra façade of black stripes and white rectangles, separated by thick, all-too-visible joints between the brick sections. The windows are relatively small and come in two mismatched sizes, with the air conditioner grills not even matching the window width.
All four hotels break the city’s street-wall and thus have a pronounced, negative effect on the street composition. But despite these odds, they meet the street in a surprisingly effective fashion. Breaking the street-wall tends to hurt most blocks on the street level as much as it hurts them on the skyline, yet in this case they provide much needed breathing room to the congested sidewalks, with their shrub-lined seating plazas offering a physical break from the unrelenting congestion.
The plaza at Hilton Garden Inn is the least inviting of the group, offering nothing to the pedestrian except for four potted plants in the corners and an appealing geometric pattern on the entrance doors. At least the architect gets points for trying to integrate the structure with the existing street-wall.
In terms of public amenities, the biggest surprise comes from the activated rooftops on the hotels. Three of the four establishments (with the zebra striped hotel, once again, trailing behind) feature open air decks oriented towards the street. Hotel Indigo and Hotel Cambria accommodate rooftop bars, which make for a nighttime destination on a commercial strip that empties out at night.
The elevated, nighttime entertainment spaces provide an effective foil to the ground-level, daytime forests of the Flower District. Both setups transform standard typologies – the sidewalk and the rooftop – into public-private spaces of urban whimsy.
The second round of hotels is progressing on the eastern end of the block, consisting of two towers separated by a classic Flower District holdout.
The first, Hyatt House at 101 West 28th Street, stands on the north corner of West 28th Street and Sixth Avenue. The 32-story tower, the tallest on the block, is topped-out and nearing completion.
Separated by a rowhome holdout with a flower shop on the ground floor is 105-109 West 28th Street, where a low-rise structure is currently undergoing demolition, to be replaced by a hotel tower similar to its next-door neighbor.
Existing tenants and new construction have to compete for space in very tight quarters. This juxtaposition creates fascinating instances of urbanity. A pedestrian on the north side of the block passes next to a row of palm trees settled beneath the scaffolding of the demolition for 105 West 28th Street, moves forward past the woven baskets of a flower wholesaler, and proceeds into the twisting scaffolding corridors beneath the Hyatt House construction.
The small size of building footprints is a positive aspect of the new projects. Unlike block-busting towers with large bases, relatively narrow facades preserve the existing, smaller scale at the pedestrian level while adding height and density. Like any other single purpose commercial district, the block tended to empty out at night, making the streetscape somewhat inhospitable. The new hotels supply round-the-clock users that provide activity at all hours of the day.
On the flip side, this activity only exacerbates the extreme crowds already present during daytime. The plant displays that provide the neighborhood’s signature flair also obstruct pedestrian flow, and a constant stream of delivery trucks further clogs the already heavily trafficked street.
Though air rights are already becoming a scarce commodity on the block, there is still clear potential for development. While all new construction has been taking place on the eastern half of the block, many holdouts remain. Despite the dilapidated state of some of these structures, we wish that they would stick around for as long as possible, given that their tenants are iconic Flower District shops.
The western end of the block is somewhat different in character. It contains larger buildings with greater architectural significance, less flower establishments, and more buildable sites. Redevelopment seems inevitable, and will probably happen soon.
There are no easy solutions for a fully streamlined, obstruction-free coexistence of the District with its new neighbors. Arguably, the concept of a “flower district” works better with a lower-density neighborhood. In 2004, the Flower Market Association considered such endeavors when it contemplated buying large sites in Long Island City, in Gansevoort Market, or at 57th Street and 11th Avenue. Despite the allure of rising real estate prices in Midtown South, all proposals fell through for various reasons. ”They’ve been moving since I was in diapers, and they’re still here,” a flower shop owner noted in a 2004 New York Times report. Besides, moving an entire district is inherently problematic. Every step, from arranging incentives for flower businesses to artificially creating neighborhood character to attracting new customers and shifting existing customer attention, would be laden with obstacles and potential for failure.
Altering the existing street configuration might provide a solution. The most dramatic option would be closing the street to vehicles altogether and making the entire stretch pedestrian. A public promenade lined with the vendors’ lush greenery would make for a magnificent public space, but it would greatly disrupt the local traffic grid. Besides, drop off lanes are a must both for flower shops and the hotels.
However, with clever traffic engineering and pedestrian layouts, a beneficial alteration might be possible.
Street alterations along the nearby Broadway have improved the pedestrian situation by leaps and bounds, and have arguably had a net positive effect on the driver experience as well (though there is still debate regarding that claim).
At a bare minimum, the city should introduce curb extensions to either end of the block. Such extensions not only increase available pedestrian space at no cost to the vehicles, but also increase traffic safety and would go hand in hand with Mayor DeBlasio’s Vision Zero plan for safer streets.
A variety of other urban improvements may play a role in reestablishing the District’s identity within its new setting. Some interventions would be relatively simple. For instance, converting the blank walls of the Hyatt House into green walls (or at least attaching metal grates and allowing vines to grow along them) would make for an attractive focal point for the District at the intersection of Sixth Avenue and West 28th Street. Smaller “green pillars” may be introduced to street corner, in a similar manner to the Diamond District’s twin “diamond lanterns” at the neighborhood’s thresholds.
The Diamond District might serve as a model for more dramatic intervention, as well. The International Gem Tower, built in 2013, provides a neighborhood focal point, with 34 stories of dedicated office space, signature ground level retail, and a distinctive, diamond-faceted façade.
We hope that the Flower Market Association would one day team up with a developer to redevelop the corner site across the street from Hyatt House, currently occupied by a large fast food restaurant, and build a similar project. It is tempting to picture a soaring Flower Center with green walls and flower distributor showrooms on its floors, anchored by an inviting, public, ground-level space.
Beneath the spires of the city’s skyline, Manhattan’s true engines of vibrancy are the unique neighborhoods formed by clusters of residents, businesses, and cultures. Though the Flower District may be facing some of its toughest challenges yet, we wish that visionary planners and smart investors would take advantage of its in-demand location and transform it into a flowering 21st century anchor for the industry.