'Tin Cans' Are Out in New Plan for Chinatown Traffic Triangle

Left: Detail of rendering of proposed sculpture for the traffic triangle at Canal and Baxter Streets that was rejected by Community Board 1 in 2019. The tower, by artist Lindy Lee, had been proposed by the Department of Transportation. Right: Rendering detail shows proposed electronic information kiosk that would replace the current kiosk structure now on the triangle. That part of the latest plan for the triangle does not yet have funding. Renderings: NYCDOT

Mar. 01, 2021

Plans to install a $1 million, 60-foot-high “dynamic landmark” on a traffic triangle at the edge of Chinatown was a towering mistake, city officials have acknowledged.

The stainless steel sculpture, circular forms that would rise high above the busy intersection at Canal, Walker and Baxter Streets, was proposed as part of Gateways to Chinatown, a mostly federally funded city initiative co-sponsored by the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corp. to revitalize Chinatown after 9/11.

Community Board 1’s Waterfront, Parks and Cultural Committee roundly blasted the proposed installation, called “Dragon’s Roar,” by Australian artist Lindy Lee, when Department of Transportation officials presented it in July, 2019. “This project is a mess,” said one committee member. “Chinatown is an old community and you’re shoving modern art right in the middle of it,” said another. These days, some refer to the sculpture simply as “the tin cans.

In 2004, the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. allocated $7 million for a variety of Chinatown improvements. With time running out—the remaining funds must be used by the end of this year—DOT officials returned to the board on Feb. 16 (and earlier to Community Board 3) with an entirely new concept for the triangle, and even a different objective. 

Rather than erecting an attention-getting landmark on the site, the far more modest current proposal calls for adding two trees to the five ginkos that are there, and new paths for pedestrians to traverse through the triangle. A second phase, as yet unfunded, would replace the current red information kiosk with digital screens that might also feature cultural and historical programming. Two more trees, a bench and lighting would also be added. In recent planning discussions, community representatives from Chinatown “have really pushed us to think about this in a 21st century way, and I think the design is better for it,” Nick Pettinati, the DOT’s deputy director of urban design, told the committee.

“I think this is a big improvement over what was very controversial,’ said Paul Goldstein, the committee chair.

The Chinatown Partnership is the co-sponsor of the Gateways to Chinatown initiative, but its executive director, Wellington Chen, declined to comment on the latest proposal, saying he had yet to see the most recent version. “I haven’t even had a talk yet with DOT about what they presented to the community board,” he told the Trib in a phone interview. “I have not seen the latest because they keep on adjusting, adjusting.” Chen said visitors don’t need a landmark, such as the now rejected sculpture, to tell them where they are. Instead they need directions. “By the time you get to that location you’re already in Chinatown,” he said. “The question is, where do you go?” 

The much maligned first design won out from among some 80 proposals in a planning process begun in 2016 and led by DOT, the Van Alen Institute and Chinatown Partnership, with input from Chinatown civic leaders, elected officials, community boards and city agencies.

At the outset, a little more than $1 million, from the LMDC and the offices the Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Councilwoman Margaret Chin, was available for design and construction. What’s left, according to DOT spokeswoman Lolita Avila, is $389,000 from the two city officials, and an undetermined amount from the LMDC. Completion of the second phase is “pending further estimation of costs and identification of funding sources,” Avila said in an email.

Amy Chin, president of the non-profit community organization ThinkChinatown, and a participant in discussions over both plans, said she had favored keeping the current kiosk and adding low-cost design elements that could be incorporated in the overall scheme, such as historic and storied objects under glass, or crosswalks painted in distinctive ways. The current plan, she said, looks like “a generic blank space. On some level it’s better than nothing because this has been going on for way too long.” 

“It’s gone from strangely imaginative,” she added, “to wildly unimaginative.”