Nick Signorelli was walking north on a recent weekday along Park Avenue near Grand Central Terminal, a familiar route on his way to work as a lighting technician.
He was looking across the sea of traffic to the inviting strip of tulips and deep green grass in the middle of the avenue when a thought struck him: Why was the median so inhospitable to pedestrians? No walking path, no place to sit.
“It just seems like a lot of wasted space,” said Mr. Signorelli, 27, who lives in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., about 80 miles north of Manhattan.
It has been a long time, but once it was possible and even fashionable to take a stroll through a far different Park Avenue, one with a green swath of lush lawn and shrubbery nearly 40 feet wide. It was the city’s first linear park, where pedestrians took precedence over cars and there were plenty of benches to take a break.
Nearly a century later, the iconic stretch — home to the Waldorf Astoria and featured in the opening sequences of “The Odd Couple” television show — is far less welcoming. Not only are pedestrians discouraged from using the median, it was also shaved down by half in 1927 to roughly 20 feet to make room for another traffic lane in each direction and accommodate the city’s growing car culture.
But today, at a moment when the coronavirus pandemic has unleashed a huge demand for more open space, plans are in place that could transform Park Avenue’s malls and restore them to their original splendor.
Among the options the city is considering is bringing back chairs and benches, along with more ambitious ideas like expanding the median, eliminating traffic lanes and carving out room for bike lanes and walking paths.
Over the decades, said Janette Sadik-Khan, a former transportation commissioner under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, “we let cars crowd everything else out and ended up with a lot more avenue and a lot less park.”
The proposed renovation, she added, represents “a once-in-a-century opportunity to right that wrong and transform today’s asphalt partition back into the promenade our city deserves.”
The revamping of Park Avenue is being driven by a major transit project below ground. A cavernous shed used by Metro-North commuter trains that travel in and out of Grand Central is over a century old and in need of major repairs.
The work requires ripping up nearly a dozen streets along Park Avenue, from East 46th to East 57th Streets, making possible a new vision for that stretch of the thoroughfare.
“This massive-scale project scope and timeline offers the city an opportunity to redesign the Park Avenue malls,” Alana Morales, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Transportation, said in a statement. “We look forward to sharing more with public stakeholders as the train shed and median reconstruction projects move forward.”
In a city where the pandemic has accelerated a movement to take back street space from cars, the removal of traffic lanes along Park Avenue is likely to elicit backlash from drivers who complain that the addition of pedestrian plazas and bike lanes across the city has made it increasingly difficult to get around.
“Disaster,” said Leon Adams, 65, who owns a jewelry store on Park Avenue near 56th Street. “Traffic was already terrible, and the city is only making it worse.”
He also questioned the appeal of spending much time in the median mall.
“Who wants to sit in the middle of traffic anyway?” he said.
But others say the city would be more livable with fewer cars, making streets safer for pedestrians and bicyclists, and creating less climate-changing pollutants.
“Asphalt is an asset and New York has no shortage of it,” said Danny Harris, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group. “But we’re squandering it.”
The debate has taken on a new speed during the pandemic, when the city turned many streets into car-free venues to allow for social distancing and make room for restaurants to serve diners outside.
Many of these open streets, from Vanderbilt Avenue in Brooklyn to 34th Avenue in Queens, have become enormously popular. The desire to make these spaces permanent and add even more is emerging as a lasting legacy of the public health crisis.
Along Park Avenue, the availability of open space was relatively limited before the outbreak, said Alfred C. Cerullo III, the president of the Grand Central Partnership, which oversees streetscape improvements.
A 2019 study based on city data by HR&A Advisors, a consulting firm, found that there was 1.1 square feet of green space per office worker along Park Avenue, far less than in other commercial districts — around the World Trade Center complex in Lower Manhattan, for example, each worker had 11.2 square feet of green space.
“What is missing here is an engaging public space,” Mr. Cerullo said.
There have been some efforts over the years to beautify the avenue’s malls — tulips and begonias were planted in the 1950s, and two decades later fencing was removed and flower beds were added.
But with the city facing a major financial crisis in the 1970s, maintenance dollars dried up and the malls were largely neglected.
“Nobody was taking care of them,” said Victoria Spagnola, chairwoman of Patrons of Park Avenue, a local group that tends the malls south of Grand Central, as she showed off the early-spring blossom. “So neighbors did.”
Through public-private partnerships and volunteerism, the malls now pack a colorful and artistic punch for their small size. Kanzan trees paint a pink and white belt across the asphalt, and a statue of Venus Genetrix by the Chinese artist Xu Zhen is currently on display outside the Asia Society, at 70th Street.
In 2018, a private design competition sponsored by Fisher Brothers, a real estate company that owns several properties on Park Avenue, elicited some whimsical ideas — a mini-golf course, a shark tank, metal leaves that breathed with the rumbles of the Metro-North trains underneath.
Though it held no practical ramifications, the competition “was meant to give people a taste of what is possible,” said Winston Fisher, a partner at the firm.
On a recent morning, Park Avenue was still quieter and emptier than before the outbreak. Mr. Fisher said his company’s office buildings have yet to budge beyond 10 percent occupancy.
He stressed the boost that a major overhaul of a street as famous as Park Avenue could have on the city’s tattered soul.
“More than ever,” he said, “New York needs this.”