renderings by SeeThree, courtesy ODA

Once a thriving slice of New York's Chelsea neighborhood, the Flower District—which stretches from roughly from Broadway to 6th Ave. between 23rd St. and 33rd St.—has lost some of its luster in recent years. Heavy traffic and construction disrupted the area's pedestrian flow, ultimately leading to closures and empty storefronts in a site that once mixed residential and office buildings with flower vendors and small shops. It has become another example of the city's single-use spaces, an urban blip that fills with people during the workday, only to empty out at night and over weekends.

Eran Chen, AIA, founding principal and executive director of ODA New York, sees a way to change that, cultivating renewed life and commerce in the Flower District with Beyond the Street, a series of zoning proposals that make use of the Flower District's underutilized areas. Inspired by the firm's focus on the built environment's breathing room, which Chen defines as the "extent by which buildings expand and contract," ODA turned its attention to New York's neighborhoods. "Part of it is about sculpting the voids in addition to designing the buildings that define our urban environment," Chen said to ARCHITECT over email. "New York City is full of underutilized urban voids that could be developed as more dynamic and equitable gathering spaces that extend the linear sidewalk experience."

renderings by SeeThree, courtesy ODA
renderings by SeeThree, courtesy ODA

In the Flower District, these voids take the form of hidden courtyards nestled within a number of the approximately 100-foot-deep lots between 6th Ave. and 7th Ave., and underused parking lots which would "provide the initial infrastructure for passageways to and from the courtyards," Chen says.

In addition to opening up these voids and knitting them into the Flower District's public realm, ODA proposes a new zoning regulation that incentivizes buildings to include bigger courtyards in return for an increase in allowed floor area and height, with an added bonus if the building includes a passageway from the street to its rear courtyard. "As a result, the privately owned area will become public, and the owner will comply with plaza standards and courtyard regulations set by the city," Chen says.


renderings by SeeThree, courtesy ODA

Alongside expanding accessible public spaces, ODA's proposal aims to democratize the ground floors of New York's pricey, high-rise buildings, providing street-level retail opportunities for smaller businesses. "In order to level the playing field, we need to create a more democratic and accessible ground floor experience that serves everyone, not just the wealthy who live above it," Chen says. "We need to replace big box retail with more desirable local mom and pop shops and food and beverage experiences which have been driven out."

From Chen's point of view, the proposal not only creates a business model, it also gives landowners a meaningful incentive to create a positive impact—laying the groundwork for a collaboration between the city's public and private sectors. "Working with the private sector on privately owned public spaces will secure ongoing, consistent and organic growth over time," Chen says. "We'll be able to transform a single use neighborhood, right now mostly commercial, into a diversity of affordable housing, food and beverage, hospitality, as well as creative work spaces."

renderings by SeeThree, courtesy ODA

Hoping that the proposal will gain real-life traction, ODA is presenting its ideas to local leaders and council members, envisioning wider applications. "We actually think that this can happen in the majority of the commercial and mixed-use neighborhoods in New York, where zoning allows for commercial use at the ground floor," Chen says. "We believe these types of ideas can be inserted into existing urban neighborhoods that need a better pedestrian experience, more green spaces, more biodiversity and more economic incentives for local businesses to flourish."

renderings by SeeThree, courtesy ODA

The Beyond the Street project team includes: Eran Chen, AIA, Christian Bailey, Mohammad Askarzadeh, Alexandra Polier, Francois Blehaut, Kelly Burke, video production by SeeThree.

This article has been updated since first publication to include the full project team.