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Security Barriers of New York Are Removed

New York Times | October 6, 2005
By CARA BUCKLEY

They started appearing on Manhattan streets immediately after September 11: concrete and metal barriers in front of skyscrapers, offices and museums. Some were clunky planters; others were shaped artfully into globes. They were meant to be security barriers against possible car or truck bombers in a jittery city intent on safeguarding itself.

But now, five years later, their numbers have begun to dwindle. After evaluations by the New York Police Department, the city's Department of Transportation has demanded that many of the planters and concrete traffic medians known as jersey barriers be taken away. So far, barriers have been removed at 30 buildings out of an estimated 50 to 70 in the city.

Officials found that the barriers obstructed pedestrian flow — and, in the case of planters, often ended up being used as giant ashtrays. Counterterrorism experts also concluded that in terms of safety, some of the barriers, which building owners put in of their own accord, might do more harm than good.

Across the nation, security barriers were hastily erected as a fast reaction to the terrorist attacks. Vehicle barriers were installed at the Library Tower in Los Angeles and the Sears Tower in Chicago. Capitol buildings from coast to coast were barricaded with fresh rows of concrete posts. Through it all, officials have tried to balance safety with other concerns.

“In an emergency, anything will do,” said John F. Timoney, former first deputy police commissioner in New York and now the chief of police in Miami. “However, five years out, these cities are beautiful, and you want to take that into consideration. There comes a time and place that hopefully, with security in mind, you can come up with a better scheme that at least, if not aesthetically pleasing, is not offensive.”

In recent years, counterterrorism experts have concluded that a poorly anchored planter, struck hard enough by explosive force or a speeding vehicle could become, to use police jargon, “weaponized”: it could shatter into deadly shards or go flying.

Moreoever, city officials concluded that some of the buildings that erected jersey barriers or planters posthaste after September 11 were not necessarily at risk. And, security experts say, Manhattan's buildings are so close to its narrow streets anyway, car bombers could get close enough whether barriers were in place or not.

“Physical barriers in New York City really aren't very practical,” said James Jay Carafano, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation specializing in homeland security. “Trying to childproof America is a really dumb idea. The most cost-effective thing to do is to keep terrorists out.”

In recent weeks, planters have been removed from sidewalks in front the Reuters Building at 3 Times Square and Morgan Stanley's headquarters at 1585 Broadway. Sixty-three pre-cast concrete globes that encircled the Times Square Tower were taken out on September 27, each leaving behind a ghostly oval imprint. The planters outside the Ernst & Young building at 5 Times Square are also set to go.

“Wherever possible, we want to avoid the appearance that the city is under siege or unwelcoming,” Iris Weinshall, the city's transportation commissioner said in an e-mail message.

The Department of Transportation has ordered the 30 buildings around the city to remove the planters or other barriers at their own expense. Others are expected to remain, for a variety of reasons.

The removal orders have often elicited chilly reactions from the affected building owners, some of whom paid $50,000 to $100,000 to install the planters. Removing planters could cost up to $10,000 per site, one owner said.

The Department of Homeland Security does not have an official stance on such barriers, said Joanna Gonzalez, a spokeswoman, and instead urges state and local officials to determine how best to guard themselves. “But we encourage cities to have a sensible way to protect their communities using a risk-based approach,” Ms. Gonzalez said.

None of Manhattan's building owners were ordered to install planters or barriers in the first place. After September 11, barriers and planters sprang up at 50 to 70 sites, some with the approval of the Department of Transportation, many without. The planters and barriers came in all shapes and sizes: plastic, metal and concrete, tubby and skinny, round, rectangular and square.

The Transportation Department issued permits for many of the planters, but only on a temporary basis, viewing them as a stopgap measure. They stopped approving the renewals for planters about two years ago. Newly issued permits for other barriers could be revoked at any time.

At least one building owner, Boston Properties, which counts Times Square Tower and 5 Times Square among its holdings, took great pains to pass official muster.

The company commissioned an architect, Christopher J. Finger of Fogarty Finger, to design fanciful heavy concrete globes and ellipses for Times Square Tower, at 42nd Street and Broadway. The globes and columns were installed in the summer of 2005, after they were approved by city planners, the Transportation Department and the Arts Commission. Still, they were ordered removed because, in the end, they were not deemed necessary or wholly effective by experts within the Police Department's counterterrorism bureau. Late last month, they were taken out.

City planners, transportation officials and members of the Arts Commission began working on creating an accepted, uniform barrier before September 11. In the last few years, they decided on a metal or concrete pillar, about 30 inches high and anchored soundly in the ground, known as a bollard. (The word historically refers to the posts used to moor boats to piers.)

The Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, for example, is ringed by more than 200 approved shiny steel bollards — often used as stools by passers-by and ersatz fire hydrants by dogs. The Transportation Department said the bollards at the center would not be ordered out.

Still, merely having an acceptable bollard does not give buildings owners carte blanche to have them installed. The areas are surveyed by a task force that includes Transportation Department officials and members of the Police Department's counterterrorism task force, who visit the sites and determine whether there is a threat against the building and whether protective measures installed there are adequate.

“We respond on a case by case basis,” said Paul J. Browne, the chief spokesman for the Police Department.

The city's decision to order the planters removed has been warmly met by urban planners, who viewed the barriers as the height of poor design, especially since their efficacy was questionable in the first place. Michael Sorkin, director of the graduate urban design program at the City College of New York , suggested that barriers had risen to the level of a sort of personal statement, an emblem of self-importance.

“It was so ubiquitous, it was a bit of a status thing,” Mr. Sorkin said. “Surely every branch bank in Manhattan is not something that Al Qaeda is thinking of blowing up.”

Still, the removal of the planters does not signal the end of the security question in places like Times Square. Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance, said that while planters were viewed as interim — and eventually ineffective — solutions, longer term strategies were needed to make the area less vulnerable to vehicular bombs.

“Is any building in Times Square, by definition of its being in Times Square, a place that warrants greater attention?” Mr. Tompkins asked. “We would argue that the answer is yes.”

Now that so many of the city's planters and other barriers are being removed, businesses have to figure out what to do with them. Robert E. Selsam, a senior vice president and manager for the New York region at Boston Properties, was determined to find a home for Mr. Fogarty's globes and columns — and did. They have been adopted by the New York Hall of Science in Corona, Queens, and are currently wrapped up and piled in a corner of the hall's parking lot until workers there figure out where to put them.

And what will become of the planters in front of 5 Times Square, another Boston Properties site? Alas, they were bound for the Dumpster. Or, as Mr. Selsam said, planter heaven.

 

 

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