The Woman Who Shut Down Fifth Avenue

If anyone had the connections, resources, and plain chutzpah to close down one of the busiest streets in one of the busiest cities at one of the busiest times of the year, it would be Celine Armstrong.

Photo courtesy of Celine Armstrong

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In December 2021, Celine Armstrong and her husband traveled with their two toddlers to Midtown Manhattan on a quest that would be familiar to generations of families: to visit the holiday windows along Fifth Avenue. But as they pressed shoulder to shoulder against other visitors, Armstong grew concerned by the hordes of people overwhelming the sidewalk and cars speeding by.

Fifth Avenue at 52nd Street in 2010, congested with cars and taxis (Shutterstock)

They were thrilled to arrive at 49th Street, which had been closed to vehicular traffic because it was adjacent to Rockefeller Center and its ice-skating rink. As the crowds spread out, the family could too. The children jumped and twirled; they gazed at the famous Rockefeller Center Christmas tree; they dipped in and out of nearby stores.

That following summer, Armstrong was on a holiday planning call where a former city planner mentioned that Fifth Avenue was once closed to cars about half a century ago. Recalling her family’s joy over the pedestrian thoroughfares, Armstrong reached out to the New York City Department of Transportation to talk about closing the avenue over the busy holiday season. They warned how complicated and controversial such a closure could be, but also said that if anyone would be able to pull it off, it would be her.

Few people would have the chutzpah to think they could close down one of the busiest streets in one of the busiest cities at one of the busiest times of the year, but Armstrong was no ordinary tourist. Her path to New York started in a very different city also named Manhattan, when she studied landscape architecture at Kansas State University. While there, she was invited to do some landscape work for an episode of the popular TV show Extreme Home Makeover. “That experience really moved me,” she recalls. “It combined my desire to help those in need with my love of creating an aesthetically pleasing property. It was also quite empowering to operate a 250 CAT excavator while all the men were doing manual labor.”

In 2010, newlyweds Celine and Chuck moved to New York City, where she soon found work on the construction management team building the High Line, a 1.45-mile-long greenway created on a defunct elevated railroad line on Manhattan’s west side. The greenway features public art, hundreds of species of plants and trees, and a stunning view. She continued with public-facing work, finalizing the design and managing the construction for the Native Flora Garden extension at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden as well as a bike and pedestrian improvement plan for Queens Plaza.

The High Line (Shutterstock)

While earning a master’s degree from Columbia University in 2013, Armstrong sent her resume to IAC, a company run by Barry Diller, a major funder of the High Line. His family non-profit was embarking on a new project to create an artificial 2.4-acre island within Hudson River Park off the west side of Manhattan.

“I have such a passion for nature and high design, and I knew that this opportunity not only brought that love to fruition, but even more importantly, it was a chance to connect others to nature,” says Armstrong.

And she had another motive for wanting to take on high-profile projects. “As a woman, I wanted to play a significant female role in the industry, as I grew up knowing very few women leading mega projects,” she explains.

After two months of interviews, Armstrong was hired as the project manager for the construction of Little Island. She quickly rose to project executive, reporting directly to Diller. Her responsibilities included hiring additional designers, managing monthly design meetings where critical path decisions were made, and keeping track of finances. Staying on top of the budget was no small task, as the project’s costs came in at $250 million.

She also battled efforts to block the project, which caused schedule adjustments and changes to plans. “Pregnant with my daughter, I struggled to continue to blend my work and personal life” Armstrong says. “I had to check my ego at the door while our project was being scrutinized, very unfairly I thought at times.”

Little Island finally opened in May 2021. More than 100 concrete pilings support the park 15 to 62 feet over the Hudson, and it features whimsical performance spaces and gardens with blooms that peak at different times, offering landscape-altering monthly changes.

Left: Little Island (Shutterstock); right: Celine Armstong at Little Island in 2021 (Photo courtesy Celine Armstrong)

“In every turn, your experience changes,” Armstrong explains. “You’re on the river, it’s quiet, it’s respectful, it’s dignified, it’s welcoming. It’s a respite for everyone.”

Her work was rewarded the day Little Island opened. Visitors hugged as they entered the park, recognizing the beauty in the new space. “Little Island was immediately and universally loved and I am forever grateful for this opportunity,” says Armstrong.

Even before Little Island officially opened, a developer had suggested Armstrong consider working with one of the many New York City Business Improvement Districts; in December 2021, she accepted the position of chief development officer of the Fifth Avenue Association Business Improvement District with the goal of making the area more “enticing, glamorous, welcoming and exciting,” she says. It was that very same month that her family made that fateful Christmastime trip to Fifth Avenue, and she witnessed the congested sidewalks and noisy cars whizzing by.

It wasn’t going to be easy to halt traffic on the iconic street, but Armstrong was prepared for this battle by her previous victories advocating to provide public good through landscape architecture.

To bring about a pause in holiday traffic on Fifth Avenue, she had to convince city officials that the disruption could be a safety measure as well as an economic boost as the city welcomed shoppers post-COVID. She overcame opposition from many quarters, and permits in hand, carefully selected musical groups, food, and coffee carts to create a magical pedestrian experience.

Fifth Avenue (Photo by Carl Wilson, courtesy of Celine Armstrong)

Named Fifth Avenue for All, the one-of-a-kind holiday experience appealed to families, shoppers, and sightseers of all ages. Fifth Avenue became an open promenade from 48th Street to 57th Street from 12 to 6 p.m. for the first three Sundays of December 2022.

Vehicle-free Sundays were a hit. Revenue for stores in the area increased by $3 million, according to a Mastercard study. Armstrong and her team received so much positive feedback that they spearheaded another successful effort in 2023.

According to an October 2023 press release, the Open Streets initiative laid the groundwork for New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ “Making New York Work for Everyone” action plan, which permanently reimagines Fifth Avenue from Bryant Park to Central Park.

But once the mayor made the announcement to take over the effort to re-envision Fifth Avenue, Armstrong, pregnant with her third child, took the opportunity to make a change, and she and her family moved to Kansas City. The move has allowed Armstrong to fulfill her lifelong dream of establishing her own business, Armstrong Collaborative, helping visionaries from ideation through completion. The company allows her to take on international projects while continuing to build on her reputation for urban design. She’s even recently been elected the future President of the Prairie Gateway Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects, representing landscape architects in the Kansas City region.

April has been declared World Landscape Architecture Month as a way to draw attention to this often-overlooked profession. Celine Armstrong is a shining example of the many dedicated professionals who use their skills in engineering, planning, and design to seek maximum benefits for users of outdoor and community spaces. World Landscape Architecture Month reminds us that a well-planned environment can benefit the well-being of whole communities.

Armstrong’s experiences in New York City only sharpened her resolve to create more livable communities and to inspire others to pursue similar work. “Instead of buildings talking down to us, humans can thrive through better planning and design,” she says. “We weren’t meant to walk and live in a place of all concrete and glass. To see the environment through design enhances life.”

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  1. A remarkable woman, this feisty Armstrong lady who went on to build, construct places friendly to the environment, aesthetically appealing is something even a man cannot think of and to stop traffic in the most busiest street in the world speaks volumes of her determination and grit.


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