City Launches “Public Plaza Initiative” at DUMBO Pocket Park

Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan launched New York City’s new Public Plaza Initiative with the opening of a new pocket park in DUMBO yesterday. "A short time ago, this was a barren parking lot," Sadik-Khan said. "But people immediately filled up this space as the green came in. That speaks to the hunger and demand that New Yorkers have for this sort of space." That’s DUMBO Business Improvement District executive director Tucker Reed standing to the commissioner’s left in the photo above. Reed’s organization is responsible for the maintenance of the new plaza.

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Melvin Westry from Ready Willing & Able helps to maintain the plaza and its plantings on behalf of Reed’s organization. "It’s a popular spot," Westry said, pointing to the blue umbrellas over a half dozen cafe tables. "People have been coming more and more since we gave them some shade. They’re eating lunch, opening laptops, some are meeting, some just sit and relax. It’s nice. I think we need some more. Turn every triangle into one of these."

DOT Assistant Commissioner Andy Wiley-Schwartz, said the agency currently has 31 plaza projects in the pipeline throughout the city and they are looking for more plaza opportunities. "We want to find places in every Community Board district where there are community partners who can help maintain and run a place like this," Schwartz said. "This DUMBO project is the perfect example. We had a BID that wanted to make it happen, adjacent land uses that support it, and its on a direct pedestrian path between the subway East River Park. The key is to have a BID or some community partner willing to take care of the space." That is Schwartz, above, in the suit jacket, sitting with DOT press officer Chris Gilbride and Commissioner Sadik-Kahn prior to yesterday’s press conference. That’s the Brookyn’s Brown coffee truck in the background, parked along one side of the Plaza during lunch hour. The sculpture at right was created by an artist who works in the neighborhood.

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A DJ sets up a turntable outside of the Halcyon Gallery across the street from the Plaza. DOT’s Bridges Division donated the giant granite blocks that mark the plaza’s border. They are just the right size for sitting and keeping out vehicles.

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I’m told that the double-white lines are used in place of a curb. Tucker Reed said that at some point in the future the DUMBO BID and City DOT plan to dig up the green asphalt to bare the old, original belgian block street surface. 

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The plaza is dotted with sulptures by local artisits, like the drift wood sculpture at lower right. The red building at the base of the plaza is currently under renovation. Reed expects that the landlord will lease the ground floor space to a cafe or some other tenant who can take advantage of and add value to the new plaza. 

Subway noise? What subway noise?

  • JF

    Andy Wiley-Schwartz was quoted as saying:

    The key is to have a BID or some community partner willing to take care of the space.

    Does anyone else think it’s sad that we’ve gotten to the point where the city can’t build and maintain a tiny triangle of parkland by itself? Park budgets have been cut by mayor after mayor, and now if residents don’t have the time or money to fund and staff an oranization capable of taking care of a park, tough shit on them.

    Also, I support the mission of the Doe Fund, and I’m glad that they’re helping get people out of homelessness and poverty, but couldn’t we get more people out of poverty by giving them government, union jobs that pay living wages?

    This is certainly no reflection on Wiley-Schwartz, Sadik-Khan, Reed, Westry or anyone else involved in this park. It seems like a definite addition to the neighborhood, and the people who brought it about and keep it going deserve credit. Yesterday was also an occasion for celebration, so I wouldn’t expect Wiley-Schwartz to bring up this kind of critique of city politics. I hope they can get a lot more of these built, but I just had to say something.

  • Ace

    I agree with the first poster; it just doesn’t seem right that we cannot take care of our own parks. It may not be surprising but it doesn’t seem right.

  • tmchale

    Agreed. The outsourcing of basic city services is basically neoliberalism marching on…

  • momos

    Exactly, I couldn’t agree more with the first poster.

    A consequence of the non-profit industrial complex replacing traditional public sector responsibilities (a tenant of neoliberalism, as post 3 points out — in fact, the ideological movement is called “New Public Management”) is that services are redirected to wealthier areas and away from distressed districts unable to privately fund neighborhood services.

    The result is greater inequity; neighborhoods most in need of new parks and added greenery, for example, won’t get them — and what does exist in such areas will deteriorate over time.

  • Yumm

    So hopefully ya’ll be voting for tax increases in the near future!

  • momos

    Post #5:

    I’m prepared to pay higher taxes for higher quality public services. (I’m also at the low end of the income ladder.)

    But the issue is actually more complicated. Outsourcing services turns out not to always save money. In-house architects at the Port Authority have often persuasively shown how the PA ends up spending more by outsourcing design work instead of drawing on institutional expertise.

    Outsourcing in Iraq is another example. Shoddy work by contractors ends up getting covered by the Army Corps of Engineers, and US taxpayers get billed twice.

    There are times outsourcing makes sense. But essential public goods, such as green space in a major metropolis like New York, is a responsibility solidly belonging to the public sector.

    With all that said, like post #1 says, the DUMBO plaza project is a step forward in green street design and the DOT should be given the credit it’s due.

  • JF

    I’d be happy to, but when was the last time we got a chance to vote on one? Every election cycle all I see are politicians promising not to raise taxes, and it’s hard to tell which ones are serious and which ones are just afraid of being drowned in Grover Norquist’s bathtub.

  • Boogiedown

    Just cut out the corporate welfare, Yumm. That should free up hundreds of millions.

  • momos

    JF & Yumm — and look what the zero tax obsession has done to the MTA. Its communication failures are unpardonable, but the system failure yesterday more broadly was the result of chronic under capitalization for decades. Imagine how sleek, efficient and modern New York’s transit system would be if the MTA had a dollar for every opportunist politician who bashes it endlessly while cutting and cutting its budget.

    You get what you pay for.

  • fdr

    Wiley-Schwartz now works for the city. Do you expect him to criticize the way city government works now that he’s on the inside?

  • Andy WS

    JF–the city “builds and maintains” lots of little triangles, as greenstreets. I think the issue here is whether it’s appropriate, or even a good idea to have the city managing and programming these kinds of small neighborhood plazas, where the critical success factor is not whether the space is reclaimed and planted, but whether there are people there using it. It’s one thing to water the plants and sweep the pavement (which by the way, the parks dept does on hundreds of green streets around the city). It’s quite another to program and manage a space, be responsible for making sure there are good land uses around it, etc. I’d suggest that it’s entirely appropriate for a BID to do this job, since they have the local connections and know-how, can watch the space evolve over time, and manage it more flexibly.

    A more “mature” public space, with more acreage, trees, facilities, etc. is a park, and in that case the city does indeed do most (though not all) of the maintenance and management. But even there, the lesson from NY and other cities around the country is that a private partner (even just a volunteer friends group) can help the best-funded park be better with more local involvement.

  • The intention and benefit of working with local partners in efforts like this is not (and I agree should not be) to cut costs, though that may be an outcome. The reduction of responsibility of government may actually be exactly what is needed to make these types of spaces function successfully.

    A cookie cutter approach to designing managing and programming these plazas will simply fail and these plazas will not get they kind of positive use adn appreciation necessay to get the city to sustain their efforts and move further in this direction.

    Finding strong local partners allows the public plaza program to:

    1. Draw on the public space management capacity of BIDs (which are quazi government) and other community-based organizations as well as the Parks Dept, and DOT.

    2. Develop and grow broad community based partnerships — Finding the community leaders, building community and city capacity to actually create and evolve the spaces to reflect and celebrate the communities they serve.

    3. Design for flexibility – short term experiments, ongoing evaluation, long term visioning.

    4. Attract more creative and diverse funding sources to support a broader sense of ownership and inclusiveness I the community – setting up management and funding entities for ongoing management, programming and improvements etc.

    5. Be compatible with an upfront and ongoing public process to develop the vision, demand and capacity to grow these spaces in partnership with the city.

    These are all thing that the city will not be able to, and should not do alone. For the success of these projects, responsibility needs to be given locally.

  • gecko

    Motion Picture production stage hands like Local 52 IATSE(props) are great at putting this stuff up for film shoots. In Hollywood this a specialty.

    For “The Wiz” the 59th Street bridge was paved with yellow linoleum for the “Yellow Brick Road”, and block-long streets were covered with dirt and period props when “Rag Time” was filmed on East 11th Street.

    Wonder if these skills can be leveraged for rapid, broad, more permanent implementation in concert with art directors, landscape architects, local community and or BID oversight.

  • we call it welfare and taxes and handouts when we want to feed people, fix schools and infrastructure, but we call it incentive and capitalism when we take tax money and hand it out to corporations to ‘create jobs’ and to help drive the economy.

  • Yumm

    Thanks! Just checking for liberal hypocrisy.

  • One of the things that I found so striking about the Pearl St. Pocket Park was all of the original artwork by local artists. The DUMBO BID made that happen. The BID also makes sure that the Brooklyn’s Brown coffee truck, a local business, visits the plaza during weekday lunch hours. The BID is encouraging the landlord of the red building at the base of the triangle to bring in a tenant who will serve the plaza in some meaningful way (sorry Chase Bank!) I’m not sure that any of these sorts of local initiatives happen if a city agency is in charge of managing the space on its own without a local partner that is tied in to the neighborhood and the local business community.

    Whatever the broader implications of these sorts of public-private partnerships, it seems like the work that the BID is doing here in DUMBO is really helping to make the plaza feel like an organic part of the neighborhood rather than just a generic city project run by some big bureaucracy.

    To me, the beautiful (and probably very expensive) one-of-a-kind driftwood bench created by a local artist kind of says it all. That’s not a Parks Dept. bench. That’s a DUMBO bench. I don’t think you get that bench without the public-private partnership between the City and the BID.

  • more

    Only six pictures?

  • Eric

    I think both sides of this debate are right. The participation by the BIDs and RW&A and like organizations help to optimize the care, maintenance and programming of these public spaces. On the flip side, government wastes an incredible amount of money, and it’s unquestionable that the steep reduction over time in funding for parks has left us all poorer.

    I harp on this all the time on Streetsblog, but until we find a way to elect people who refuse to condone huge giveaways of public money (a la the Vanderbilt Railyards to Bruce Ratner for less than half the MTA’s appraised value, and the huge subsidies earmarked for Ratner’s basketball arena, etc., etc.), I’m afraid we have no choice but to rely on private-sector participation. Which may, perversely, perpetuate this cycle.

  • Charlie D.

    Public-private partnerships can be a good thing. However, it’s important that where no private entities are found to help out with a park that needs it, the city should devotes MORE attention and resources to it so that it receives the same level of attention of those parks that do have private stewards. The fact that private groups DO help should allow the city to devote more of its resources to those places that need it most.

  • JF

    Exactly, Charlie. I certainly don’t dispute the value of community partners and community involvement in a project like this. I was mainly responding to words like “key” that Andy used. Without a key, the door is closed, so I interpreted his comments as implying, “no community partners, no new parks.”

    There are plenty of neighborhoods in the city that have low civic involvement for a number of reasons: transient population, language barriers, low populations of senior citizens, high populations of ex-cons who may not want anything more to do with the government, lots of people working long hours, etc. The community organizations may be too busy with other projects like fighting pollution or waste transfer stations. Or they may not have much money to contribute to the upkeep of the park.

    In my mind, none of these factors make a community any less deserving of a park than the communities that can afford to contribute time and money. That’s what I’m concerned about. If I misunderstood Andy’s use of the word “key,” then that’s all right.

  • pearl street resident

    My 2 cents as a resident of Pearl Street and dumbo: ARE YOU KIDDING ME? some green-tinged asphalt with a few chairs and some lovely (but very ill-placed art) is a joke. Who was this made for? Certainly not the residents, I have sat there a few times (I figured I should give it a whirl) and I have been entirely uncomfortable.

    Sitting amongst traffic (cars, trash vans, and tractor trailers) and below the omni present subway is NOT a peaceful respite, nor is it enjoyable. My favorite part of the park (just like any other NYC park) is when a rat challenges me for my lunch or shoe. What a waste of money.

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