The New Gansevoort: Pedestrian Godsend, Nightclubber Nuisance

nipple_plaza.jpg

A DOT team received a mix of gratitude and derision at Tuesday’s public forum about recent pedestrian improvements in the Meatpacking District, which attracted an audience of about 100 people to the Housing Works offices on West 13th Street. It was an interesting window onto the competing interests now vying to shape what has been, from the beginning, a genuinely community-based project seeking to put pedestrians on equal footing with vehicle traffic.

Those who came to praise described the new sense of safety they feel walking around the area near Gansevoort Plaza. Those who came to scorn suggested rolling back those improvements in the hopes that livery passengers might not have to wait another minute or two to be dropped off right at their luxe destinations. The former enjoyed a two-to-one advantage over the latter among those who spoke, with much of crowd opinion resting with a sizable, aesthetically-driven middle ground — people who professed support for street reclamation in theory, but just don’t like the look of nipple bollards.

The goal of the meeting, said DOT Manhattan Borough Commissioner Margaret Forgione, was to get "a sense of the overall feeling and a sense of what can be tweaked" about the project, which is slated to enter a permanent design phase this July, followed by construction the next year. There was no shortage of thoughtful ideas — and clunkers — for a neighborhood attempting to deal with the influx of cab and limo traffic on weekend nights. Taxi stands, anyone?

gansevoort_map.jpgOne solution for the Meatpacking District’s livery congestion: taxi stands. Image: NYCDOT

On the side of preserving safety gains, longtime resident Cynthia Penney encapsulated the sentiment of many locals. "I love the fact that I can cross the street without taking my life in my hands," she said. "Judging by the crowds outside Pastis, I don’t think anyone is having trouble getting here."

On the side of maximizing vehicular throughput, Andrew Winter, a representative of luxury resto/lounge tandem Vento and Level V (a favored haunt of "good-looking, well-heeled New Yorkers in their late twenties, happy about
how, well, good-looking they are" says New York Mag), put it to DOT thusly: "Instead of spending money on moving these cement block things into new areas, can we focus our funds on how to get the traffic in and out much easier?"

Not that all testimony hewed to the residents-vs.-businesses pattern. Paolo Secondo, owner of the restaurant Revel on Little West 12th Street, was firmly in favor of the pedestrian improvements. "I believe that a privilege we can no longer afford in New York is to be able to arrive at a restaurant in a cab or a limo," he said, assigning blame for traffic congestion in the area to the willy-nilly pattern of livery pick-ups and drop-offs. "I would much prefer to have stands or drop-off zones." His call was bolstered by comments from a CB4 member who recounted how taxi stands had eased traffic tie-ups and quieted late-night honking in Chelsea’s nightclub district.

One of the most intriguing storylines to develop was — brace yourself — the question of management. As Project for Public Spaces can tell you, the success of any public space depends on programming and maintenance. Someone has to care for it. The Meatpacking District, unlike Madison Square and other areas where DOT plazas have bloomed, does not have a BID to assume this role. It does have a merchants’ association — the Meatpacking District Initiative — and here’s the Catch 22: The MPDI is funded through voluntary contributions, not mandatory assessments, so if the businesses don’t like the new public spaces, they don’t have to pay for things like putting on events or keeping planters looking good, and perceptions of the pedestrian zones will suffer.

"People want us to fund something that our members are not pleased with," said MPDI founder David Rabin, who called for some of the pedestrian areas on Ninth Avenue to be narrowed or removed. "It is unacceptable for me to hear people say they think it’s okay that it’s hard to get to the Meatpacking District."

Rabin was followed immediately by Florent Morellet, one of the first restaurateurs to set up in the area and a driving force behind the public space plan. "Cabs can come to the outskirts of the neighborhood but not to the middle," he said in a plea to fellow business owners. "The concept that people can drive wherever and whenever they want is over. You’re going to kill business with the old way of thinking. Don’t think the old way."

Judging by much of the testimony, many of Rabin’s design-conscious members would be satisfied with changes to surface appearances — nipple bollards, apparently, offend their haute sensibilities. As one boutique owner put it, the street furniture doesn’t match the "Paris-like setting" that first attracted her to the neighborhood. Finding a substitute may prove tougher than you’d think. Any device to demarcate pedestrian space will have to meet DOT traffic engineers’ exacting safety standards, which the reflective tops of nipple bollards manage to achieve.

With the final design phase slated to commence this July, the Gansevoort project is one to keep an eye on. Some changes may already be in the works. We checked in with DOT the day after the meeting, and the agency said they hope to install taxi stands in the next month or two.

  • Harry Hood

    Personally, I think it is important that the public space improvements remain in the Meatpacking District. However, this is one of the first projects of its kind for the ‘new’ DOT and it is probably more important that DOT team learn from Gansevoort and develop precise regulations and procedures necessary for effective management.

    From my understanding, Rabin’s MPDI was an early supporter of this project and today as DOT’s local partner they are concerned with more than just the aesthetics. Issues impeding effective management include:

    1) The city has asked MPDI to sign a LAIBILITY contract that is a tremendous financial and legal burden.
    2) The plaza is considered an extension of the sidewalk and late night VENDING is unpopular with MPDI members and nearby residents.
    3) Daily MAINTENANCE is too costly for this membership organization to cover and procedures about things like snow removal are unclear (last week’s ice storm turned the plaza into a skating rink, very pedestrian unfriendly).
    4) PROGRAMMING has been difficult because there appears to be no set DOT procedures or costs for the MPDI to follow when they want to activate the space.

    So in addition to talking about ‘tweaking design’ and new ways for ‘businesses to think’, it is important to iron out the procedural solutions prerequisite to successful public plazas.

    These challenges would make a fascinating Streestblog story!

  • Annie Washburn

    Thank you for your story – because speaking time was limited to 2 minutes, I was unable to make all my points and appreciate this forum. Below are my full comments.

    Testimony to the DOT and CB2 Traffic and Transportation Committee
    January 13, 2009

    Hello my name is Annie Washburn; I am the Executive Director of the Meatpacking District Initiative and also a member of Community Board 2. Tonight I am speaking to you on behalf of the businesses of the Meatpacking District.

    MPDI was founded in 2003 to help bring people to the area. As a shopping and dining destination, we were just coming into our own – MPDI was set up by local businesses to get the word out. Today we have more than 165 members from 12th Street through 17th Street and we plan world-class events. 2009 marks our 4th annual Design Week – this May and in October we will again be the official host neighborhood for the NYC Wine and Food Festival – in the first year of the festival we brought more than 38,000 people to our district, and had a weekend with more than 85 events over 4 days. At our core – our mission is to help the neighborhood flourish.

    What I am asking of you all tonight is to really listen to what we have to say and to PLEASE let this result in changes to these spaces. DOT – You have asked me to prove that the business community here isn’t happy with what you have installed – this is your opportunity to truly hear from many stakeholders in our area.

    At the beginning of this discussion in 2005, when I was still a volunteer, I was open to and supportive of the idea of public space. Today, I am still in favor of public space in this city. But the city’s preparation, funding and management of this process were not well planned.

    MPDI found out in phases that we were going to be in charge of funding and maintaining the public spaces. First in Fall of 2007 when 2 spaces went in on 14th and 9th, in front of Vento and Gaslight, MPDI was given a few days (72 hours) to raise the $5,000 it cost to plant 13 planters dropped off by DOT. That money was raised by donations from Gaslight and Vento and by the Hotel Gansevoort who out of mercy gave us $3,000 at the last minute. They came to the rescue. With no further budget and no management agreement, the 13 planters at Gaslight and Vento languished and were untended by MPDI for an entire season.

    In the spring of 2008, MPDI was given just 6 weeks to raise the money to plant the 35 square 3 by 3 foot planters, when we found out in a meeting with DOT that their plan was for MPDI to plant and manage the spaces. We were told by several city agencies – including DOT that we would be given funding that totaled nearly $40 K. This money has never come through and thankfully our neighbor Google came through with an initial $20,000 to help us buy plants and hire staff to plant them over a 2 day period. Google also provided volunteers to plant annuals once the trees were in. Even though DOT was not providing anything in writing, we had very strict direction about what we were allowed to plant, its height and color. To date MPDI has spent more than $50K on the establishment and maintenance of these spaces – and our organization’s health is in jeopardy because of it. Just for the record $50,000 is more than 20% of our organization’s annual budget.

    To this day DOT has never given us a complete explanation of how “maintenance” is defined. So with no signed agreement, daily – MPDI pays for watering and litter removal. In winter, including this past weekend, the 20,000 square feet becomes very dangerous when the spaces are unsalted and un-shoveled, we simply don’t have the budget or staff to handle this, so ultimately, these spaces – when it snows – are a big liability for the city, which, according to they NY Times, is spending upwards of $70 million a year on slip and fall claims. I have had several MPDI members tell me they have almost fallen on icy cobblestones this winter.

    You see, our area is a “pilot project” which means the city hadn’t worked out any of the systems for administration of these spaces – they aren’t really defined as sidewalks, and they aren’t cleaned or swept by the department of sanitation, they aren’t parks, that close at 1 am. They are no mans land.

    The same could be said for the programming of these areas. Despite the fact that our group and our members have spent more than $50,000 of their own money, if we want to use the space for an event, use of them is not guaranteed. For our past events – like an art installation for Design Week in May of 2007 – and the Wine and Food Festival this past October – we have had to cross our fingers and just HOPE that we would get permission to use the spaces. Both times we successfully got permission, but only at the very last minute, after months of negotiating, and stress that could have been prevented if the city had planned for how the spaces were going to be used. At one point during the discussion I was told that MPDI would have to pay $11 thousand per day to use the Gansevoort Plaza space. This kind of bureaucracy makes it impossible to plan anything in these areas.

    One way our community really lost out was this past holiday season. A generous area tenant wanted to put up a Christmas tree in the plaza and make a contribution to MPDI that would have paid for maintenance throughout the winter. Despite lots of evidence to the contrary – in areas like Wall Street and in BIDs across the city – I was told that the city wouldn’t allow “religious symbolism” on DOT property – so instead the plaza was dark and bleak – much like it is today – throughout the holiday time, instead of filled with life and light.

    One other issues that must be resolved before we can even proceed is how these areas are defined. Currently they are considered an extension of the sidewalk making them open to an unlimited number of sidewalk vendors. These vendors use the space overnight – creating all night outdoor cafes – and leaving a huge mess for MDPI and area tenants to clean up in the morning. This vendor problem is bad – up to 11 in the area on a busy weekend night – and uncontrollable under the current regulations. This must be looked at.

    Four years ago when we began this process of getting public space – I was excited for our area. Back then from what I understood, the space we were talking about was Gansevoort Plaza – what we in fact got was one large plaza and 5 oddly shaped and unusable spaces that create a lot of chaos and clutter on 9th Avenue. Because of the “experimental” nature of the spaces on 9th Avenue there was no precedent for what has been done here, and no way that we could have forseen what would be installed – and we were really unprepared.

    Our friends on the North Side of 14th street have done an excellent job planting and maintaining the triangle across from the Apple store. The difference between that space, which is run by the Chelsea Improvement Company, and our spaces is that they have hundreds of thousands of dollars a year set aside for daily maintenance and planting which are frequent throughout all four seasons. The landlords North of 14th Street have come together to support that space, because of the nature of the smaller buildings in the Meat Market – that hasn’t happened here. There is no $ to fund these spaces.

    When I am asked by MPDI members, why isn’t the big space – on Gansevoort – filled with tables and chairs, I explain to them that tables and chairs require constant attention and people leave litter behind when they sit there – and right now we don’t even have the funding to continue what we are doing now.

    MPDI was founded in 2003 as a marketing organization – not to manage public spaces. Today we are still a marketing organization and have been helping the DOT with this project.

    The fact is, these spaces do not work for our area. They are unattractive. To me the space in front of Pastis and the one in front of Spice Market look like cement construction materials have been placed on 9th Avenue and left there with no rhyme or reason. This is a beautiful historic area, and we all came here because we loved it, now 9th Avenue is confusing, cluttered and ugly – and for our organization dangerously costly.

    I don’t come here tonight with specific requests or recommendations of changes that I want to see – I am not an urban planner. What I am asking of the DOT, the Community Board, Speaker Quinn’s Office, Mayor Bloomberg’s Office, Senator Duane’s office, Deborah Glick’s office and the office of the Borough President is a real and true commitment that you will work with those that have a true stake in the neighborhood to find a solution that works for us.

    We have advertised this meeting widely to our membership. I hope they will tell you their personal opinions about the spaces. I have tried to center my points on management and maintenance of the spaces because I believe our members will cover other aspects of them – like their aesthetics, functionality, practicality and safety. We have a broad swath of members here tonight – and they have a vast group of skills and talents – but what they have in common is they love this neighborhood and are part of a community here. A community that needs a solution that works for the people that use these blocks every day.

    Thank you for your help in trying to find a workable and practical solution for our area.

    Annie Washburn
    Executive Director, Meatpacking District Initiative

  • Tweaker

    So Margaret Forgione wants to “tweak” the “nipple bollards.” LOL

  • gecko

    Amazing the amount of complexity largely based on short-sighted self-interest hampering this important DoT initiative which should be spreading like wildfire around this town.

  • Personally the worst offender to aesthetics in the neighborhood is the automobile, which is totally out of place in a beautiful historic neighborhood.

    When will business owners in New York realize that people are not driving to shop in their businesses? I guess it’s not easy to see when what you physically see on the streets is that most of the space is dedicated to cars.

  • Here are photos of what the spaces look like today:

    http://web.me.com/anniewashburn/Site_2/Photos_GANSEVOORT.html

  • SL

    Annie, I appreciated your thoughtful commentary. I hope a more sustainable operating and maintenance solution can be found to ensure that areas like Gansevoort Plaza can indeed be a viable option in other parts of the city.

  • Annie Washburn

    Thanks, I hope so too, and we work every day with DOT to try to figure this puzzle out.

  • MePaGal

    Hi Ben,

    Were you at the same meeting I was? Pro-DOT people were outnumbered by the DOT opposition by far, maybe 4 to 1. Perhaps your confusion arose from the fact that the chair of the committee was calling on people she knew supported this project.

    Also, none of the “residents” actually live in the Meat Packing district. Only about 20 people live there and none that I know attended. Indeed, “residents” were trolled in from the Village (or streetsblog) to act as shills.

    Furthermore, that street furniture looks like it came right out of Teletubbies set.

    Finally, if commenters feel “short-sighted self-interest” is hampering this project, which they think is so great, perhaps they would be willing to send a contribution to the MPDI to sustain it. Money talks, BS walks.

  • MrManhattan

    While it doesn’t make the Late West Village any less dead, at least now we know who contracted the hit.

  • The Public Plaza project has been hampered all along by the City’s inability to budget maintenance for the plazas, and consequent reliance on local partners. When the partners have the cash and the will to maintain the plazas well, it works. When they don’t, not so much.

  • Marty Barfowitz

    Finally, if commenters feel “short-sighted self-interest” is hampering this project, which they think is so great, perhaps they would be willing to send a contribution to the MPDI to sustain it. Money talks, BS walks.

    I’d love to send a donation to maintain and improve these public spaces but I don’t think I’d send my money to the MPDI. Based on the testimony above, it doesn’t sound like the organization is really trying to figure out how to make this new public space work. It sounds like they are just complaining and trying to move us back to a time when Gansevoort was just a nasty free-for-all for honking motor vehicles and Hummer limos. I’d send MPDI $1,000/year if I heard even the smallest amount of creativity or can-do spirit coming out of them. There are obviously many different ways to configure and manage this public space.

  • Rhywun

    Let’s back up a little. Why doesn’t the city pay for the upkeep of these *public* places? For sure they pay for the upkeep of space devoted to cars. Why do they dump the upkeep of pedestrian space to whatever local organization happens to be handy?

    @MePaGal

    The street furniture is temporary.

  • @ Annie,

    Where are you photos of the plaza when there isn’t snow on the ground? It’s easy to show a picture of a pedestrian plaza that’s empty in January and say that the space is a failure. Since I rode my bike around there in the spring and found it lovely I can’t say I’m convinced.

    I don’t even know what to say to the rest of your complaints. I can imagine that it must be awful to be taken by surprise by a design process started by PPS in 2005. But sarcasm aside, the idea that a the primary group representing local business in this neighborhood got steamrolled by city agencies that often move slower than the M34 at rush hour says more about your organization than it does about the plaza.

    Your hysterical story about raising tens of thousands of dollars in a matter of weeks suggests to me that your members have deep pockets(when they want to) and that at the end of the day it would be possible to develop an effective public private entity to deal with the plazas. However, since you chose option C, complain and do nothing I feel no sympthaty for you or your group. Public spaces are not, and should not be designed to make life easier for local businesses(who can afford some seriously expsensive rents). Public plazas are for the public to enjoy. If you want to change the plaza’s suggest some changes. I guess you were too busy raising tens thousands of dollars.

    I think the City probably felt(as I do) that providing a place for people to hang out near local businesses is great investment in the neighborhood and those businesses. I cannot understand why local businsses are so opposed to the idea of new spaces filled with people near their business.

  • Annie Washburn

    Marty and Daniel – thanks for your comments. After 4 years of working toward public space in the neighborhood – as a volunteer – I appreciate your perspectives. For the record, I wasn’t complaining, but just giving you my perspective. I will continue to work with DOT. If you have ideas about ways our group can raise money, or if you wish to support us, call our office during business hours 212-633-0185.

    All the best,
    Annie

  • Lee

    I have to agree with Daniel here, public space like the plaza pictured here provide a destination where people will want to linger, thus creating a sense of place. This is a huge bonus for local businesses. Of course this the space could be vastly improved with better investment and care.

    Since American suburban malls seek to replicate the historic shopping distric experience, helps to think of a shopping plaza like the inside of a mall, except without the roof. (speaking of which, a pop-up tent and outdoor gas heater would go a long way towards improving that plaza in January). How would letting cars drive around on the inside of a mall affect sales, compared to making cars park at the outside edges of th mall as we do now? This is what Rabin means by – “Cabs can come to the outskirts of the neighborhood but not to the middle …the concept that people can drive wherever and whenever they want is over… You’re going to kill business with the old way of thinking”.

    A network of grade-separated bike tracks connecting pedestrian shopping centers with public plazas where people want to linger, and auto access limited to the perimeter, is a recipie for a cash cow.

  • Lee
  • How would letting cars drive around on the inside of a mall affect sales, compared to making cars park at the outside edges of th mall as we do now?

    We know. We’ve all seen The Blues Brothers.

  • Ian Turner

    Rhywun,

    In reality, the city *doesn’t* pay for the upkeep of facilities for motorists. At current expenditure levels, streets will be repaved only every 20 years and reconstructed only every 300 years. The best practice is to reconstruct every 30-50 years.

    Cheers,

    –Ian

  • Ian

    I lived at 8th Ave and 15th Street until October 2008, and spent a good amount of time around the Meatpacking District, from Chelsea Market to the variety of restaurants and shops, to simply walking through on my way to other parts of the West Village.

    The plazas unequivocally made the area more pleasant for pedestrians. The most obvious change was that crossing 9th Ave on the north side of 14th and near Little W 12th / Gansevoort became an easy, pleasant experience instead of something harrowing. The outdoor seating gave the area a more pleasant, relaxed feel during the warmer months.

    Unfortunately, I think area restauranteurs and other business owners will have difficulty separating the impact of the economic downturn from the pedestrian plazas – traffic control makes an easy scapegoat for cooling business.

    I hope DOT, area residents and the MPDI can work together to make the plazas work (even if the aesthetics have to be improved).

  • “It is unacceptable for me to hear people say they think it’s okay that it’s hard to get to the Meatpacking District.”

    Hard to get to? David Rabin’s windshield mentality is sadly misplaced. The A, C, E and L trains stop just one block away at 8th Avenue and 14th Street, while the 1, 2 and 3 trains stops just two blocks away, at 7th Avenue and 14th Street. It’s only hard to get to if you’re trying to drive there in one of those absurd Hummer stretch limos, like the one in the center of the photo at top.

    Frankly, it’s unacceptable for me to hear people say that cars should be given priority in a dense and transit-friendly urban environment.

  • Lee Watkins

    In reality, the city *doesn’t* pay for the upkeep of facilities for motorists. At current expenditure levels, streets will be repaved only every 20 years and reconstructed only every 300 years. The best practice is to reconstruct every 30-50 years.

    Simple solution for that. Pave it with paving bricks instead. Bricks won’t need any maintinence for at least 50 years. Even then, you only have to replace the bricks that have cracked. With this simple maintinence you easily get 100 years or more without any major re-build. There are brick roads in Annap., MD that are 300 years old. And it doesn’t have to be slipery or bumpy either. Actual paving bricks can have a nice grip to them, and it turns out nice and smooth with some attention to the base layer (sand and/or concrete). With a sand base you also have a water-permeable surface which takes care of urban water run-off problems, and construction crews needing to access pipes/wires under the road need only to pick the bricks up and then put them back where they came from.

  • With a sand base you also have a water-permeable surface which takes care of urban water run-off problems, and construction crews needing to access pipes/wires under the road need only to pick the bricks up and then put them back where they came from.

    Yes, they can be easily removed for construction, and other operations, too.

    Of course, the plaza in question is paved with Belgian blocks.

  • …And the Belgian blocks lay under many other NYC streets, covered with asphalt. Rather than keep replacing the asphalt forever, it would make more sense to remove it, re-expose the blocks, repair them, and keep them in repair. In the long run, this would be cheaper than repouring asphalt, especially when oil (the feedstock for asphalt) becomes prohibitively expensive.

  • Katherine Roberts

    Rhywun —

    I had the same thought today when reading an article about all the trees that were damaged or destroyed in Central Park last night during the thunderstorm. Why is the only way to contribute financially to this problem to give money to a private corporation, the Central Park Conservancy (as several people who wrote comments said they were going to do)? You wanna talk about the city not paying for the upkeep of its private (& pedestrian) spaces — let’s start with Central Park.

  • Best you could make changes to the page name Streetsblog New York City » The New Gansevoort: Pedestrian Godsend, Nightclubber Nuisance to something more suited for your blog post you write. I enjoyed the the writing still.

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