The Untold Story of DOT’s Plaza Program: It’s a Hit

Flushing Council Member Peter Koo likes pedestrian plazas so much that he wants hundreds of them to be built. Photo: ##http://articles.nydailynews.com/2008-06-16/local/17899736_1_education-committee-post-in-state-senate-16th-district##Daily News.##

You wouldn’t know it from opening the newspaper or turning on the television, but yesterday’s City Council hearing on pedestrian plazas actually showed how widespread support for the plazas are. Only two council members appeared to be at all opposed to the plaza program — though of course those two have dominated the headlines — while the rest were busy figuring out how to get a plaza in their district. It’s no wonder why: the community members and business leaders who spoke at the hearing were nearly unanimous in their support for the plaza program, testifying to its success in creating high-quality public space in neighborhoods that badly need it and helping business along the way.

Perhaps no one, even at DOT, was as excited about plazas as Flushing rep Peter Koo. “I want you to do more plazas in other boroughs,” said Koo before offering DOT a litany of suggestions for new kinds of plazas. He suggested plazas dedicated to specialty markets — one just for electronics vendors, say, and one just for clothes merchants — and suggested late-night plazas along the model of Taiwan’s famous night markets.

Perhaps most ambitiously, Koo suggested that one plaza be dedicated for every nationality of immigrant in the city, 148 in total. It could be a tourism draw, he said: “Visit New York, see the whole world, because we have these 148 different plazas.”

Other reps asked DOT how to improve the chances for plaza applicants in their neighborhood. Jackson Heights’ Daniel Dromm, who made a point of showing up even though he doesn’t serve on the transportation committee, asked DOT for examples of model programming for the plaza space and for an explanation of what standards sponsoring community organizations need to meet. “I have a community that is very much in favor of having plazas in our district,” he explained. Brad Lander, too, wanted guidance for his plaza-requesting constituents.

Deborah Rose hoped that a waterfront site in her North Shore district — she seemed to have a couple in mind — would become the first pedestrian plaza on Staten Island. Clinton Hill’s Letitia James interrupted DOT’s testimony with a few “yays” and an “amen” when they discussed the Myrtle Avenue plaza under development in her district. David Greenfield, representing Midwood, concluded that “overall, it seems like a good program,” while the Upper West Side’s Gale Brewer hoped her district could have the plazas that Eric Ulrich didn’t want.

The widespread enthusiasm for the plazas should come as no surprise. The facts on the ground show they’re working, as the community and business leaders who testified at the hearing attested.

Dan Biederman, the head of the 34th Street Partnership and the Chelsea Improvement Company, called the plazas in his districts “hugely successful.” If the businesses he represents were suffering, he said, he’d know. “I’m not hearing complaining anymore,” he reported. Traffic flow and loading work fine, he said, while the pedestrians who actually shop are far safer. Concluded Biederman, “This is the best team we’ve seen at DOT in the 30 years I’ve worked in the public sector.”

But plazas aren’t just for the heart of Manhattan. Daniel Murphy, the head of Brownsville’s Pitkin Avenue BID, recalled “our great happiness” when DOT approved plans for a plaza at the Zion Triangle. Now he walks down the street and hears excitement about the project from neighbors who walk by. “Their interest is not simply passive but active and positive,” he said.

Alexandria Sica of the Dumbo Improvement District explained how much the two plazas in her neighborhood have done for business and for community. The arch under the Manhattan Bridge, which used to be used for DOT storage, has become a “place for a casual lunch meeting, neighborhood stoop sales, public art and exciting community events,” she said. Next to the Pearl Street triangle, said Sica, three new businesses have opened despite a rough economic climate.

Other community leaders testified about how much a plaza could do in their area. “Corona is the most overcrowded school district in the entire city,” said Prerana Reddy, the director of public events at the Queens Museum of Art. “We need a place for young people and families to enjoy public spaces.” Reddy talked about how Corona Plaza, which she said was mostly a parking lot right now, is already used for a greenmarket and diabetes screening. With real high-quality public space, Corona Plaza could do so much more for Corona residents.

Statements of support for the plaza program also came from residents of the South Bronx, Jackson Heights, the West Village, and Hell’s Kitchen, as well as advocacy organizations like Transportation Alternatives, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, and Project for Public Spaces.

Only two people spoke in opposition: a representative from who claimed to worry about the environmental impact of the plazas and Corey Bearak, the anti-congestion pricing activist, who argued that any removal of street space from motor vehicles should require environmental review. An advocate for the blind also expressed concern that the DOT’s temporary plazas do not include tactile safety features so the vision-impaired know where pedestrian space begins and ends.

  • Anonymous

    So, is the takeaway that the local newspapers and TV stations are unwilling or incapable of reporting on policy without focusing on the stunt-soundbites and overlooking a productive discussion about improving the city we all live in? Seems like the quickest path to irrelevance in a competitive information environment.

  • poncho

    Pedestrian plazas are to walking-based new york city as parking is to auto-based suburbia. Pedestrian plazas are not a luxury, they are a necessity… when that many people are pedestrians they need a quality place to sit and rest as they go about their errands on foot. For the windshield crowd, they are “parking” areas for humans.

    I’d love it if a list could be put together of all the new pedestrian plazas, I’m having a hard time keeping track of them and want to visit some of them the next time I’m in NYC

  • Shemp

    Yes, that sums it up. Throw in suburban-living reporters, editors and editorial writers…

  • Andrew

    http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/html/sidewalks/publicplaza.shtml

    If you go to Round 1, 2 or 3, you can see where the plazas have been built.

  • Anonymous

    “This is the best team we’ve seen at DOT in the 30 years I’ve worked in the public sector.”

    And all the press can do is bash it.

  • J

    The good news is that political leaders and business leaders are both largely supportive. If the Post and CBS2 want to continue their vendetta against Bloomberg, then they are merely isolating themselves as the radicals on this issue.

    Also, regarding the pop-up cafés, SF has done a much better job marketing them as “parklets”. It’s way easier to oppose a café than to oppose a park.
    http://sf.streetsblog.org/2011/05/05/businesses-eager-to-apply-for-parklets-as-new-request-for-proposals-issued/

  • Cotb16

    It’s weird that Councilman Peter Koo, from Flushing, supports the pedestrian plazas when he represents an area that wants MORE parking and more room for cars as opposed to these plazas and bike lanes.

  • Cotb16

    It’s weird that Councilman Peter Koo, from Flushing, supports the pedestrian plazas when he represents an area that wants MORE parking and more room for cars as opposed to these plazas and bike lanes.

  • Clarence Eckerson jr.

    I think I may want to walk around with Councilman Koo and do a Streetfilm on him one day. I’d love to see some of the places in Flushing he’d love to see made more walkable. I ride over there from time to time and it’s a great idea.

  • MDowd

    I went to a great freestyle wrestling match in car-free Times Square this evening – USA vs. Russia. It was part of a fundraiser for Beat the Streets, a foundation that funds the city’s middle and high school wrestling programs. It was a spectacular event in an amazing location on a perfect night. I saw Olympic champion Henry Cejudo and NCAA champ Brent Metcalf wrestle, among others. The audience was filled with big names in wrestling – Dan Gable, Cael Sanderson, Jeff Blatnick, Bruce Baumgartner, Bubba Jenkins, and so on. At one point, I heard the guys behind me calling to the actor who played Shute in Vision Quest. I turned around and was about to say hi to Paul Steely White when I realized it was actually Matthew Modine, who then said hello to me.

    It was one of those “only in New York” events. You just couldn’t have that experience anywhere else but Times Square. I hope the Post was there to cover it.

  • Areas don’t want things. There is a vocal group of Koo’s constituents who want more parking. There’s no evidence that they’re representative of the population of the district.

  • Driver

    It sounds like he wants the new plazas to be like flea markets. Maybe not the best way to gain support of the local businesses.

  • Driver

    It sounds like he wants the new plazas to be like flea markets. Maybe not the best way to gain support of the local businesses.

  • poncho

    @andywata:disqus
    I think I’m a bit confused about these plazas. I thought the plaza program included the barebones overnight-built plazas like Madison Square 2008, Broadway (34th-42nd) 2008, Pearl St Brooklyn 2008, Gansevoort Plaza in the Meatpacking District 2008, Times Square 2009, Union Square at 17th St 2010, etc. Are these the same program because I don’t see them listed and the ones mentioned look more permanent? Personally these instant plazas I’m a lot more into.

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