The Jackson Heights Plaza Photo the Times Doesn’t Want You to See

Shocker: There aren't many customers milling around the Jackson Heights pedestrian plaza before stores open for business. Photo: Librado Romero/NYT

Gotta hand it to the Times for some devious photo editing in today’s Metro section. Check out the barren seating and shuttered storefronts in the shot that accompanies Sarah Maslin Nir’s two-sides-to-every-story piece on the new Jackson Heights plaza. That plaza must really be a failure, right?

Except, if you wait until the stores actually open for business, the street looks different. There are all these people hanging out. Here’s another shot from a recent weekend:

Loiterers! Photo: Marcus Woollen/Flickr

In an ironic twist, Maslin Nir holds up the Times Square pedestrian plazas as the ideal which the Jackson Heights plaza can’t match:

But the plaza bears little resemblance to Times Square, just six miles away. A half-dozen traffic-blocking boulders and rickety picnic tables seem to be the sum total of the alterations to the streetscape to date, but business owners say it has been enough to turn a once-bustling block into a barren one.

If you’ll recall, it was just a few years ago that Times columnist Susan Dominus disdained the “tacky chairs” in the Times Square pedestrian plazas. Then as now, the Times didn’t seem to grasp that it can take some time for people to adjust to changes to the street.

And the Jackson Heights plaza actually shares much in common with the Time Square plazas. As Streetsblog reported last month, the subway station next to the plaza is incredibly busy, with more than 40,000 daily boardings, and the overwhelming majority of people in Jackson Heights don’t get there by driving. If the merchants who have shops on that block don’t capitalize on having a car-free space next to all that foot traffic, the ones who replace them will.

  • Harold K.

    I go thru there pretty regularly.  Based upon that shadow cast from the buildings, that looks to be rather early in the am.  Additionally, if they took this on a Sunday at 9 or 10 am, which looks to be – that’s a rather sad “editorial” from the NY Times.

  • Shemp

    Nice

  • Long-Time Observer

    This is an area ripe for further exploration. This is what the complaining is all about. These DOT projects are very likely making these streets more valuable. This increased value and change of use may ultimately push out business like the one run by the phone card dealer who says his business is now suffering. He will have to find a lower rent space somewhere else now. It is very tough luck for him. But it is better for the neighborhood as a whole.

    “If the merchants who have shops on that block don’t capitalize on having
    a car-free space next to all that foot traffic, the ones who replace
    them will.”

  • The bit about the plaza users leaving trash is a hoot. I lived just around the corner from there for several years until recently, and that high-traffic area was full of litter before. It’s not new, it’s the consequence of an over-crowded neighborhood. Good on Dromm for challenging the nay-sayers to open their books and show drops in business. Shops close and new ones open all the time around there, and they did long before this little plaza went in.

  • Times Subscriber

    It’s pretty disingenuous of Maslin Nir to frame the Jackson Heights plaza as “just” six miles from Times Square.  One serves local residents and workers, the other is a world-famous entertainment and shopping landmark that draws international tourists.  Putnam Triangle Plaza shares its DNA most closely with Jackson Heights and would have been a better comparison. 

    Proximity is a meaningless comparison in a city where even things that are right across the street from each other can be worlds apart, such as luxury condos that share blocks with housing projects.  Washington Square Park is “just” three miles from Central Park, but the difference between them is night and day.

    This, like many of the other pedestrian plaza and livable streets “controversies” will pass.

  • Bolwerk

    Yeah, I was really skeptical of that piece when I saw it. Maslin Nir is part of the disturbing trend at the Times, and in journalism in general, to replace reporting with feelgood personal anecdotes. It’s fine, of course, for what they apparently hired her for – nightlife reporting? – but actual journalism is probably outside her range. Someone complained about the plaza, probably a NIMBY or the one or two merchants who catered to drivers, she snapped a photo (or found a public domain one on Google Images), and suddenly there is a big urban planning failure. But she probably isn’t well-versed in urban planning to begin with.  Why would she be?  She’s the nightlife reporter.

    When you make a policy shift, you can always find someone who was harmed.  That’s really not very interesting, and whoever is harmed, or perceives themselves to be harmed, is going to be the loudest whiner about the policy.

  • The storefront grates are closed to keep out the crowds of loiterers!

  • Charles_Siegel

    Jan Gehl points out that public spaces work best when they have places at their edges that attract  people to stay. 

    This block has tables in the center of the street, but it doesn’t seem to have any businesses that serve the people at those tables, leaving the tables to the indigent leisure class. 

    It would work better of some of the storefronts were cafes or restaurants, and there were tables right next to the storefronts for their customers.

    Incidentally, I have speculated that evolutionary psychology can explain why people prefer to sit at the edges of public spaces.  Our early ancestors on the savannahs of Africa were more likely to be surprised by predators if they sat in the middle of an open space, and they were safer if they sat with their backs to a large rock or cliff.

  • Reggie

    This was a surprisingly bad article written by someone who apparently does not have a very deep understanding of public plazas and the City’s program.  In particular, the author seems to not understand that the current finishes and furnishings are those used citywide during the initial period.  I could go on, but will let others do so if so inclined.

    What I did not understand was the statement that Council Member Dromm allocated funds for maintenance.  When a group applies to the plaza program, it must state who will be responsible for maintenance.  Why is the council member providing funding?  None of the statements about maintenance made sense to me, and I have a pretty fair understanding of the program.

  • @5b8adc28a70f55a853129df75ee97901:disqus My understanding is that this plaza is not part of the DOT’s plaza program. The top reason to remove traffic from this block was to optimize bus routes and eliminate a turning pattern that caused a lot of honking. Still, it’s a great spot for a plaza and seems to be attracting a lot of use.
    Dromm had to step in and fund maintenance because the local merchants are kind of factionalized and don’t have a BID. Instead of a BID adopting the plaza, some of the nearby merchants have effectively disowned it after initially supporting it. There are other merchants in the neighborhood who want to make it work. Maybe after a few months of good weather and intense use, enough merchants will come around to the view that they should take advantage of this opportunity.

  • Nicole Gelinas

    I, too, wondered about that picture. I was out there about three weeks ago, and though it was a cold and rainy day and there certainly weren’t as many people sitting out there as there were in the sunny-day picture taken about a week later, there were more people around than in the Times’ desolate picture. 

    The biggest change to foot-traffic patterns was not the creation of the plaza but the re-routing of the MTA buses, which the MTA was doing anyway to shave seven minutes off busy bus routes. It stands to reason that businesses that depend on MTA-related foot traffic (vendors whose customers are people buying lottery tickets or a quick snack, including the man selling phone cards in the article) have suffered, but they would have suffered, anyway, and the plaza may ameliorate their suffering. 

  • Syeltser

    The vilification of merchants doesn’t help the cause. What would help is to acknowledge that their concerns are legitimate, that the losses to their businesses are real (would they be complaining if business was good or even the same?). To flippantly suggest, as the councilperson does, that their losses are overstated does not engender their trust and probably only serves to strengthen their resolve against the plaza. I am in favor of more green space in JH. Goodness knows we need it. But anyone who calls this asphalt plaza green space is delusional. And the fact that it was created without a long term management plan was huge mistake that will negatively affect public opinion towards other potential street closures and public space improvements in the district.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Charles, there is a nice place that sells chaat and Tibetan snacks, and another one that sells Pakistani chicken kebabs, and a cart around the corner selling momo.  They all sell tea.  But you’re right that they don’t jump out at you when you’re just looking at the plaza.

  • Anonymous

    Could these restaurants put out their own tables and chairs in the plaza?  

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