It’s de Blasio and Bratton vs. the World on Times Square Plazas

Let’s start with some basic facts: Most people like Times Square better now that it has more room for people. Gone are the days when the sidewalks were so meager that you had no choice but to walk in traffic. After Broadway went car-free through Times Square in 2009, pedestrian injuries plummeted 40 percent. Retail rents soared. And yet, going against just about everyone else who has something to say about it, Mayor Bill de Blasio is entertaining the idea of eliminating the plazas.

The mayor and his police commissioner aren't sold on this whole "streets for people, not cars" thing. Photo: Mayor's Office/Flickr
The mayor and his police commissioner aren’t sold on this whole “streets for people, not cars” thing. Photo: Mayor’s Office/Flickr

Police Commissioner Bill Bratton started things off when he said he’d like to remove the plazas to curb topless women and people in cartoon costumes hustling for tips in Times Square. “I’d prefer to just dig the whole darn thing up and put it back the way it was, where Broadway is Broadway and not a dead-end street,” Bratton told 1010 WINS.

Asked about Bratton’s comments, de Blasio didn’t reject the idea. “Commisssioner Bratton and I have talked about that option… That’s a very big endeavor, and like every other option comes with pros and cons,” he said. “So we’re going to look at what those pros and cons would be. You could argue that those plazas have had some very positive impacts. You could also argue they come with a lot of problems.”

Tearing out the plazas would, among other things, run directly counter to de Blasio’s Vision Zero street safety goals. After the plazas were installed, pedestrian injuries fell 40 percent at Times Square, and injuries to car drivers and passengers dropped 63 percent along Broadway in Midtown, according to a 2010 DOT report [PDF]. The incidence of people walking in the roadway at Times Square fell 80 percent.

“People forget just how disastrous it was. There was clearly no room to walk and people were just forced into the street,” Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul Steely White said by phone. “Times Square rivaled Queens Boulevard as the most dangerous location in the city.”

“To suggest that cars and trucks be reintroduced into the most pedestrian-rich intersection in North America is just unbelievable,” White added. “It betrays just a fundamental misunderstanding of traffic safety, and I think it’s very worrisome for the future of Vision Zero that relatively minor challenges having to do with hustlers and hucksters in Times Square is enough to go back to the bad old days when Times Square was deadly.”

The reaction to Bratton and de Blasio’s trial balloon from politicians and leaders in the local business community was fast and furious:

  • “Sure, let’s tear up Broadway — we can’t govern, manage, or police our public spaces so we should just tear them up,” Times Square Alliance President Tim Tompkins said in a statement. “That’s not a solution, it’s a surrender.”
  • “The Times Square plazas have provided a safe haven for pedestrians who previously had to navigate very narrow and overcrowded sidewalks right next to fast traffic,” Council Member Dan Garodnick, who represents the area east of Broadway, said in a statement. “Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater here.”
  • Council Member Corey Johnson, whose district is west of Broadway, said that while he hadn’t heard talk from the administration of removing the plazas before today, he wasn’t surprised Bratton had suggested it. “A lot should be on the table, but I don’t think that there is support for removing pedestrian plazas which have been popular and I think have worked well for Times Square,” he said by phone. “I don’t think that the solution is to rip up pedestrian plazas.”
  • The council members were echoed by Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. “The Speaker believes in and supports keeping pedestrian plazas,” spokesperson Eric Koch said in a statement.
  • “The introduction of the pedestrian plazas has been a positive change to the urban landscape, giving Times Square much-needed open space and improving pedestrian safety,” Comptroller Scott Stringer said in a statement. “To shut it down would be a serious overreaction to what is essentially a quality of life enforcement issue.”

Shortly after the plazas opened in 2009, a Quinnipiac poll found 58 percent of New Yorkers liked the plazas, compared to 35 percent who didn’t. In 2009, polling by the Times Square Alliance found 70 percent of Times Square residents and workers supported the plazas. That number jumped to 80 percent in 2012.

This isn’t the first time de Blasio has failed to offer a coherent message on plazas. During the 2013 campaign, he “lauded the pedestrian plaza concept,” according to the New York Times, and praised the Times Square plaza as “wildly successful.” Then two months later, he said in a debate that he has “profoundly mixed feelings” about plazas and that “the jury’s out” on the issue.

De Blasio and Bratton did get support from one major establishment figure. “My impression is that the plaza has tipped the balance in Times Square toward tourism and made it a less attractive place for the major companies that are attempting to conduct business there,” Kathy Wylde, President and CEO of big-business group the Partnership for New York City, said in a statement. “I think most of the big employers in the area (as well as anyone trying to navigate it by vehicle) would be happy to have the plaza disappear.”

In addition to being one of the most desirable retail destinations on earth, the Times Square office market has the third-highest Class A office space rents in the city, trailing only Park Avenue and the Fifth/Madison Avenue submarkets [PDF]. It’s hardly unattractive to big business tenants.

Bringing back more cars isn't going to make Times Square any better. Image: Times Square Alliance [PDF]
Giving space back to cars isn’t going to make Times Square any better. Image: Times Square Alliance [PDF]
As for the aggressive costumed hustlers that have taken up residence in Times Square, electeds think other approaches need to be considered. “I think that we need to be exploring creative, constitutional regulations that will mitigate many of the issues that we’re seeing today,” Johnson said. “Some of those should include time, place, and manner restrictions on this commercial activity.”

De Blasio announced a multi-agency task force to tackle the issue earlier today, though work has been ongoing for months between the administration, business improvement districts, and other interests. Letters and presentations going back as far as last December [PDF 1, 2] detail some of the correspondence.

“We know these issues are complicated, and we know you want this [plaza] program to succeed,” Tompkins said in a hand-written note to Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg last December [PDF]. “This is a bit of a call for help, but most of all it’s an offer to help in whatever way you think best.”

City Hall did not reply to a request for comment about the mayor’s remarks about the plazas.

  • “My impression is that the plaza has tipped the balance in Times Square toward tourism and made it a less attractive place for the major companies that are attempting to conduct business there,” Kathy Wylde, President and CEO of big-business group the Partnership for New York City, said in a statement. “I think most of the big employers in the area (as well as anyone trying to navigate it by vehicle) would be happy to have the plaza disappear.”

    THAT’S who wants the plazas to disappear–the real estate moguls who want to charge major corporations big corporate rent in Times Square. And they’re a bigger campaign contributor than the tourist-friendly retail establishments.

  • krstrois

    I imagine she is driven in . . .

  • Alexander Vucelic

    of Concern Is The extreme anti-New Yorker Attitüde expressed by Bratton & DeBlasio.

    Children and Eldery die because of These 2

  • Maggie

    Yup, this screams from her quote. Anyone trying to navigate Times Square by vehicle would be happy to have the pedestrian space disappear.

    I’m startled by this ‘out of my limo’s way’ approach from the Partnership. Its strange how out-of-step they are with the Times Square Alliance.

  • WalkingNPR

    I agree–de Blasio is actively damaging efforts to make safe/complete streets (and not just through this Times Square debacle–his absolute spinelessness the whole time he’s been in office). He’s diluting the Vision Zero “brand.” What was a legitimate and effective effort when taken seriously is just a slogan in his hands. We are, if anything, losing ground, but people who either oppose complete streets or who just don’t pay attention to these issues (most people) just see the signs and the brochures and the taxi ads and think something is happening, which will only fuel the fire when nothing gets better. “Oh, didn’t you all try that Vision Zero thing?? That only made things worse!”

  • ohnonononono

    Being fully naked on your bottom in public in NYC is actually illegal, so that sanitary issue is already covered.

    These painted ladies are wearing skimpy underwear. They’re not bottom-less.

  • Bolwerk

    Well, the latter is advised to just stay near a bathroom.

    This conversation has gotten wildly offtrack. Somehow I think we have little to fear from naked people on transit. This isn’t Munich.

  • J

    Clearly, you’re right, they’re not going anywhere, but it’s absolutely absurd that de Blasio and his police chief are seriously considering it s an idea. It’s in DIRECT opposition to Vision Zero and liveable streets. It was a HUGE fight to get them installed in the first place, and it’s become an international symbol of the liveable streets movement- designing cities for people, not cars. The fact that they’re being considered for removal is a major blow to the liveable streets movement, and there is a major need for a vehement pushback against this particular proposal.

  • Bolwerk

    Anyone? If that’s true, anyone is a moron. The plaza actually got rid of a really confusing and dangerous intersection. It probably net improved vehicular traffic flow in that neighborhood, and it certainly didn’t worsen it.

  • ohnonononono

    Surely de Blasio and Bratton know that for the past half century before the pedestrian plazas the Times Square area had been infamous for actual prostitution and drug dealing and extremely aggressive panhandling that made the costumed characters and painted “desnudas” begging for tips for photos look downright friendly to office workers and Midwestern tourists alike? And surely Kathy Wylde knows that office rents in Times Square have certainly improved since the pedestrian plazas? And surely neither of them are suggesting that we should remove public spaces and subject pedestrians to greater rates of injury and death to rid the city of people begging for tips for photos? Right? Is there something I’m missing here?

    Why on earth are we even taking de Blasio or Bratton seriously at this point? I know that the plazas aren’t going anywhere, but these statements are bafflingly ignorant.

  • Matthias

    This doesn’t make sense–the real estate companies are making more money from the skyrocketing rents since the pedestrian space was added. I suppose it’s possible that corporate (not retail) tenants who are seeing higher expenses without a corresponding increase in revenue could be in favor of a return to the old days.

  • KeNYC2030

    Nearly sixty years ago, a group of mothers stood in front of a bulldozer to stop Robert Moses from turning a Central Park playground into an 80-car parking lot for Tavern on the Green. The mothers won. Just saying.

  • WalkingNPR

    So then a great thing for a great mayor to do would be to address the misclassification of independent contractors and wage theft…not pearl clutching and giving even 2 seconds of credence to removing a pedestrian area (when you campaigned on Vision Zero). Such a wuss.

  • Let’s not get cocky and say that the plazas are “permanent” and “are not going anywhere”. This improvement is ephemeral; it could be removed in a weekend. (And the same goes for your favourite bike lane.)

    At the moment, it seems that many important people are defending the plazas. If that keeps up, then the plazas will likely stay for the time being. But if the political winds change even slightly, then the big-money interests will surely leverage that shift in order to create some demagoguery against the plazas. At that point, it would be bye-bye.

  • That Afrikan

    It drives me crazy the prudishness and hysteria the likes of the NYPost and Daily News have stirred up around harmless painted boobies. I live in NYC partly out of a desire to be around people whose heads don’t explode around innocuous things like exposed female nipples, which are completely legal. Now these vagabonds in power want to tear out the whole square over it. The Naked Cowboy’s been there for like 5,000 years now and nobody ever advocated nuking Times Square over him and his nipples. The pedestrian plaza improvements have been nothing less than awesome for all citizens, travelers and workers using that space. I couldn’t care less about painted chests or pushy Spidermen and Elmos. Whatever. Get over your Victorian squeamishness; it’s 2015 in New York City. It’s Times Square. Bring on the hustlers. Makes for the interesting cross-roads of the world that it’s supposed to be. Don’t interact with the desnudas and Elmos if you don’t like them; don’t go to Times Square if you don’t like that scene out there. It’s really simple – just avert your eyes and move on if you can’t handle it, instead of imposing your religion or conservative sense of morality on the rest of us. Go to Herald Square or something and stop talking about tearing out perfectly functioning and vibrant urban public squares that people on foot can now enjoy in safety. That’s some retrograde thinking right there.

  • Bolwerk

    Despite the rhetoric and stereotypes, he actually doesn’t seem to care very much about that kind of stuff.

    I always said he was a conservative. People think I’m kidding when I say that.

  • Joe Enoch

    I have a really easy solution to the hustlers. Hire a small group of people (paid for by the times square alliance) whose sole job is to approach tourists as they are interacting with hustlers and remind them that they are under no obligation to give a tip.

    I bet the hustlers would move onto something else really quick.

  • No, clearly you havent been there recently. They made permanent changes including eliminating the roadbed and adding curbs. You can no longer drive through there even if they wanted you to. Would take $20 MILLION+ to turn it back

    Look:
    http://blog.archpaper.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/IMG_3454.jpg

  • ohnonononono

    Good idea. Cops should also be doing this, ideally.

  • Bolwerk

    Even if it’s that high, that is a rounding error on the municipal road budget, and AIUI the mayor has unilateral authority to reverse it.

    I don’t think the plazas are going away though. BdB’s penchant for capitulating to entrenched right-wing interest groups will save us. This time.

  • Michael Klatsky

    $250m capital project that was completed in 2014….just saying

  • It is true that I haven’t been there recently, as I tend not to ride on Broadway in Midtown. I will admit that I wasn’t aware of these most recent improvements, about which I am quite pleased to learn.

    But the presence of these improvements doesn’t excuse acting like we’ve won a victory for all time. The truth is that the fight is never over.

    In light of the information that you have provided, I will change one word in my previous comment: change “it could be removed in a weekend” to “it could be removed in a week”.

  • J

    I am in total agreement that we should guard these gains with vigor and not treat threats against them lightly.

  • KeNYC2030
  • At the end of the day its about money. From what I understand, the physical changes have cost $45 MILLION and 3 years. Construction isnt even done yet. Do you think the merchants are going to say that after 3 years of inconvenience theyre going to roll over and allow it to all be reversed?

    You say a week, but not at all. The entire plaza was raised to sidewalk level. That means huge changes in drainage (what makes road projects expensive). Go back in and carving out the space would take at least 3 months at full speed.

    Again, this isnt about removing the beach chairs and repainting street lines – that was 2009. Times Square in 2015 is permanent.

    I almost feel like the mayor hasnt been since.

    You can find more info on it here:
    http://www.timessquarenyc.org/live-work/times-square-transformation/index.aspx#.Vddno5cYGGc

    They have links to presentations with pictures.

  • Bolwerk

    I don’t see the comparison here. “Live and let live” is pretty applicable to a situation where nobody is really being impacted except for parties to a mutual transaction. Neither an exposed body part nor a beer being sipped on a bench can be said to hurt anyone.

    It’s harder to apply such logic to development and transportation. Raising 4-story buildings in areas around single-family buildings does have an impact, at least if it happens enough. Throwing in more parking has an even bigger impact, including an environmental one. I don’t object to more infill or transit, but I don’t see any way to avoid some limits on i how it’s executed. Even a subway causes short term disruptions to people’s lives as it’s being constructed.

  • Thanks for providing further info. The improvements are indeed more extensive than I had realised.

    Nevertheless, it’s hard to swallow calling the plazas “permanent”. To dismiss threats to them feels like hubris. Even street renovations as extensive as these can be reversed if the mayor and (especially) the police want them to be.

    Still, it is very pleasing to see the scale of the improvements; and it’s gratifying that there has been significant expression of support for them.

  • Matthias

    “I’d prefer to just dig the whole darn thing up and put it back the way
    it was, where Broadway is Broadway and not a dead-end street.”

    A dead-end for whom, exactly? Not the tens of thousands who use it every day.

  • Greggzuk

    Vision Zero is just that: Zero Vision.

  • Emmily_Litella

    They arent ‘considering’ anything. These people are pre-occupied with managing perceptions for their own ends. Its sad, and I am glad people are expressing the apparent loss of a powerful ally to this movement – but really its not a proposal, just a bunch of hot air for the tabloid reading proles (and maybe some influential donors).

  • Miles Bader

    Why the hell does Bratton still have a job?

  • Miles Bader

    Obviously Ms. Wylde isn’t actually speaking in an official capacity from the perspective of what’s actually good for her client businesses, but in her private capacity as an entitled douchebag who views pedestrians as “Those dreadful poor sorts, who regularly get blood on my tires.”

  • Miles Bader

    The truth is that the fight is never over

    Certainly that’s literally true, so one goal is to entrench good things more and more, to the point where attention can be shifted to doing other good things.

    E.g. at some point, when private cars are banned in Manhattan and all the roads replaced with winding gardens and bike paths, and buildings are built in the former streets, we can start thinking about other goals….

  • Miles Bader

    Really, they should just increase the police presence. If they don’t like the hustlers, they should concentrate on the hustlers…. ><

  • Miles Bader

    What’s funny is that in various articles about “surfaces with lots of bacteria on them (etc)” it’s often pointed out that peoples’ cellphones are among the worst…

  • neroden

    Good question. He’s presiding over a crooked NYPD which encourages reckless driving and vehicular manslaughter, while harassing and murdering innocent black men, while *still* running illegal “ticket quotas”.

    Patrick Lynch, the blatantly criminal head of the corrupt union representing many of the NYPD threatened illegal work slowdowns if the criminals in its ranks were prosecuted or even *criticized*; but when they performed those slowdowns, crime rates *dropped* and people in the city were *happier*, showing just how badly the NYPD is performing!

    You need a police department. Bratton is not making the NYPD into a functional police department.

  • Hi, this response is to the thread on Gothamist where I was just banned for apparently being smarter than the moderator rather than on the topic at hend.

    The problem is nanoparticle sized titanium. It has much different properties when it is made into a nanoparticle. Nanoparticle titanium has never been tested by the FDA or anyone else for safety. Thus consumers will be the guinea pigs, but they won’t really be aware that it was np titanium that harmed them if it does.

  • neroden

    Well, I still expect de Blasio was better than Lhota. I don’t remember whether StreetsPAC endorsed him in the *primary* on only in the general.

  • Miles Bader

    WTF do you think they’re doing? Spraying HIV-laced breast milk into tourists’ mouths?

    They’d expect a tip, of course… ><

  • neroden

    Well, they’d (1) need a breastfeeding exemption, and (2) need to actually enforce the “shirts required” ordinance against men, or they’d get sued and lose again.

    Honestly, bare breasts never hurt anyone. Many cultures throughout the world have treated bare breasts as totally normal and nothing to comment on.

  • neroden

    Put someone else up in the Democratic primary.

    Or, hell, if you must, run a third party candidate.

    The Republican Party isn’t really a legitimate political party any more. We should still have options despite that.

  • neroden

    It’s not quite as spectacular as Andrew Cuomo’s concerted effort to piss of nearly everyone in the entire state.

  • neroden

    Haven’t visited LA lately? LA has quite a lot of pedestrians, and they’re frankly fearless.

  • Bolwerk

    Crime rates are mostly just measures for arrests in certain crime categories, plus substantiated reports/investigations. Of course they dropped. Some absurd number of arrests are probably cases where “please don’t do that” is more called for. Plus who decides the statistics?

    The real problem with the slowdown came when poverty pimps couldn’t write bail bonds and stuff like that.

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