Placemaking on the Upper East Side

Tuesday evening, Project for Public Spaces held a "placemaking" community workshop for Manhattan’s Upper East Side, featuring PPS founder and president Fred Kent. Streetsblog regular BicyclesOnly was there and files this report.

1490933783_e158f931cd_b.jpgKent gave a presentation to about 50 citizen and community activists
from the East Side regarding the efforts in New York City and elsewhere
to redesign urban space for the needs of people and communities over
the moving of traffic. The event was organized by State Senator Liz

Kent began with an overview of the
insights of his mentors, Holly White and Jane Jacobs, as to the
challenges and opportunities of creating "great places" in New York
City. Kent then explained what PPS has done in cities around the world
to reclaim public space from motor vehicle traffic. Kent acknowledged
the promising trends under the current DOT, but criticized the slow
pace and timid scope of efforts to date. He advocated for a
dramatic expansion of livable streets measures, such as market rate
curbside parking and conversion of roadway space to non-traffic uses, and
against the privatization of public space, such as the fashion week
event at Bryant Park.

After the presentation, participants
engaged in six different small group discussions. Each group was asked
to come up with a particular spot on the Upper East Side that they
believe could become, with some planning and resources, a "great

One group called for a transformation of
Lexington Avenue and 86th Street, by (among other things) creating a
traffic circle instead of a simple rectilinear intersection; installing
a separated bike path on Lexington Ave and bicycle racks at the
intersection, given the number of commuters who bike to this important
mass transit access point; and additional plantings of trees.

Another group stressed the many
amenities found along Riverside and Hudson River parks — such as the
restaurant at the 79th St. Boat Basin and the cantina at W. 66th
Street — and suggested that the East River Esplanade incorporate similar
concessions and destinations, as well as innovative playgrounds to
attract and anchor people and supplement existing amenities
(monotonous benches and doggie runs). This group also
discussed other interesting ideas, such as utilizing the cul-de-sacs at which many Upper East Side streets terminate at the
East river as public spaces; increasing the number of pedestrianized blocks (such as the
block on 91st Street between Second and Third Avenues); using existing
ferry infrastructure to open up Mill Rock Island for community use; and
curtailing or eliminating cars from Second Avenue.

Kent stressed that making great places requires long term campaigns waged by advocates who are "zealous nuts."  While no concrete plans came directly from the workshop, the level of receptivity and support for the ideas presented by Kent and the breakout groups was surprising and inspiring, and may augur big changes for the staid East Side in the future.

Photo: slurv/Flickr

  • J

    I’m not sure why traffic circles have gained such a reputation as a tool for livable streets. I have yet to see a traffic circle that benefits bicycles and pedestrians at an intersection. There are other ways to improve intersections that require much less land and signal infrastructure.

  • I really wanted to go to that forum and I’m very glad that there were some great creative ideas. As someone who has spent the last three years scouring the neighborhood for places to put more greenmarkets, I have to say that there are very few natural opportunities for placemaking without some roll-back of either automobile parking or right of way.

    86th Street & Lex: This is the commercial and mass transportation hub of the neighborhood. Anything that can be done to discourage automobile traffic on this street will greatly enhance the experience of commuters and shoppers. Rather than a center island, I think eliminating parking on either side of the street to allow a dedicated bus lane would be a much better choice. It would reduce double parking and provide much better mass transit access for the far east side that is over a mile from the nearest station.

    Second Ave: Currently the Truck route for downtown on the east side hits a huge bottleneck at the QBB. By making First and Third two way Avenues, Second Ave could either become totally car-free or come down to just two lanes for cars and one for buses. Extend the sidewalks in and put in a protected bike lane and it becomes the other main attractive retail district for the neighborhood.

    East River: Tear down the FDR north of 59th street (or maybe the whole thing) and create a East river Boulevard with greenway similar to the West Side.

    Play Streets: Maybe not exactly like 91st Street, but strategically place one of these every 5-10 blocks near schools, museums, parks, low traffic areas. Put in a textured roadway to show that this is a very different street with no on-street parking or thru traffic – although deliveries and other essential trips (disabled living on the block) might be permitted.

  • Glenn,

    What wonderful ideas Glenn! Sorry you could not make it. I would have seated you at the table with your former CB8 transpo committee cronies, who attempted to hijack the meeting and turn it into a gripe-and-boast session centering on myopic efforts to police illegal vendors on 86th St. Hooray for Fred Kent, who had the backbone to pull the lead hijacker (Rita Popper, public enemy No. 1 of the 91st St. bike lane) from the podium!

    I agree the that possibilities for a traffic circle at the intersection of 86th and Lexington are limited, not the least because it would have to be a tiny one given the development right up to the property line on all four corners. But it would make drivers avoid the intersection, which as Glenn points out would be a great improvement.

    Perhaps a better way to do that is to take a lane or two from the west side of Lexington and turn it into a BRT lane and or southbound cycle track. The East Side desperately needs a southbound bicycle route, and the lane reduction in combination with the double parking (which already eliminates one of the three traffic lanes on Lexington) would turn Lexington functionally into a two-lane roadway, shunting most through traffic to other downtown routes.

  • J,

    Check out the traffic circle at the busiest intersection in Drachten, the Netherlands:

  • I’m over-commenting today but I just want to echo that yes, the fashion week takeover of Bryant Park is veritable THEFT.

  • Aaron, that Drachten circle featured prominently in Fred’s presentation–he showed pictures and explained pretty extensively how it operated with a minimum of traffic devices, and a maximum of eye contact and cooperation–and I believe that was what inspired the proposal an 86th/Lex traffic circle.

    Personally, I was floored that a table of mainstream East Side community people could be shown that image with some explanation by Fred and immediately conclude that we needed to install something along those lines on the Upper East Side. Maybe there was something in the fruit juice they were serving.

    There was also a lot of positive discussion about Summer Streets by particpants at the event. It was noted that unlike downtown and the West Side, the East Side has an almost purely rectilinear grid and as a result there are almost no squares, triangles or other incidental undeveloped public spaces (other than those along the East River and the various playgrounds). It was in this context that participants observed that temporary or permanent street closures were necessary, and that Summer Streets was a good start.

  • Dave

    You all are seriously delusional if you think traffic circles will work in NYC, especially Manhattan. Get real and focus on REALISTIC solutions like a reduction in parking spaces on 86th St and zero tolerance for double-parking.

    Also on my list:
    – Permit parking for all of NYC; limited to city residents and tax-payers
    – EZ-Pass Tolls on East/Harlem River bridges currently free to pay for their maintenance
    – Congestion Pricing in addition to bridge tolls
    – Re-introduction of two-way tolls at all crossings to eliminate toll-shopping and alleviate Canal St. traffic
    – Reduction on parking and creation of loading zones on side streets to caccommodate UPS/FedEx/FreshDirect trucks who should be charged heavily for their use of city streets

    No one neighborhood is an island with respect to the traffic crisis currently strangling the city and especially Manhattan. When it costs $4 round-trip to travel to the CBD by subway yet it’s free to drive in and park for free on the streets you know the city has its priorities wrong.


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