Eyes on the Street: 33rd Street Plaza Comes to Life

The view at Penn Plaza. Photo: Stephen Miller
The view at Penn Plaza. Photo: Stephen Miller

There is now a plaza at Penn Plaza.

The finishing touches were added to a temporary pedestrian space occupying the full breadth of 33rd Street just west of Seventh Avenue earlier this week. The plaza stretches a little less than halfway to Eighth Avenue, replacing what used to be westbound traffic lanes with planters, sculptures, a terraced seating area, and a painted surface to grab the attention of passing commuters.

The plaza was funded by Vornado Realty Trust, which owns a number of large properties nearby, including Penn Plaza, the Hotel Pennsylvania, and the Manhattan Mall. Vornado received the backing of DOT and Community Board 5 for its plan earlier this year,

The space was busy during yesterday’s evening rush hour. “I’m a New Yorker. I like to have a place to sit,” said Eva, who commutes by Long Island Rail Road from Flushing Estates and refused to give her last time. “In this area here, you don’t have a park, you don’t have a place to come sit down at lunchtime,” she said. “It’s nice.”

Rush hour outside Penn Station. Photo: Stephen Miller
Rush hour outside Penn Station. Photo: Stephen Miller

Vornado is planning to host performances, workshops and other events in the plaza space this summer and fall. For a temporary plaza, the design is high-quality, noted Curbed, including sculptures by Keith Haring and Roy Lichtenstein. Some of the wooden seats are cleverly designed to fit over concrete steps, while the planters are ringed by seating, as well.

The western half of the block was converted to two-way operation and is used by Madison Square Garden for access to its loading docks. While the plaza provides a low-stress connection to a Citi Bike station across Seventh Avenue, a Vornado security guard at the plaza yesterday said bicycling, along with skateboarding, is prohibited.

The new terraced seating area. Photo: Stephen Miller
The new terraced seating area. Photo: Stephen Miller

The plaza is the centerpiece of changes Vornado recently installed nearby. A painted sidewalk extension, including benches and planters, was added to the north side of 32nd Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues. Vornado also worked with UrbanSpace to launch Penn Plates, a pop-up food market in Pearson Park, an outdoor mid-block passage connecting the plaza to 34th Street. The market is open daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. through November 15.

The plaza on 33rd Street and sidewalk extension on 32nd Street will be removed October 11, at which point Vornado and DOT will evaluate whether to make the plaza permanent or bring it back seasonally. Vornado has hired Sam Schwartz Engineering to monitor 10 nearby intersections during the trial period.

The real estate giant has also hired Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta, designer of the permanent Times Square plazas, to develop a public space plan for its properties near Penn Station.

Pedestrian volumes on streets near Penn Station are among the highest in the city. In 2008, Tri-State Transportation Campaign launched a campaign, Penn for Peds, to give more space to pedestrians near the station. In 2010, DOT unveiled a plan to construct a transitway on 34th Street that included a one-block plaza between Fifth Avenue and Sixth Avenue. The plan was withdrawn in 2011 due to opposition from nearby property owners.

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