32nd Street Finally Has Enough Space for Walking. Will It Last?

This pedestrian space could be replaced with loading zones. Photo: Stephen Miller
This pedestrian space, installed for a summer trial period, may give way to parked trucks because building owners on the south side of 32nd Street want more loading zones. Photo: Stephen Miller

New pedestrian zones near Penn Station have given people more breathing room on some of the most crowded streets in the city. Will they stay or will they go after a trial period wraps up in October?

At a Community Board 5 committee meeting last night, nearby property owners weighed in on the projects. It was smooth sailing for the new plaza on 33rd Street at Seventh Avenue, but a much-needed sidewalk expansion on the north side of 32nd Street faced pushback from property owners who aren’t pleased with how it’s changed the use of the curb in front of their buildings.

The projects were conceived and funded by real estate giant Vornado Realty Trust, which owns a number of properties near Penn Station, including Penn Plaza, the Manhattan Mall, and the Hotel Pennsylvania. The new pedestrian areas relieve crowding on sidewalks near the rail station, where people on foot overflow into the street.

The temporary public spaces, approved by NYC DOT and supported by CB 5 in June, were installed about a month ago and are set to be removed October 11. Based on the results of this evaluation period, the additional pedestrian space could be brought back and made permanent.

Property owners along 32nd Street want to see some adjustments. Fetner Properties owns The Epic, a rental residential tower with its back door on the south side of 32nd Street, across from the Manhattan Mall and the sidewalk extension. “We love the idea,” President and CEO Hal Fetner told a joint meeting of the CB 5 parks and transportation committees last night. “[But] we’re all fighting for the same sidewalk space.”

To replace the parking lane on the north side of the street with pedestrian space, the project shuffled curbside uses, shifting an MTA bus layover and reducing the length of the street’s loading zones from 680 feet to 180 feet. Now, Fetner says, his building’s trash is collected on the same curb where people wait to board the M4 and Q32 buses. When new tenants move in, he has to send staff to sit on the curb until the moving truck arrives, keeping others from taking the space. Fetner said that wasn’t an issue when the street had more loading zones.

Next door, the Hope Lodge, a hotel run by the American Cancer Society to provide lodging for patients traveling to New York for cancer care, backed the sidewalk extension in June. Now, it says hospital shuttles can no longer pick up or drop off patients near the hotel’s front door.

“It’s creating a lot of problems for us. It doesn’t mean we have to abandon the plan,” Fetner said. “It can work.” But it became clear last night that the 32nd Street sidewalk extension is at risk and might even be removed ahead of schedule if Vornado can’t come up with a loading zone solution that pleases its neighbors on the south side of the street.

One way to open up more space for loading zones would be to eliminate the bus layover and reroute the M4 and Q32 buses. George Haikalis, who has advocated for light rail on 42nd Street and serves as a non-voting member of CB 5, suggested sending the buses down 34th Street to the Javits Center, a longer route than the current turnaround on 32nd Street.

Unless the MTA agrees to some changes, there may be no way to create enough loading zones to satisfy the properties on the south side of 32nd Street without eliminating the sidewalk extension on the north side. That would revert the street to its previous configuration, in which pedestrians going between Herald Square and Penn Station were often compelled to walk in the roadbed.

“By and large, it is taking people out of the street and putting them on the sidewalk,” Marc Ricks, Vornado’s senior vice president of development, said of the project. “In the before condition, you would’ve seen people in the street, and in the after condition, by and large people aren’t walking in the street.”

Across Seventh Avenue, the 33rd Street plaza does not seem to be at risk. It received rave reviews from CB 5 members.

Vornado hired W Architecture and Landscape Architecture to design the temporary plaza and retained Norwegian firm Snøhetta, which designed the permanent Times Square plazas, to create a long-term public space plan for the area. Sam Schwartz Engineering is conducting a before-and-after evaluation of the plaza’s impact on pedestrian and automobile traffic.

A public workshop to review both of the new public spaces is scheduled for September 15. Then after the trial phase ends on October 11, Vornado will return to the community board with the results of a before-and-after study of the project.

  • The 32nd Street sidewalk expansion is the most important piece here. It’s a huge improvement over the old, crappy walking situation that thousands, maybe tens of thousands of people used to put up with every day.

    So, radical idea: Maybe City Hall or DOT or some other entity accountable to the public should step in and make sure this important public improvement lasts, instead of leaving it to real estate interests to duke it out among themselves.

  • All of these concerns seem to be a failure of the city to address problems unrelated to the temporary pedestrian plazas. Pedestrians were walking in the street whether or not the sidewalk was expanded.

    1. Why is there no way to pre-pay and pre-reserve parking spaces for moving vehicles? Film shoots can reserve spaces all the time. The practice is widely used in places as nearby as Jersey City and Hoboken. Charge people to reserve the space, collect the fees, and saved everyone the hassle.

    2. Garbage collection in the city needs to be overhauled. Trucks are dangerous, trash sits for hours. That’s not a problem of sidewalk space, thats a problem of collection.

  • One serious issue with the plaza is the heavy handed security. Sit on one of the concrete ledges? A private guard rushes to you and NOs you out. Then at 10pm the barricades come out and all the seating is blocked off. Im sorry, in the city that never sleeps, next to a 24 hour train station, we’re closing public spaces at 10pm? WHY?

  • Yes its crazy that its 2015 and the Manhattan garbage solution is barely better than the middle age practice of tossing it on the street.

  • Alex 3speed

    The short answer is Penn Station’s homeless population.
    That’s the interesting thing about this private-public space. While the “public” sector (ie. the Mayor) is apparently negative on these kinds interventions, the “private” sector as represented by landlords and BID Association’s strong support sees the unlocked potential of pedestrian power.
    Loading zones are a huge issue for businesses. The most fascinating way to deal with that would be right around the corner where a similar private-public intervention #plaza33 has closed the block to through traffic but maintained it as a loading zone. This should be more widely considered as public policy, though.

  • c2check

    New York is so behind on these things, and few people seem to be making real strides towards creative solutions to these problems. It’s kind of sad, really.

  • JamesR

    It’s a little below the standard set by the rest of the developed world here at times, and yes, there doesn’t seem to be any political will to take these challenges on. The garbage situation, the revolting combined sewer overflow events that take place during any major rain event, the failure to get every property owner to switch away from bunker fuel for heating purposes… I could go on, and on.

    You arrive back at JFK from being overseas and just feel like other cities are doing 21st century urban living so much better than we are.

  • HamTech87

    One day we’ll be using Envac. Check out the video. http://www.envacgroup.com/

  • Mesozoic Polk

    Even in your photo, the sidewalk is half-empty. Surely these thousands of pedestrians can squeeze in a bit so that 5 more cars can find parking.

  • Isn’t the point of a public place, that people can come and enjoy it? I guess not.

  • c2check

    Alas, I bet the existing amount of underground infrastructure in NYC would make that tough/expensive :

    Ljubljana, Slovenia has underground dumpsters.

    It would be fine to get the above-ground type here too if we can figure out ways to keep them (which we can). I suggest using parking spaces as they do in other cities in Europe.

    http://360energydiet.com/2011/02/14/an-innovative-trash-system-in-slovenia/

  • Miles Bader

    Where’s crazy WSJ lady with a comment when you need one…?

  • Maggie

    I got to walk this extended sidewalk on 32nd a couple weeks ago, and it’s so incredibly nice. I was going east to K-town and back, and the difference between the colorful pedestrian-friendly sidewalk here, and the crammed, narrow, dank sidewalks crowded with dumpsters (on 32nd Street between Broadway and 5th) was just night and day. More of this, please, CB5!

  • Bernard Finucane

    I was there just last month and admired these. The city is absolutely stunning.

  • Alex 3speed

    Just to expand on my own point. I walked through this on Saturday late afternoon and I guess the security had the weekend off, because there were 50-75 homeless in the plaza. Homelessness and inequality is as looming a threat to public space as the increased congestion from construction, deliveries, and increased cabs.

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