Streetfilms: ‘Talking Public Spaces’ in the Meatpacking District

A business improvement district shows what's possible when the goal is people-centered streets.

The Meatpacking Business Improvement District turned Little West 12th Street between Washington and Greenwich streets into a true open street. File photo: Gersh Kuntzman
The Meatpacking Business Improvement District turned Little West 12th Street between Washington and Greenwich streets into a true open street. File photo: Gersh Kuntzman
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Gorgeous plazas with lush plantings in movable containers. Refurbished 19th-century factory buildings on quaint cobblestone streets. People sipping drinks under red cloth umbrellas — and hardly a car to be seen.

Are we really in the Manhattan?

Yes, we’re in the Meatpacking District, where the Business Improvement District operates open streets and plazas in a historic corner of the far West Side. For Jeffrey LeFrancois, the BID’s executive director, the lovely streetscape comes from engaging residents and businesses in an ongoing conversation about the public realm.

how sb covered bids
How Streetsblog covered the story.

“It’s about getting people to see what’s possible” when public space “is not just about parking,” LeFrancois says in Clarence Eckerson Jr.’s new Streetfilm “Talking Public Spaces,” a lively colloquy about his BID’s pedestrianized spaces with Streetsblog Publisher Mark Gorton.

LeFrancois runs what might be the purest example of an open-streets laboratory in the city. The Meatpacking District, a commercial and nightlife hub that evolved from a desolate and dangerous former industrial area, has been trying different experiments in tactical urbanism over several years. Recently, the BID put down 5,000 feet of sod (yes, sod) on “Little West 12th Street” to create a plaza that was controversial at first but then became beloved by residents and visitors alike.

The Meatpacking District’s efforts to create great public space is part of a trend, recently explored by Streetsblog, in which business improvement districts have taken the lead in establishing pedestrianized areas — performing many functions, such as urban planning and sanitation, that traditionally have been city functions. It’s a trend that benefits wealthy commercial districts that can tax themselves to employ the personnel that it takes to maintain and program public spaces, but doesn’t  help those districts without a BID.

LeFrancois offers his expertise as a model for the city. “We’re micro city managers,” he says in the film. “The city should look to us for what works and what doesn’t.”

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