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HOOPLA: City Adds $30M for Managing Open Streets, Public Space in Needy Nabes

10:58 PM EDT on May 16, 2023

Even Mayor Adams has enjoyed the 34th Avenue open street, which, along with many others, could now get city funding to support the volunteer effort.

The city is moving to make good on a promise by putting up $30 million in new funding to support open streets and other public spaces in low-income neighborhoods that lack resources to run the largely volunteer operations.

The Department of Transportation is seeking proposals [PDF] for outside groups to help with day-to-day operations and management for pedestrian-friendly spaces, including open streets, plazas, shared streets, slow streets, street furniture and bike corrals.

The move comes as open street organizers have called on the Adams administration to do more to keep the pandemic-era program going. This mayor and his successor were criticized for not supporting the legions of volunteers who program the new public spaces and set up and take down barricades every day — work that some said should be done by the city.

City officials hope the new efforts will bolster more than 100 public spaces in parts of the city that don't have moneyed business improvement districts, or BIDs, behind them.

"We’ve been clear that public space is a critical ingredient in the recipe for a strong, inclusive economic recovery for our city," said Mayor Adams in a statement. "This administration understands that every community has different needs to create assets like open streets, and we will always keep equity at the center of our public space work."

DOT plans to spend $27 million over three years to contract managers and crews to work on one or several sites, depending on their size, helping with basic operations, like sweeping, bagging trash, moving barricades, planting, and providing access for people with disabilities.

The bidders will also have to provide staff to help applying for grants, organizing programming and permits, and do education and advocacy around open space.

The city plans to spend another roughly $3 million for a separate "bid opportunity," according to DOT spokesman Vin Barone.

Managers will be able oversee several sites in a borough, but some of the largest spaces will get dedicated, full-time staffers, according to the agency's request for proposals.

The new effort expands on the OneNYC Plaza Equity Program, an initiative launched by former Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2015  to support 30 public plazas in under-resourced neighborhoods.

That program generally sent support, such plant maintenance through the Horticultural Society of New York, to groups that lacked the staff of well-funded BIDs or other management organizations in tonier neighborhoods.

It's not clear yet how groups will get these resources proposed in the new RFP. According to Barone, DOT is considering updating the eligibility requirements.

The open streets program has from the start struggled to gain a foothold and survive in low-income areas that needed it the most.

When de Blasio launched the initiative in 2020, it was concentrated in wealthier and whiter parts of the Big Apple and did not extend to some of the poorest parts of the city that had high rates of traffic violence, such as southeast Queens or southern Brooklyn.

De Blasio had promised to create 100 miles of open streets, but by 2021, there were only about 25 miles remaining, and inactive locations were particularly common in the Bronx and Queens.

The organizer behind a Bronx open street said a key for making the program work is that added staff knows the neighborhoods they're supposed to help.

"If it’s someone from the community, more than likely it will work. Each community has its own nuances," said Lonnie Hardy, who runs the one-block Jennings Street Open Street in Morrisania.

Keeping the car-free or car-light spaces going has been a constant struggle even for the successful projects.

"We’re constantly trying to figure out how to raise money, how to get money, and that’s very difficult and that also requires somebody and a lot of time," said Jim Burke, a co-founder of the "gold standard" 34th Avenue in Queens. "Simple things like our orange safety vests, the signs that we put up to mark where pedestrians go, to mark where cyclists go. All of those have come out of our pocket or the pockets of our neighbors."

Getting started is even more difficult now, said an organizer behind the Prospect Heights open streets on Vanderbilt and Underhill avenues in Brooklyn.

"The landscape has changed quite a bit. We launched in 2020 when there were quite a lot of people eager to volunteer for efforts like this," said Saskia Haegens, the vice chair of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council. "If you do not have those types of resources available, it’s a fairly steep hill to start a new open street."

Opponents have recently sued organizers and the city claiming the open streets violated rights of access for people with disabilities, but experts and advocates slammed the bizarre legal filing for trying to dismantle the program to reclaim space gobbled up by cars.

The agency also recently proposed a swath of new rules tightening regulations around the open streets, which the organizers said would add huge burdens by penalizing the volunteers for offenses as minor as a kid flying a kite, and adding onerous requirements like having to tell DOT a month in advance if they want to work with sponsors.

Agency officials are still reviewing the feedback on those rules, according to Barone, which includes hours of testimony during an April meeting and 165 online comments.

Haegens, fellow advocates, and pols rallied on Vanderbilt Avenue on May 6 for DOT to provide more funding to open streets and lay out a clear path for building them out into more permanent street designs with fewer or no cars.

"It’s great for starting new programs, it’s great for communities who don’t have the volunteer labor and organization required to organize an open streets program," Haegens said. "We applaud that and are all in favor, but how about the next phases?"

DOT's release mentioned 13 open streets that with completed or planned permanent upgrades this year:

    • Berry Street, Brooklyn 
    • Beverley Road, Brooklyn 
    • N. 15th St, Brooklyn 
    • Underhill and Vanderbilt avenue, Brooklyn
    • W. Ninth Street, Brooklyn 
    • Sharon Street, Brooklyn 
    • W. 22nd Street, Manhattan 
    • Broadway, Manhattan 
    • W. 103rd Street, Manhattan 
    • Dyckman Street, Manhattan 
    • 34th Avenue, Queens 
    • 31st Avenue, Queens

Seven open streets will also get more intense capital work that is still in the planning process but will total $300 million:

    • 34th Avenue, Queens  
    • Woodside Avenue, Queens  
    • Willis Avenue, the Bronx  
    • Underhill Avenue, Brooklyn  
    • Minthorne Street, Staten Island  
    • Dyckman Street (also known as Quisqueya Plaza), Manhattan  
    • Broadway, Manhattan

DOT did not provide a breakdown of costs for those seven projects by press time.

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