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Posts from the Plazas Category

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The Problem With Designing a Public Space in a Sea of Traffic

Forest City Ratner and DOT plan to turn Times Plaza by the Barclays Center into an attractive public space. Photo: Google Maps

The asphalt sidewalk leaves a lot to be desired, but can Times Plaza ever be an attractive public space as long as Flatbush and Atlantic are overrun by traffic? Photo: Google Maps

Designing a successful public space surrounded by wide streets and a sea of traffic may sound like an exercise in futility, but that is what Forest City Ratner and DOT are trying to pull off at Brooklyn’s Times Plaza.

Forest City unveiled its design for Times Plaza — the triangle formed by Fourth Avenue, Atlantic Avenue, and Flatbush Avenue — at a DOT-sponsored public meeting last night. The western side of the triangle was expanded as part of the traffic mitigation for the nearby Barclays Center, but it’s still not a welcoming place to walk to.

Without some assurances that pedestrian conditions around the triangle will improve, local residents and business leaders in attendance questioned the rationale for holding the meeting in the first place.

DOT billed last night as a “public design workshop,” which usually means attendees brainstorm ideas in small groups. Instead, Forest City’s design firm, Stantec, presented its proposal and DOT Brooklyn Borough Commissioner Keith Bray took questions from people — many of whom were concerned about pedestrian safety in and around the plaza.

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Four More Street Redesigns That Are Taking Forever to Build

Part of the first round of DOT's NYC Plaza Program, the Myrtle Avenue Plaza will replace part of a service road with greenery and pedestrian space. Image: Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Partnership

Part of the first round of DOT’s Plaza Program — which launched in 2008 — the Myrtle Avenue Plaza is still not finished. Image: Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Partnership

On Monday, we posted a list of seven street redesign projects that remain unfinished years after they went through the city’s public planning process, with the Department of Design and Construction far behind schedule.

DDC gave varying reasons for the delays, citing subsurface infrastructure work that precedes above-ground construction, as well as “changes and updates during the design phase of the project,” and “additional work by our client agency.”

One thing I consistently heard from local businesses and community groups is that DDC leaves them in the dark as it pushes project completion dates further and further into the future. DDC contested that and said it works with client agencies, such as DOT, to provide updates on construction as it advances (or stalls). Every DDC project also has a community liaison who is supposed to work with the project engineer to pass on updates to local businesses and neighbors.

Still, many of the BID directors and residents I spoke to about these projects said their community liaisons often lack information about project timelines.

After we ran the post on Monday, readers asked about other redesign projects that are languishing. Here are updates on four more — some of which DDC is handling better than others:

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Merchants: DDC Taking Forever to Finish Plaza at Bronx Hub [Updated]

Progress has been hard to spot at Roberto Clemente Plaza in Mott Haven, according to BID director Steven Fish. Photo: Steven Fish

Construction at Roberto Clemente Plaza in Mott Haven has seen minimal progress this year. Photo: Steven Fish

In 2008, DOT repurposed street space at the Hub in Mott Haven to greatly expand and improve Roberto Clemente Plaza. The first version of the project was made with low-cost materials — paint, planters, and gravel. Afterward, the city committed to building out the project in concrete. But the agency in charge of delivering capital projects, the Department of Design and Construction, has been working on it for years and still has no definite timetable for completion.

DDC broke ground on the project more than two years ago, with an expected 18-month construction timeline. Today the site is still a jumble of construction equipment and vehicles. Local retailers say the construction zone is an eyesore, providing cover to gangs and drug users and driving people away from surrounding businesses.

“General consensus is that this is a hellhole and there’s no end in sight,” Third Avenue BID Director Steven Fish told Streetsblog. Fish organized a forum in October for local business owners and residents to vent their frustrations with the project delays.

Representatives from DDC attended the forum but could not give a concrete completion date, Fish said. DDC’s online database says construction will wrap by August, 2016, but officials at the forum said it was more likely to last through 2017.

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Trottenberg Announces Plaza Equity Program at Plaza de Las Americas Reveal

Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, and a cast of uptown players marked the opening of Plaza de Las Americas today. Photo: Brad Aaron

Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, and a cast of uptown players marked the opening of Plaza de Las Americas today. Photos: Brad Aaron

Just eight months after the groundbreaking ceremony, officials held a ribbon-cutting this morning at Plaza de Las Americas, an impressive new public space in Washington Heights. Also today, Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg announced a City Hall initiative to assist plazas in neighborhoods without the resources of a major business improvement district.

Plaza de Las Americas reclaims one block of W. 175th Street, between Broadway and Wadsworth Avenue, with 16,000 square feet of pedestrian space. Bookended to the north and south by the United Palace theater and a grocery store, respectively, the plaza comes equipped with electric and water service for vendors. Other amenities include a public restroom, decorative pavers, benches, trees, and a fountain by artist Ester Partegás.

The block has been the site of a farmers market since 1980, and since 1994 vendors have set up on the street to sell household wares, clothes, and other items. Sponsored by the Washington Heights and Inwood Development Corporation, the proposal to make those uses permanent received $5 million in city funds when it was chosen in the first round of the plaza program in 2008. The project was designed and built by DOT and the Department of Design and Construction.

“After years of planning, today we come together to celebrate the location our community has valued for decades transformed into an even better venue,” said City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez in prepared remarks. “La Plaza de Las Americas will be a focal point for the communities of Northern Manhattan and assuredly a boon to local business and our very active street vendors.”

Other electeds on hand included Congressman Charles Rangel, State Senator Adriano Espaillat, Assembly Member Guillermo Linares, and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.

Trottenberg announced the OneNYC Plaza Equity Program, which will allocate $1.4 million from the city budget to provide maintenance and management assistance to 30 “medium and high need” plaza projects, most of them in Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Upper Manhattan. Trottenberg said projects are eligible to receive up to $80,000, along with other assistance, such as organizing and fundraising help, for up to three years. Plazas that lack resources for upkeep can quickly fall out of favor with the public.

Another tidbit: Rodriguez said he’d like to see Plaza de Las Americas extended to St. Nicholas Avenue, two blocks east, as a “gateway” to Washington Heights and Inwood.

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Empire Boulevard Reconstruction Will Create Two Plazas

A reconstruction project will add pedestrian plazas to Empire Boulevard, including this one at Remsen Avenue. Images: DOT [PDF]

A street reconstruction will add plazas to Empire Boulevard, including this one at Remsen Avenue. Images: DOT [PDF]

Dangerous intersections at each end of Empire Boulevard, which stretches east-west across the southern edge of Crown Heights, are set for some major new pedestrian space.

A street reconstruction project will reconfigure the area where Empire Boulevard, East New York Avenue, Remsen Avenue, and Utica Avenue converge. There, DOT will reroute traffic, creating a new pedestrian plaza. Similar changes are coming to the intersection of Empire Boulevard, Franklin Avenue, and Washington Avenue.

From 2009 to 2013, there were 490 injuries at the two locations combined, including 29 serious injuries, placing them in the most dangerous 10 percent of Brooklyn streets, according to DOT [PDF].

The changes are part of a multi-agency capital project to rebuild utilities and roadbeds on both ends of Empire. The project will also repave the 1.5-mile street, which received a road diet, pedestrian islands and bike lanes in 2009.

Today, the intersections where Empire Boulevard meets Utica Avenue are a mess. East New York Avenue and Remsen Avenues slice diagonally across Empire, creating triangles surrounded by car traffic and forcing pedestrians to make multiple dangerous crossings.

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Times Square Coalition: Keep the Plazas, Regulate Naked People

Image: Times Square Alliance

Image: Times Square Alliance

The Times Square Alliance and a coalition of electeds has a plan to address complaints about Times Square without destroying the hugely successful pedestrian plazas.

The centerpiece of the proposal is to legally redefine the Broadway plazas as a public space with three regulated zones: “civic” zones for public seating areas and programmed events; “flow” zones for pedestrian throughput; and “designated activity” zones for costumed characters, desnudas, and other people hustling for cash.

A second component of the proposal is a study to evaluate vehicular and pedestrian conflicts, safety issues on 42nd Street, and the effect of tour bus traffic. And a third aspect is the creation of a new NYPD Times Square unit, comprised of officers specially trained “on the nuanced forms of intimidation by solicitors [and] the complex legal issues related to enforcement,” which would direct all civil citations to Midtown Community Court, rather than 100 Centre Street. In addition to Times Square, the coalition wants to establish rules intended to keep 42nd Street sidewalks from getting obstructed during peak hours.

The proposal has the backing of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, local City Council members Dan Garodnick and Corey Johnson, Community Board 5, and a number of business and real estate interests, including Rudin Management Company and the Durst Organization. It will be presented to Mayor de Blasio’s Times Square task force, which was scheduled to hold its first meeting today.

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Watch New Yorkers Using the 33rd Street Plaza With Streetfilms

Catch it while you can. Before the temporary plaza on 33rd Street at Seventh Avenue closes on October 3, Clarence Eckerson Jr. of Streetfilms stopped by to grab video of New Yorkers enjoying some breathing room in one of Midtown’s most crowded corners.

The plaza was installed in July, along with a temporary sidewalk extension on 32nd Street between Herald Square and Penn Station. The pedestrian spaces could return permanently after the trial period ends next month.

The plaza has proven immensely popular, getting rave reviews at a recent Community Board 5 meeting. The sidewalk extension, however, has come under attack — both from a tabloid columnist who thinks homelessness can be fixed with car traffic, and from 32nd Street neighbors who want more curbside loading zones.

The projects, supported by DOT and CB 5, were conceived and sponsored by real estate giant Vornado, which owns major properties near Penn Station, including Penn Plaza, the Manhattan Mall, and the Hotel Pennsylvania.

Before the public space is removed and given back to cars in less than three weeks, the 34th Street Partnership is hosting a workshop tomorrow evening to gather feedback on what people think of the plaza. It’s scheduled for tomorrow at 6 p.m. RSVP is required.

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Meet the People Breathing Life Into NYC’s Overlooked Public Spaces

There are two dueling visions of public space in New York City. On one side, tabloid columnists and the police commissioner believe that any problems encountered in Midtown’s public spaces — whether homeless men or hustling desnudas — should be fixed by replacing space for people with good old-fashioned car traffic. On the other side are residents and advocates working hard to improve public space in communities across the city, using shoestring budgets and their own street smarts.

Parkside Plaza, before and after. Photos courtesy In Cho

Parkside Plaza, before and after. Photos courtesy In Cho

The people who want to rip out Manhattan’s public space have gotten a lot of attention in the past month. This story is about the people working to make the rest of New York City’s public spaces better.

Yesterday, ioby (“in our backyards”) — a non-profit founded in 2009 that marries crowdfunding with community organizing — hosted an event highlighting outer-borough public space success stories from Flatbush to Cypress Hills to Astoria. The projects include community gardens, street festivals, streetscape improvements, and plazas. Ioby acts as a fundraising tool, and sometimes a financial sponsor, for local groups who do the hard work of organizing residents and pushing government bureaucracies into action. The result: Public spaces that better serve neighborhood needs.

The projects all transformed spaces that had been underutilized or unattractive. In Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, a wide but barren sidewalk at an intersection outside the Parkside Avenue subway station got tables, chairs, and plantings from the DOT plaza program — but it was up to local residents to fund maintenance. They turned to the Neighborhood Plaza Partnership and ioby to raise funds to support the plaza.

Residents had been trying to attract a farmers market to the corner for years, plaza designer and local resident In Cho said, but market operators feared it wouldn’t succeed in such an unattractive place. Getting the sidewalk furniture helped change perceptions. With the new planters and seating (and another assist from DOT, which repaired a cracked section of the sidewalk that had been ignored for years), a farmers market now sets up shop every Sunday.

Today, the plaza is a neighborhood gathering spot at the southeast corner of Prospect Park. “It’s literally trees, benches, and umbrellas. It’s not much,” Cho said. “What really encouraged everyone was that there was this pride in the place.”

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How City Hall Can Improve NYC’s Public Spaces Instead of Tearing Them Out

While recent comments from Mayor de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton about potentially yanking out the Times Square plazas have caused an uproar, a much deeper and more substantial debate over plazas has been simmering for months.

Whether it's Times Square or Corona Plaza, advocates and plaza managers say DOT needs better rules for its plaza program. Photo: NYC DOT/Flickr

Whether it’s Times Square or Corona Plaza, advocates and plaza managers say DOT needs better rules for its plaza program. Photo: NYC DOT/Flickr

Public space advocates and plaza managers say the city’s rules governing who can do what with plaza space are cumbersome and in need of an overhaul. Now, they’re turning to City Hall to fix the problem.

Since the plaza program was launched seven years ago, DOT has required that each space be managed by a local partner. The rule makes sense: Without someone in charge of managing the space, plazas can quickly deteriorate, people will stop spending time there, and public support for them will wither. But the organizations that have signed on to manage plazas say they don’t have enough leeway, under the current model, to do the job well.

There are two types of agreements between the city and plaza managers. One is a maintenance agreement that provides for limited sponsorships, like corporate logos on umbrellas, to help defray the partner organization’s costs. The other is a license agreement, which allows vending, events, and other methods of generating more substantial revenue for the plaza partner.

Most plazas in Manhattan and nearby neighborhoods are managed by a local business improvement district and have both types of agreements. In addition to food concessions, these plazas can generate revenue by hosting large corporate promotional events that require approval from the mayor’s Street Activity Permit Office, or SAPO.

Outside Manhattan, most plazas are sponsored by local merchants associations or neighborhood groups. They typically don’t have the resources to attract corporate sponsorship or concessions, and have signed only a maintenance agreement, not a license agreement, with DOT. That means that for the most part, they don’t host events that generate revenue. But they do put on smaller events like performances or pop-up libraries — and each time they have to navigate a cumbersome process with SAPO.

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Resolved: Manhattan Community Board 10 Rejects Bradhurst Plaza

This plaza isn't happening. Image: DOT

Instead of the plaza you see here, this short stretch of pavement will remain a dangerous cut-through for drivers turning off Frederick Douglass Boulevard. Image: DOT

It was loud. It was messy. And in the end, Manhattan Community Board 10 decided against turning a short section of Macombs Place in Harlem into a car-free public space. Supporters of the proposal spent years trying to get CB 10’s backing but came up a few votes short last night.

DOT won’t proceed with the project without a vote in support from the community board, and last night a resolution backing the plaza failed with 12 in favor, 18 against, and four abstentions. An earlier resolution to hold a town hall meeting on the plaza before revisiting the issue at the community board in October also failed, 13-19, with one abstention.

“We’re being bullied into delay, delay, delay, which means it doesn’t happen,” said CB 10 member Daniel Clark, who voted for the plaza. “We have to make decisions.”

“It’s what, four years this project’s been going on?” CB 10 transportation committee chair Maria Garcia said via telephone this morning. “My job was just to get a vote on it, and that is what I accomplished last night with my team.”

Although Garcia voted for the plaza, she took its defeat in stride. “The point was just for it to be heard in the public forum,” she said. “We have to vote. We have to say yes or no. We can’t just drag everything on for four or five years.” Plaza supporters, while disappointed, also seemed relieved to at least have an answer from the board after years of back-and-forth.

The plaza would have been maintained by Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement, Inc., which did not return a request for comment this morning. DOT says that while a plaza is now off the table, it will consider other safety improvements for the intersection.

As at previous meetings, the loudest voices last night belonged to plaza opponents.

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