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Jan Gehl Joins Advocates to Talk Public Plazas in Low-Income Neighborhoods

Ask a New Yorker about the city’s plazas, and they’re likely to first think of Times Square. While the city’s marquee pedestrian space gets most of the attention, there are dozens of neighborhood-scale plazas across the city, with dozens more in the works in communities requesting them from DOT. Not all local groups have the financial might of Midtown Manhattan behind them, but there is still a need to maintain and support these spaces. Without city funds or donations, it can be hard to keep a good thing going — or to get it off the ground in the first place.

Jan Gehl speaks at an event today about plazas in low-income neighborhoods. Photo: Stephen Miller

Jan Gehl speaks at an event today about plazas in low-income neighborhoods. Photo: Stephen Miller

That’s where the Neighborhood Plaza Partnership (NPP) comes in. This group, a project of the Horticultural Society of New York, works with community groups that have signed on to be a plaza steward. Mostly, this involves pledging to keeping the space clean and organizing events in the plaza. But small merchants associations or non-profits often need a helping hand.

Last November, NPP received an $800,000 donation from the JPMorgan Chase Foundation to fund the upkeep of plazas in low-income communities. That money is helping support up to eight plazas this year, NPP’s Laura Hansen said. Today, her group and Transportation Alternatives hosted a panel discussion on the importance of plazas to low-income communities, featuring Danish architect and livable streets luminary Jan Gehl.

Plazas are a central component of healthy neighborhoods and cities, Gehl said. “Every good neighborhood should have a heart,” he said. “Public life and lively cities is very important for social inclusion and for democracy.” (Gehl’s point isn’t just theoretical: Last June, Queens Community Board 3 became the city’s first community board to meet in a public plaza.)

Although the plaza program was started by DOT, today’s event focused not on city government but on how different communities use and support their plazas. In addition to finding and sustaining funding, panelists said that local groups have to find a way to create events and programming that’s relevant to the city’s diverse population while maintaining an engaged group of volunteers.

“We have to take seriously how a plaza looks different in Brownsville or in the Bronx than it does in Times Square or Park Slope,” Council Member Brad Lander said during  introductory remarks, which also connected plazas to Mayor de Blasio’s traffic safety goals. “They’re essential for moving forward street safety and the Vision Zero idea.”

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Ped Plazas in Low-Income Neighborhoods Get $800,000 Boost From Chase

Elected officials announce an $800,000 donation from the JPMorgan Chase Foundation to help maintain plazas in low-income areas. Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.

Public officials announce an $800,000 donation from the JPMorgan Chase Foundation to help maintain plazas in low-income areas. Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.

Under cloudy skies this morning at Corona Plaza, elected officials and community members gathered to announce an $800,000 contribution from the JPMorgan Chase Foundation to help fund the upkeep of pedestrian plazas in low-income communities. The funds are going to the Neighborhood Plaza Partnership (NPP), a program of the Horticultural Society of New York that works with merchant associations and non-profits to maintain plazas in neighborhoods including Corona, Jackson Heights, East New York, and Ridgewood.

The city’s pedestrian plaza program depends on local partners to maintain the spaces. Without someone to tend to the plazas, they could quickly fall into disrepair — and no one wants a neglected plaza in their neighborhood. In less affluent communities, though, it can be tough to muster the resources to keep these public spaces in good condition.

“The model was created, really, for big BIDs in Manhattan, and it’s a very different game in a neighborhood like this,” said NPP’s Laura Hansen. Her group is working with the Association for Community Employment Programs for the Homeless (ACE NY) to create transitional jobs for former convicts, who will clean and maintain the plazas. The funds from Chase allow NPP to offer those services at a discounted rate to local partners that have signed up with DOT to take care of plazas. Hansen said she hopes to have up to 20 of the city’s 59 plazas participating in the maintenance program within two years.

“The idea here is to make sure that every neighborhood has the same opportunity,” said DOT Assistant Commissioner for Planning and Sustainability Andy Wiley-Schwartz. ”The program was always designed to be citywide, and to work in every neighborhood.”

Even if they don’t benefit directly from Chase’s donation, said Hansen, smaller plaza caretakers can reap benefits from working together. For example, NPP could help a handful of plazas close to each other pool funds for maintenance or security. It could also serve as a venue for sharing knowledge about programming, fundraising, and sponsorships. ”It’s basically the same maintenance issues at every plaza,” Hansen said. “It’s about not reinventing the wheel.”

Students from P.S. 16 at The Uni reading room in Corona Plaza this morning. Photo: The Uni

Students from P.S. 16 at a reading room set up by the Uni Project in Corona Plaza this morning. Photo: The Uni Project

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A Montreal Intersection Morphs Into a Wonderful Neighborhood Space

On a Bixi bike excursion to get some ice cream in Montreal, my wife and I stumbled upon the intersection of Fairmount Avenue and Rue Clark, recently upgraded with colorful new street furniture, traffic calming treatments, and a two-way protected bike lane. The space is teeming with street life. When you arrive at this lovely place your first instinct is to stop, sit down, and enjoy.

This intersection is a prime example of how a neighborhood street should cater to people. All local streets should strive to make pedestrians feel welcome, slow traffic speeds with physical infrastructure, and provide art and greenery wherever possible.

Since we were only there for a short time and could dig up only scant information online, I don’t have much backstory to share about how this space was created. If anyone can provide more info in the comments, please fill us in.

StreetFilms 11 Comments

Is This the First NYC Community Board Meeting Held in a Public Plaza?

I can’t say with certainty that this is the first NYC community board meeting held in a public plaza, but it certainly is the first I’ve heard of in my 22 years in New York City. On Thursday, Queens Community Board 3 held their monthly meeting amid the hustle and bustle of Jackson Heights’ Diversity Plaza on 37th Road between 73rd and 74th Streets.

By my count the meeting began with at least 150 people seated or standing. Plenty of on-lookers stopped by and admired the proceedings. The plaza was quite crowded.

City Council Member Danny Dromm (to the right of the mic), an early and vocal supporter of the plaza, spoke to the crowd. Without his steadfast leadership, there’s a good chance this meeting space wouldn’t exist.

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DOT Working on Maintenance Initiative to Expand Reach of Plaza Program

DOT’s plaza program has brought new public spaces to neighborhoods across the city, and even most City Council members can appreciate that. To ensure that the new plazas don’t deteriorate after implementation, the city only installs them if a local partner pledges to maintain the space. Sometimes, finding a maintenance partner can be challenging — and this is especially the case in less affluent parts of the city.

In an article today celebrating public plazas, Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman mentioned a new program that DOT is developing to provide assistance to communities looking to maintain their plaza space:

The Transportation Department is working with the Horticultural Society of New York and the nonprofit ACE Programs for the Homeless to develop a jobs initiative in which ex-convicts and homeless people provide horticultural services and general upkeep. Communities pay on a sliding scale for the help.

Last September, Streetsblog reported from a community board meeting about a proposed plaza in Astoria where DOT said it was developing the program. Details aren’t available yet, but it looks like a promising initiative for areas where a well-funded business improvement district or partner isn’t there to take on plaza maintenance.

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Eyes on the Street: Checking Out Books at Putnam Plaza

The Uni, a portable library, visited the Putnam Plaza on Sunday as part of a FAB Friday event. Photo: FAB Alliance

When Putnam Plaza opened nearly two years ago in Clinton Hill, it was welcomed with a dance party. Last Friday, the dancing continued as the Fulton Area Business Alliance, the local business improvement district, held one of its FAB Friday events in the plaza. The space featured games, live music, and a portable library allowing people to sit and relax with a book. On Sunday evening, the BID hosted Soul Aerobics in the plaza. FAB Friday events are also scheduled this summer for Cuyler Gore Park and Fowler Square plaza in Fort Greene.

The event included hula-hooping, live music, and games. Photo: FAB Alliance

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At Pioneering Ped Plaza, Paint and Planters Are Now Curbs and Concrete

All smiles at today's ribbon-cutting for Willoughby Plaza in Downtown Brooklyn. Photo: Stephen Miller

NYC DOT’s plaza program hit a milestone today, when officials cut the ribbon on a block of Willoughby Street reclaimed from car traffic between Pearl and Adams Streets in Downtown Brooklyn. What used to be, essentially, a private parking lot for government placard holders, is now the first plaza program project to make the transition from temporary materials to permanent construction.

The 14,000 square-foot plaza, set in motion in 2006 with a street reclamation by Iris Weinshall’s DOT, was folded into DOT’s Plaza Program after Janette Sadik-Khan took charge of the agency. It then entered the capital project pipeline for the Department of Design and Construction, which raised the plaza to the same grade as the sidewalk and worked with DEP to replace water mains.

The project cost $2 million, paid for by federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funds. Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez was on hand for today’s ribbon-cutting, along with Sadik-Khan, DDC Commissioner David Burney, Downtown Brooklyn Partnership President Tucker Reed, Jeff Kay of Muss Development, and Borough President Marty Markowitz.

“It’s a pleasure when the commissioner and I can be on the same side of a project,” Markowitz said, before launching into a gregarious bit inviting the single people of Brooklyn to make the plaza their new meeting spot.

The overall theme this morning was not match-making, but retail sales. Sadik-Khan cited research showing that plazas help improve retail sales, adding that DOT expects to release a complete study of those effects this summer.

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Proposal for New Park Near Lincoln Tunnel Endorsed by CB 4

Image: CHEKPEDS

A community-driven proposal to create a new public space on a street near the Lincoln Tunnel was endorsed by Manhattan Community Board 4 Wednesday.

The plan, as reported by DNAinfo in December, is to convert three lane-widths of leftover asphalt on Dyer Avenue between 34th and 35th Streets into a park. That stretch of Dyer currently has three lanes for vehicle traffic exiting the tunnel and one lane for inbound vehicles. The Port Authority, which owns the street, plans to eliminate one of the outbound lanes. A coalition of neighborhood groups, including the Hell’s Kitchen Neighborhood Association and CHEKPEDS, envisions a park on the east side of Dyer, encompassing about 7,200 square feet.

DNAinfo reports that last night CB 4 voted unanimously to recommend the plan to the Port Authority.

There is still money to be raised, and the board wants “at least two” public feedback sessions. But organizers are upbeat — and with good reason, especially considering that the idea for the park came about only a few months ago.

“We’ve made a tremendous amount of progress so far,” said Jeffrey Peyser, who’s part of the effort to create the park.

“We’ve done outreach for corporate sponsorship to fund the initial aspects of the park and are working on getting matching grant programs.”

Meta Brunzema, an architect who helped create the initial design for the park, said that despite its tiny size, the green space would include new trees, seating areas and other amenities.

“Our group’s intent was really to make this a park for everybody — for seniors, for people with disabilities, for young people, for old people,” she said.

“The goal here is to make a real park.”

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Brooklyn CB 2 Committee Unanimously Supports Permanent Fowler Plaza

Last night Brooklyn Community Board 2′s transportation committee voted 7-0, with one abstention, to support the conversion of Fowler Square Plaza in Fort Greene from a temporary public space to a permanent feature of the neighborhood. The committee vote followed a DOT presentation showing that Fowler Square Plaza has had a minimal impact on traffic and is overwhelmingly popular with businesses, plaza users, and nearby residents.

CB 2's transportation committee wants Fowler Square Plaza in Fort Greene to be made permanent. Photo: Stephen Miller

For its report, DOT surveyed 360 plaza users and 100 residents who live within one block of the plaza. The agency found that 64 percent of plaza users visit the space at least once a week, and 63 percent come from Fort Greene and adjacent neighborhoods. Both users and nearby residents overwhelmingly support the plaza:

  • 83 percent said the plaza has made overall quality of life better. Only 1 percent said it’s worse, while 5 percent say it’s the same, and 11 percent are unsure.
  • 76 percent said the plaza has improved pedestrian safety and 81 percent said it has improved the area’s aesthetics.
  • 97 percent said the plaza is positive addition to neighborhood. This includes 99 percent of people surveyed in the plaza and 92 percent of residents surveyed door-to-door.
  • Of the adjacent businesses, 26 are in favor of a permanent plaza, with only one against (Mullane’s Bar) and two (Gourmet Deli and Fresh Garden) not taking a position.

DOT also studied traffic impacts between October 4 and 22, including days with events at the Barclays Center, as well as SAT and PSAT testing days at Brooklyn Technical High School. The amount of traffic diverted because of the plaza has been minimal. “We’re only talking about adding one to two cars maximum per minute onto South Portland,” explained DOT’s Emily Weidenhof, referring to a parallel street.

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Tonight: Permanent Fort Greene Plaza Up for a Vote at Brooklyn CB 2

It didn't take long for Fowler Square plaza to disprove the prophecy that it would "split the neighborhood apart." Photo: @LincolnRestler

A reminder for readers who live in and around Fort Greene: The Brooklyn Community Board 2 transportation committee is taking up the matter of Fowler Square plaza tonight, and if you head over to 180 Remsen Street to weigh in, you can help this new public space become a permanent neighborhood fixture.

NYC DOT installed the plaza with temporary materials this spring and began evaluating its impact on traffic and street life. The agency will present the results of that study this evening before the committee vote.

If you’ve walked by the temporary plaza at the triangle where Fulton Street and South Elliott Place meet, you’ve probably seen that it’s quickly become a very well-used gathering place. The businesses around the plaza either appreciate it as a neighborhood amenity, or simply don’t mind the change to the street grid. Still, it’s hardly a given that the upgrade to a permanent plaza will sail through the CB 2 committee.

For whatever reason, this plaza project has brought out some especially outlandish NIMBY behavior from a small band of opponents. One early planning workshop was disrupted by a plaza antagonist who argued, “This is a city, not the country.” Anonymous flyers were distributed before the plaza opened, predicting it would “split the neighborhood apart.”

So you can bet the CB 2 committee will be hearing it from them tonight. If you’d like the committee to hear from you, too, the meeting gets started at 6:00 p.m. at St. Francis College, 180 Remsen Street.