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.
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.