By Len Maniace
The proliferation of pedestrian plazas is one of New York City’s great success stories over the last 10 years – especially those at Times Square, Herald Square and Madison Square. They provide a crucial overflow space for crowded sidewalks, fresh-air lunchrooms for workers, and a place for New Yorkers to sit back and glimpse their city and themselves in new ways. And tourists like them, too.
But this benefit is not shared equally throughout the city. Though plazas humanize our city and make it more environmentally sustainable, the most successful of them are limited to affluent districts of New York. The problem may sound familiar. It’s the same situation we’ve seen with New York City’s parks: Those that the city shows off to the world are spectacular; the ones where most New Yorkers live are too often neglected dustbowls.
As we’ve written here before, this is not the fault of the city Department of Parks and Recreation. It maintains a larger park system with at least 2,000 fewer workers than in the 1980s. The problem is money; the city doesn’t allot enough for parks.
When it comes to pedestrian plazas, New York City is ready to invest millions to create them, but looks to locals, whether business or community organizations, to maintain them. And there lies the problem. Many neighborhoods don’t have groups ready to take on this big financial responsibility. Potential plaza sites don’t often line up with business improvement districts, which have paid staffs and a reason to take on these projects.
Into this void comes the Neighborhood Plaza Partnership, a program of the Horticultural Society of New York that provides expertise and financial resources to help community groups take on this challenge. Begun in 2013, the program is headed by Laura Hansen, who previously worked for the Kaplan Fund. There she made grants for parks as well as pedestrian- and bike-friendly street projects. “I worked on these issues for 10 years and the same thing kept coming up: there was capital money for parks, but not enough for maintenance – and that creates all kinds of inequality problems.”
Working with various experts, Hansen and the Horticultural Society soon recognized three crucial elements for successful pedestrian plazas: insurance, maintenance, and programs to attract users. Though taking legal responsibility for plazas sounds scary to many groups, Hansen said insurance coverage for plazas is not that expensive. And local groups are usually quite capable of coming up with plaza programs, whether they are music, food, etc.
Maintenance, however, is the big lift and that – along with educating and guiding community groups – is where the Neighborhood Plaza Partnership concentrates. Plazas require a lot of attention. They need to be cleaned each morning and night; the street must be swept and tables and chairs wiped down. For major schmutz, plazas need a periodic power wash. Plantings need to be installed and cared for. And each morning plaza tables and chairs are unlocked and distributed – and then locked up again at day’s end.
Plants and labor are expensive. For its workforce, the partnership works with the Association of Community Employment Programs for the Homeless, ACE, a job-training organization funded with money from foundations and individuals. The workers learn job skills – horticultural training is readily marketable, Hansen said – including punctuality and other job responsibilities. The partnership provides stipends for the workers, supervision and program administration, as well as uniforms and other equipment. It also covers costs for plants and related expenses.
Of New York City’s 66 pedestrian plazas exisiting and planned, the partnership is working at five. That figure is expected to increase to 12 by July and by 10 more in July 2015. The partnership is funded by two $400,000 grants over two years from Chase with smaller funding from others organizations. It has an annual budget of a little more than $1 million.
As innovative as this current crop of pedestrian plazas may seem in New York and other U.S. cities, these amenities are a long-established tradition in many European and Latin American cities, where they bring a place for relaxation and quiet. Well, at least we’re learning now.
We at Planet NYC are involved with two pedestrian plazas, one of which is included in a New York City park expansion. The other is more of a challenge. Diversity Plaza is located on 37th Road in Jackson Heights, the nexus of five subway lines, the E,F,M,R and 7, at Roosevelt Avenue and Broadway. The plaza’s origin is different from most, which arise from requests to create a plaza. This one developed from a city transportation study to fix an accident-prone intersection.
Supported by local Council Member Daniel Dromm and seemingly by residents, the plaza faced initial opposition in this South Asian shopping district, which feared it would hurt business. After a couple of minor fixes – traffic was reversed on one nearby street – merchant opposition eased and at least two businesses on the plaza have embraced it. A group called Friends of Diversity Plaza has sprung up and is working with the Neighborhood Plaza Partnership. It’s already held one event and is planning more, including a music and art show on June 21.