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Next Phase for City Pedestrian Plazas

January 14, 2013

Ted Mann and Laura Kusisto, The Wall Street Journal

The business coalition that manages Herald Square is pressing the city to grant it greater control over the area's pedestrian plaza in exchange for an infusion of private funds to spruce up its looks.

The negotiations between the 34th Street Partnership, which already manages the plaza, and the Department of Transportation are at an early stage. And officials stressed that the city intends to retain final authority over the plaza, which would remain public land.

But the partnership's plan to fund an overhaul demonstrates a shift among some once-skeptical businesses toward support for the plazas, a pet project of the Bloomberg administration.

Their backing could help determine the plazas' future: The spaces aren't legally permanent, and any successive mayor could convert them back to traffic lanes.

That option would grow more difficult if the spots are popular with locals, tightly controlled by entrenched area interests or have been modified so they can't be dismantled cheaply. In other words, if they seemed more like parks and less like streets.

There are a total of 50 plazas in development or open to the public throughout the city, said DOT Deputy Commissioner Andrew Wiley-Schwartz, who oversees the program. Most of them were requested by neighborhoods, he said.

"The experiments have been largely accepted by the surrounding neighborhoods," said Dan Biederman, president of the 34th Street Partnership's board of directors and pioneer of the private-management model developed at nearby Bryant Park.

He said he would insist on aesthetic control over an upgrade to the plazas along Broadway at the intersection of Sixth Avenue. The work likely would include lifting the plaza up from street level to curb level.

In exchange, Mr. Biederman wants the plaza to operate under a model that is used in Bryant Park. The park is public but maintained and operated by the private nonprofit Bryant Park Corp., which raises funds from businesses and concessions and controls the look of the park.

"We're offering to pay a nice chunk," he said of the talks with DOT. "We want to do it soon and we want to do it inexpensively and we want to do it really well."

DOT officials say there is no deal yet, in part because the city insists it maintain full control over public streets. But officials conceded talks are continuing.

"I think it's a little premature to get into what they're going to do on the capital side," Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan said.

Mr. Biederman's group wants to address one of the chief complaints from its members and a common gripe about the plazas: shabbiness. Generally outlined by painted asphalt and populated with concrete planters and wobbly tables and chairs, the spaces aren't known for their cutting-edge design.

"I appreciate having this here," said Andres Perez, a 38-year-old waiter in Midtown who was sitting in the Herald Square plaza last week. "It's nice. I wish it could be nicer."

Josh Hammond, 22, was visiting from Poughkeepsie with a friend. "I would say they could decorate it up a bit," he said. "I think Union Square is nicer. It doesn't look like much of a park or a place to come to me."

The pedestrian plaza program, which Ms. Sadik-Khan launched in 2008, was set up differently from Bryant Park's private management model, Mr. Wiley-Schwartz said. The program re-purposes sections of public streets–most famously on Broadway and in Times Square–for use by pedestrians.

The city pays for the cost of retrofitting each plaza, and private nonprofit organizations, such as business improvement districts, manage the spaces and pay for their upkeep.

Despite grumbling from drivers, especially cabbies, and some occasional tension with neighbors, the plazas have been generally embraced, city officials and advocates say.

The plazas are among the most vulnerable innovations of Mayor Michael Bloomberg–who leaves office at the end of this year–because the DOT didn't undergo the formal process of "de-mapping" sections of street to turn them into parkland.

That was done for a reason, Mr. Wiley-Schwartz said: They are still parts of the street, just off-limits to cars.

"We think this is a broader conception of what is a public street," he said.

It is the popularity of the plazas among those who have applied for their creation or backed their upkeep that will prevent them from being cleared and turned back over to vehicles, observers said.

"They create a lot of heat and light, but when all is said and done, I think we're seeing that they're largely pretty popular in communities where they're going in, and I think it's going to be hard to reverse that," said Aaron Naparstek, founder of the influential Streetsblog network, and a visiting scholar at MIT's urban planning department.

Those that have been in place for years and have been embraced by neighbors are being permanently hardened.

Plazas draw some jeers: Businesses fear they drive foot traffic away from their doors, and taxi drivers say they increase traffic jams and irritate passengers who can't exit directly in front of their destinations.

In Herald Square, at least, those concerns don't appear to have come to pass. The area has undergone a slow revitalization, with garment manufacturers giving way to corporate headquarters, and luggage shops slowly making way for boutiques. The national retailers that border the plaza–Macy's, Gap and Victoria's Secret–have all undergone major renovations.

Landlords said the plazas helped by making the area feel more like a neighborhood and less like a thoroughfare.

"With all the truck traffic, you couldn't even see across Broadway," said Tony Malkin, one of the area's largest landlords. What's really happened now is they've created a much more pleasant environment. Tenants love them."

A version of this article appeared January 14, 2013, on page A17 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Next Phase for City Pedestrian Plazas.