Times Square pedestrian plaza deserves better than beach chairs and
Following an eight-month experiment, the pedestrian islands created on Broadway by barring traffic from 47th to 42nd streets and 35th to 33rd streets have been declared permanent, with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg proclaiming last month “the new Broadway is here to stay.” Yesterday, Janette Sadik-Khan, commissioner of the Department of transportation, announced a Design competition “to refresh the temporary plazas” at Times Square and added that a capital reconstruction project to revamp this space was on.
The mayor’s announcement referred to the transformation of the famous byway where sidewalks and traffic lanes once overflowed with tourists, office workers, theatergoers, illegal vendors, opportunistic performers, subway seekers, taxis, cars, buses, bikes and the occasional police-mounted horse. Now, along with pedestrians, the two Midtown stretches are populated with groupings of chairs, tables and some planters.
There was general rejoicing, but especially in the office of Ms. Sadik-Khan, who initiated the Broadway closings in February 2009. (While she announced back then that the move would speed traffic in the area by as much as 37%, the department’s evaluation report completed in January found that the high was closer to 17%.) The trial period began in May with little advance notice. Overnight, the busy street became an extended public patio with paving made of epoxy gravel glued in place, planters arrayed along the edges and flimsy aluminum lawn chairs set out for the grabbing. The sudden makeover triggered a summer-long photo opportunity of sprawled crowds basking happily where taxi drivers once laid into their horns.
While the mayor called the closings “Janette’s innovation,” the Regional Plan Association—an 80-year-old nonprofit group dedicated to smarter community and transportation design in the Tri-State area—has since at least 1974 advocated banning cars from Times Square and the infamous “Bowtie,” the chokepoint where Seventh Avenue and Broadway cross.
In 2003, the nonprofit Design Trust for Public Space and the local business improvement group, Times Square Alliance, developed a Streetscape Improvement Plan on the premise that the crossroad was “gorgeous from the neck up, [but] it needs a makeover from the neck down.” They gave the DOT their proposal for untying the Bowtie, allowing for sidewalk augmentation, syncing green lights to streamline traffic, and introducing more attractive street furniture. In 2006, Iris Weinshall, who was then the transportation commissioner, hit the streets with her own ambitious plan—including colored bus lanes, 200 miles of new bike lanes, and widened sidewalks specifically in Times Square where Broadway and Seventh Avenue traffic would no longer be allowed to cross. The plan was hailed as “The Iris Weinshall Renaissance,” and it was followed by another initiative, the Street Reconstruction Project, in 2007. In spite of some improvements, neither plan managed to get through the red tape to completion as envisioned. Ms. Sadik-Khan herself framed the Broadway closings as a “pilot project” to leapfrog the city’s lengthy approval processes.
Now that the plazas at Times and Herald squares are permanent, the next step is making them look worthy of the part, a process that began somewhat haltingly yesterday. With businesses, urban planners and the mayor’s office solidly behind the idea that proponents said would not only speed traffic but also seduce more tourists, cheer up lunchtime office workers and attract more customers to local stores, why isn’t the DOT taking more assertive steps in making the plazas attractive? Epoxy gravel is hardly the stuff of inspiring design. And while the announcement last month made much of the Times Square Alliance’s findings that 74% of visitors consider their Times Square experience much improved, nothing was said about the 72% who agreed the space would be “more appealing if designed better, especially the furniture.” (They’d also like some live music, please.)
On a recent weekend visit, chairs and tables at the southern end of the Times Square plaza were largely empty, mismatched and scattered far apart. Different styles of metal chairs—some gray, some red and, in one case, slatted-wood—jostled with powder-blue and silver steel benches. The tall espresso bar tables seemed more forlorn than cosmopolitan without anyone leaning there sipping coffee. The glued-in-place gravel was uneven, missing, and painted in some places with red dots for no obvious reason. Further north, at the foot of the TKTS booth—where the ruby-glass staircase that rises up behind the Father Duffy statue has become a choice perch and vantage point for viewing the flashy cyclorama of digital and neon advertisements in Times Square—the street-level seating was better integrated: Chairs, tables and umbrellas were all red, as if in spontaneous response to the more coherent design of the booth’s stadium staircase.
The dead of winter is no time to judge an outdoor plaza, of course, but it was easy to see why some critics are drawing unfavorable comparisons between the Times Square pedestrian plaza and the High Line, which also opened last spring. Intensive design and almost obsessive care went into making that elevated railroad track turned garden path an instant success on the far West Side of Manhattan. It also cost some $152 million in public and private funds ($44 million raised by Friends of the High Line), while the Broadway plan had to wing it with less than $2 million in public funding.
Ms. Sadik-Khan, who in October boasted of getting the Broadway beach chairs from a discount hardware store, said yesterday that the new design competition was to elicit ideas for “economical, temporary surface treatments” from any design professional or artist living in New York. The winner will receive a $15,000 fee from the mayor’s fund and the design is to be in place by mid-July. While that suggests a rather piecemeal and hasty approach to any serious design project, the mayor speaks more inspirationally of “an enduring, world-class street.” A request for proposals to provide an overall plaza design was also made public yesterday. The Design Trust for Public Space has expressed an interest in running its own competition for the plaza’s design, but yesterday’s press release said that only the eight large firms already qualified to work with the New York City Department of Design and Construction are eligible. Luckily many are blue-chip operations, including Selldorf Architects, Snøhetta, Rogers Marvel Architects and Thomas Phifer and Partners. None are landscape or urban planning firms. Hopes remain high, however, that having finally grabbed the space away from cars, the powers that be will make every effort to create something truly transformative for people. No one’s expecting Rome’s Piazza Navona, but someplace comfortable from which to watch the Naked Cowboy would be nice.
Ms. Iovine is executive editor of the Architect’s Newspaper.