September 2017
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Improving Public Plazas at Times Square and Beyond

The Times Square Pedestrian Plaza

The Times Square Pedestrian Plaza

Pedestrian plazas have quickly become an integral part of New York’s landscape. Today there are approximately 65 plazas in place or in development across New York, in all five boroughs. These plazas have animated neighborhoods, created opportunities for arts and culture, and provided much needed open space. They are developed through a community-based process to ensure that they meet the needs of specific neighborhoods.

The most famous of these plazas can be found at the “crossroads of the world,” Times Square. Recently, the media has reported at length on the influx of costumed characters and topless women, known as “desnudas.” In response, policymakers have proposed all sorts of solutions from licensing costumed characters, to outlawing topless individuals from Times Square, to even removing the Times Square plaza entirely.

These responses are aimed at solving the symptoms of the underlying problem, not its cause. The underlying issue is the lack of a legal framework for pedestrian plazas in general, and Times Square in particular. We have laws regulating activities on streets, sidewalks, and parks – but not plazas. This lack of a plaza framework creates confusion at best, and dysfunction at worst. Put simply, it is difficult to enforce the rules when it is unclear which rules to enforce.

Recently, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a task force to tackle the issues facing the plaza at Times Square. The task force will include government agencies, local elected officials and external stakeholders from the Times Square community.

MAS supports the convening of this task force, but believes that it must be the first step, not the last, to provide clarity on how the plazas are to be managed, operated, and regulated. The task force should consider the following MAS recommendations:

  • Take the idea of tearing up the plaza off the table. The plaza has resulted in a sharp decline in traffic injuries and has consistently received favorable responses in public polling. Responding to the plaza’s success, the city is undertaking a $27 million construction project to make the plaza permanent. Removing it now would cause more people to be injured in traffic and take away vital public space.
  • Consider how vending is managed in our city’s parks. Look to these rules for examples of how to enable all New Yorkers to enjoy our public plazas without undermining first amendment laws.
  • Update city law to create a set of regulations for plazas, similar to how the city has specific laws for streets, sidewalks and parks, so that appropriate enforcement and management can take place.
  • Allow for greater flexibility and clarity on where street furniture can go, to give entities that monitor plazas more authority to effectively manage the space (e.g., allow a newsstand in a plaza, which is technically considered the middle of a street).
  • Update the fee schedule to generate more revenue for plaza special events, given that plazas are more valuable as public space than as thoroughfares for cars.

Plazas are New York’s newest type of public spaces, and it will take some time for government regulations to catch up with their unique requirements. But they are making neighborhoods across the city better, improving traffic safety, and improving business’ bottom line.

Given all of this potential, it is the responsibility of Mayor de Blasio and his task force to deliver solutions that make public plazas work for the millions of New Yorkers and tourists who visit Times Square and other public spaces throughout the city.

Learn more from the Times Square Alliance, and the Design Trust for Public Space.