Reflections on 10 Years of the NYC Plaza Program

In 2007, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PlanNYC made a bold commitment that all New Yorkers would live within a 10-minute walk of an open space. Rather than give that goal to the Parks Department as might seem obvious, the plan’s visionary crafters assigned it instead to the Department of Transportation, imagining that underutilized parts of the City’s street network could potentially be converted to public space. Charged with that task, NYC DOT’s ambitious Commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, brought on Andy Wiley-Schwartz from the Project for Public Spaces to make the vision into a reality.

The resulting NYC Plaza Program, which celebrated its 10th Anniversary at an opening event for Corona Plaza in Queens this past Saturday, now boasts an impressive 30-acre portfolio with 74 locations citywide where streets have been repurposed into actively-programmed, partner-managed, neighborhood destinations. This a tremendous accomplishment for which Andy deserves hearty congratulations, as well as the program’s current director Emily Weidenhof. The NYC Plaza Program’s rapid growth was due in no small part to widely employing simple but transformative quick-build methods, first experimented with by NYC DOT in 2006-7 projects which pre-date the program’s official launch, including Willoughby Street in Brooklyn, 14th Street and 9th Avenue in Manhattan, and Pearl Street in Brooklyn. Using the principles cataloged in Tactical Urbanism and now replicated throughout the world, NYC DOT was able to reclaim street space virtually overnight, allowing city officials and local partners to test design and programming concepts, and deliver instant safety and public life benefits without waiting for costly and time-consuming capital reconstruction (that would come years down the line).

Photo: Andy Wiley-Schwartz, NYC DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, and numerous others commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the NYC Plaza Program at Corona Plaza in Queens, NY.

But the lynchpin of the program’s success is its reliance on local nonprofit organizations to generate project locations via an application process, and then maintain the new open spaces once they are implemented. This unusual and pioneering process was crafted with the wisdom that the best public spaces have a design program which reflects and responds to the neighborhood character and culture, and are activated and stewarded by dedicated community stakeholders. As Public Space Operations Manager at NYC DOT from 2008 to 2013, I was responsible for developing and managing relationships with the nonprofit maintenance partners and am personally very grateful for their hard work and commitment to making each plaza successful.

It was a very tricky dynamic- to invite a community group to help us plan and build a public space, and then ask them to commit to physically maintaining it for the foreseeable future. New York City is dotted with past examples of projects where that relationship failed, chiefly because once the project was built, the maintenance partner was left with a large liability but very little support or ongoing benefit. So we developed a more sustainable model based on my own experiences at Bryant Park such that DOT plaza partners are granted limited opportunities to subsidize their obligations through fundraising, sponsorships, and concessions like kiosks and food markets.

Photo: Danza Azteca Chichimeca performs a ceremonial dance at the opening of Corona Plaza in Queens, NY

Ultimately the public-private partnership model we developed proved to be adequate, but only up to a point. Most of the Plaza Program’s early partners were fairly well-capitalized BIDs and LDCs in high-visibility locations, but achieving the goal of building a plaza in each of New York’s 59 community districts meant finding partners in areas where resources were scarcer and revenue-generating efforts less fruitful, and that proved far more difficult. To address this, NYC DOT partnered with the Horticultural Society of New York to launch the Neighborhood Plaza Partnership with a grant from the JM Kaplan Fund. NPP works with smaller plaza partners to help them take care of their public spaces by providing training, capacity-building, and subsidized cleaning and landscaping services as part of The Hort’s larger workforce development program with ACE.

One of the most challenging aspects of developing any partnership-based public realm initiative is tailoring the design program to meet the capacity of the maintenance entity, and then calibrating expectations for successful outcomes. In Times Square and other midtown plazas, it was about responding to overwhelming demand – addressing concerns about plaza wear and tear, pedestrian circulation, and commercial event saturation. At a place like New Lots Plaza at the end of the #3 train in Brooklyn, it was more basic- how are we going to get the space swept and have snow cleared? Who can put out and bring in tables and chairs every day? What plants will survive with limited attention in the shadows of an elevated train?

Photo: The NYC DOT Plaza Program now includes 74 locations covering 30 acres

Every plaza is different and every partner is different, and it was our job to find a formula that solved for the distinct needs of each individual place. In the case of Herald Square, millions of dollars is spent each year by 34th Street Partnership on a sanitation crew that cleans the entire 31-block district around-the-clock. In the case of New Lots Plaza, the head of the small local merchants association owned a pizza shop and agreed to have his porter sweep the plaza each morning. The further out we went from the central business districts, the more we had to cobble together creative operating plans, sometimes requiring bare bones services provided by the City, often involving in-kind or volunteer participation from area businesses and institutions, and in a number of key locations bolstered by the valiant support of Neighborhood Plaza Partnership.

What is crucial is that no public space is designed to a standard which cannot be reasonably managed and maintained. And for that, there is no better tool than using temporary materials. The quick-build approach allowed DOT to test if a public space would actually work in a given location from many different perspectives – not just in terms of traffic flow, but was it embraced by the community and did the partner have the ability to take care of it? In many cases plaza designs had to change and even whole partner organizations had to change to make the project successful. But what we have now, what is embodied in the work I do today with Street Plans, is a roadmap for using temporary materials to foster and cultivate public realm improvements incrementally – from demonstration phase to pilot phase to interim phase to permanent build-out – making tweaks where necessary, and ensuring that the long-term large capital investment is both sound and sustainable.

Photo: The newly-opened, permanently-reconstructed Corona Plaza in the background with a sign in the foreground showing its original incarnation as a congested parking lot

Ed Janoff is Senior Director of Project Development at The Street Plans Collaborative

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