Why Are So Many Public Pedestrian Plazas Popping Up in NYC?

Why Are So Many Public Pedestrian Plazas Popping Up in NYC?

New York City’s walking paths are primarily utilitarian; they direct us to work, to community hubs, to our weekend plans — and if they don’t stretch as far as we need, they lead us to the public transit stops that can carry us the rest of the way. In recent years, however, walking spaces in New York have begun to shift away from pure function. Public pedestrian plazas are popping up all over the city, encouraging fast-paced New Yorkers to do the unthinkable: slow down, relax, and put off their next trek to enjoy the neighborhood awhile.

 

Pedestrian plazas transform under-utilized streets into vibrant public spaces. The number of these transformations have skyrocketed over the past decade; according to analysts for the Global Designing Cities Initiative, there were a whopping 71 plazas in various stages of design, construction, or completion as of 2015. Of those, 49 were available for public use. More have appeared since then — however, the space that stands as the foremost example of these pedestrian-centered havens was one of the first to be built.

 

Now home to an expansive European-style piazza, Times Square at Broadway was once dominated by honking cars and bumper-to-bumper traffic. Before the city closed Broadway to vehicular travel, pedestrians had access to only 10% of the street space despite outnumbering cars by nearly nine to one. In 2009, the city launched the Green Light for Midtown project: an initiative which would block off vehicular traffic and optimize the space to better suit the needs of its overwhelmingly pedestrian user base. It’s fair to say that it worked; today, Times Square stands as an internationally-acclaimed haven for those experiencing the city on foot.

 

The flurry of plaza expansions is due in large part to the NYC Department of Transportations’ Plaza Program. Launched in early 2008, the initiative works to ensure that all New Yorkers need only walk ten minutes to find an open and welcoming public space. The efforts aren’t purely for aesthetics; as one nonprofit recently reported, “Plazas have been proven to enhance local economic vitality, pedestrian mobility, access to public transit, and safety.”

 

The program prioritizes projects in areas that currently lack such space — especially those in low-income or high-pedestrian neighborhoods. In creating these plazas, the city’s urban planners hope to create more pedestrian-friendly spaces, optimize neighborhood walkability, boost access to public transit, improve public health, better pedestrian and vehicular safety, and support local community development.

 

The Plaza Program accomplishes the above goals via partnerships with private entities, nonprofits, and neighborhood groups who apply for involvement. Generally, they employ a philosophy that the green infrastructure nonprofit Deeproot dubs, “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper,” or LQC. These groups use low-cost, low-risk methods to reimagine public spaces; often, the temporary changes they make serve as trial measures for more permanent changes down the line. One spokesman for Deeproot describes the process, writing:

 

“These street-to-plaza conversions use simple elements like moveable tables, umbrellas and chairs; colorful, patterned surface treatments and plantings; and lively and entertaining programming to create more publicly accessible open space […] Changes can include new amenities, such as planters and public art, new configurations of the street using paint and bollards, and space for events and activities.”

 

After the transformation takes place, the writer goes on to say, newly-minted pedestrian plazas often host a variety of community-friendly happenings, such as neighborhood movie nights, weekend farmers’ markets, and free concerts.

 

Pedestrian plazas seem to be all upsides — yet, even they have their critics. Some opponents worry that in closing streets for foot traffic, plaza proponents are curtailing access for emergency vehicles, limiting road connectivity, and overloading streets beyond their capacity. These concerns are valid; however, most urban planners have found that when properly designed and placed, walking plazas can re-route traffic to allow vulnerable walkers and bikers better access to their homes and neighborhood businesses without significantly blocking vehicular access to plaza-adjacent areas.

 

Critics may even find themselves switching sides on the debate once the plaza is in place. To quote Deeproot on the matter once more, “As more cities take the plunge into these conversions they often find that street-to-plaza conversions support local businesses, foster neighborhood interaction, enhance pedestrian safety, encourage non-motorized transportation, and reimagine the potential of city streets.”

 

For better or worse (but almost certainly better), pedestrian plazas are on the rise in New York. Like any living, evolving entity, cities experience growing pains. It may take time for urban planners to iron out the small snags in the plaza integration process, but the benefits these community spaces offer New Yorkers now are both real and considerable. So, the next time you join the current of walkers on the sidewalk, keep an eye out for a pedestrian plaza. Who knows; you might find yourself experiencing your old neighborhood in an entirely new way.

 

NYC’s Most Overlooked Landmarks

NYC’s Most Overlooked Landmarks

Even if you’re new to NYC, you’re probably very familiar with the city’s most iconic landmarks. Around the world, spots like Times Square, the Empire State Building, and Yankee Stadium are well known, but beyond that, New York is home to countless fascinating locales that can escape even homegrown New Yorkers’ purview. Here’s our favorite of the lesser-visited landmarks to be found around the city that never sleeps.

Fraunces Tavern

NYC is positively brimming with historical landmarks, but few are as closely tied to America’s past than this Revolutionary-era saloon in Manhattan’s Financial District. Taverns in those days were about more than just having a drink: they were central to common life, and a place where people mingled and met up with peers and friends in a relaxed setting. Here, visitors can garner a taste of those old days, with regular tours and exhibits centered around New York’s fascinating Revolutionary War history. The oldest standing structure in the city, the Tavern is also a functioning bar/restaurant, where entrants can drink like George Washington and his contemporaries. The site of Washington’s post-war farewell address, there’s no better place to drink in the historic significance of Lower Manhattan.

Brooklyn Academy of Music

New York is home to countless cultural institutions known worldwide. The Theater District, Lincoln Center and concert venues like the Beacon Theatre draw in visitors of every origin, and for good reason. But if you want to take in a show the way locals do, there are few better venues than the Brooklyn Academy of Music, affectionately referred to as BAM. Open since 1908, the 3-building BAM campus in Fort Greene is home to the borough’s premier rotation of cutting edge, multicultural performance and cinematic art. Whether in the 2,000+ capacity Howard Gilman Opera House, the BAM Rose Cinemas, Harvey Theater or the more recently opened BAM Fisher Building around the corner, taking in a show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is one way for residents and tourists alike to participate in the artistic life of NYC’s most creative borough.

Manhattan Bridge

While it lacks the vaunted silhouette of its neighbor to the southwest, this blue and white steel-trussed span is all New York. A stroll across the Manhattan Bridge’s pedestrian footpath (or bike lanes on the opposite side) amounts to a trip through city history–taking visitors from frozen-in-time Chinatown through a chain-link fenced and graffiti-covered journey recalling the gritty city of the 70s and 80s, into the bustling and perpetually growing Downtown Brooklyn that’s become the most dynamic locale of the 21st century city. Perhaps most remarkable about the span (besides the unforgettable South-facing view of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Lower Manhattan skyline) is the Canal Street entryway, a triumphal arch flanked by 30 stately Roman columns. For those leaving Manhattan to journey to Brooklyn, this bridge offers no finer passage.

Edgar Allan Poe Cottage

If you can believe it, the iconic author and poet moved out to this cottage for the fresh air and natural splendor of the Bronx. Of course, in 1847 the city as a whole was a very different place, but now in 2019, this quaint cottage remains mostly as it was then: a perfect out-of-the-way experience off the beaten path. The poet died just two years later, but the house has entered into eternity, having served as a museum since 1913, now run by the Bronx Historical Society. Poe completists can follow up this trip by heading to Poe’s previous residence on West 3rd Street in Greenwich Village, whose facade has been preserved by the current tenant, New York University.

Can Dockless e-Scooters Work for NYC?

Can Dockless e-Scooters Work for NYC?

In the past year, dockless electric scooters have found a home in cities across the country. Adoption rates have been incredibly fast, with riders heralding them as a cheap and convenient way to navigate their city and curb car usage at the same time. But the scooters are controversial and, while beloved in some cities have been banned in others. In a city like New York, which has a booming public transit system with unfortunate gaps throughout its outer boroughs, scooters could become the solution to accessibility issues while simultaneously addressing congestion. But there are plenty of potential snags.

While dockless e-scooters clearly address a national pain point, they’re hotly contested by some city residents and officials. In many cases, e-scooter companies neglected to apply for permits, prompting San Francisco and other cities to order all scooter operations ceased until the appropriate permissions were granted. Meanwhile, residents are complaining about scooters discarded in the middle of sidewalks, and safety concerns like riders weaving in and out of traffic without helmets, and ignoring stop signs, red lights, and one-way street signs

The e-scooters haven’t yet made an appearance in America’s most populous city, but New York City officials are in discussions with company representatives. While they’ll need to navigate considerable regulatory and infrastructure challenges, a dockless e-scooter invasion is likely imminent. New York City is the third most traffic-congested city in the world and the second worst traffic-jammed city in the country. That congestion costs the city billions of dollars annually, not to mention environmental and quality-of-life concerns. Residents have a lot to gain by welcoming scooters, and in cities that have successfully adopted their use, they’ve proven a great way to connect the gaps in public transportation, zooming commuters from subway stops to their final destinations.

The trick will be in the deployment, something which the city is taking very seriously. As it stands now, most of NYC’s curbsides are dedicated to car parking, placing constraints on scooter parking and increasing the likelihood that they’ll wind up blocking pedestrian foot traffic on the sidewalk. But, if ample space can be allocated for scooter parking and the appropriate safety regulations are addressed, the new technology could be a boon to the city.

As it stands, New York state’s DMV classifies electric scooters as motor vehicles, meaning they must be registered, but since there’s no process in place to register e-scooters, they can’t legally be driven in the state. Electric-assisted bicycles have faced the same problem, but a state bill is changing that and could pave the way for e-scooters to follow suit. For the time being, however, it remains to be seen how e-scooters will be classified, or even whether they would be driven on sidewalks, in bike lanes, or on roads. Whatever the DMV decides will dictate the city’s next move, as it ponders the viability of the scooters and necessary safety requirements.

Cities face these challenges with every new mode of transportation. Biking was less feasible prior to the widespread designation of bike lanes. Uber and Lyft also upset the status quo. It’s taken years, but NYC is still struggling to properly regulate ride-sharing companies, most recently temporarily suspending them from adding new ride-hail cars until it can research ride-sharing effects on congestion and driver wages.

But if anyone is up to the task of successfully regulating dockless e-scooters, it’s New York City’s Department of Transportation, which is one of the largest and most sophisticated transportation governance bodies in the world. And the Senate has already introduced a bill that would make e-scooters legal throughout the state. Plus, the scooter company Bird recently held a demonstration in Brooklyn, generating community interest and enthusiasm for the new technology.

Much of New York are working together to make e-scooters a reality, making it less a question of if they will surface, but rather when it will happen — and how.

The L Train Shutdown That Wasn’t, or Might Still Be

The L Train Shutdown That Wasn’t, or Might Still Be

April 27, 2019 was to be the day that threw Brooklyn into turmoil. The long-dreaded closing of the 14th Street Tunnel between Williamsburg and Manhattan would disrupt and delay thousands of commuters, changing work and life plans for countless New Yorkers. Until that is, a press conference hastily called on January 3 where Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that, after much deliberation, the shutdown was itself being, well, shut down.

New York’s 5.5 million daily commuters are certainly no strangers to working around delays and changes, but a major East River crossing being shut down for 15+ months is a new beast entirely. The shutdown had been discussed in near-apocalyptic terms, and now it may not be happening at all.

The controversial plan kicked off as a result of flooding from 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. The 14th Street tunnel, connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan along the L train line, suffered major water damage that, left unfixed, threatened the integrity of the entire tunnel. To make the crucial fixes, at least a partial closing of the tunnel, shutting off train traffic, was said to be necessary.

The controversy isn’t in making long-overdue infrastructural fixes to a system in need of many–few New Yorkers will claim that fixing signals, tunnels and tracks is a net negative–it’s the massive disruption that many have been preparing for since the shutdown was first proposed in 2016. The L train is one of many lines in the subway system, but for many neighborhoods, it’s the only link to Manhattan. Williamsburg, a hugely booming Brooklyn nabe for the past decade-plus looked to be cut off completely from their best route into the city.

Many are rejoicing at the news, but the sudden change naturally calls into question all of the consideration city and state officials had on display throughout the entire planning process. Months of town hall meetings and community board gatherings informed the MTA’s 18-month plan. Does this unilateral move by the Governor threaten to undermine these voices? The new plan still must be approved by the MTA Board, who are largely expected to okay the plan lest their public perception drop even further.

The announced fix-up plan, based upon a method used in Europe and Asia but new to the U.S., will eliminate the need for miles of old cable to be removed from damaged tunnel walls. Instead, workers will be mounting new cables on the walls themselves and installing a system to monitor the old walls and spot-fix rather than wholly replace them. This work will be taking place nights and weekends for a planned 15 months, about the same length of time the entire tunnel was expected to be closed. Any big changes to the complex world underneath NYC’s streets demands careful thought and consideration, and many are concerned these construction changes weren’t fully thought through by those in charge.

In any case, the 250,000 daily riders of the 14 Street tunnel, plus countless businesses on both sides of the river are now dealing with an entirely new set of circumstances. This change came as a shock to many, especially Brooklyn residents, businesses, and realtors who made plans for 2019 and beyond on the assumption that the L train would be a non-factor. Daily L train ridership may be slightly reduced in number thanks to the change, but don’t expect empty trains at rush hour. It’s likely that assuming the new plan is approved by the MTA board, the majority of riders will be thankful the potential crisis has been averted.

New York City’s subway has seen a lot in its century-plus history, and a major shutdown being canceled certainly ranks among it’s most surprising happenings. No matter what happens next, planned overhauls of MTA processes and equipment aim to bring the nation’s oldest underground rail system into the 21st century. The subway system may never truly be problem-free, but it’s a future 5+ million New Yorkers will definitely hope for.

NYC’s Growing Skyline, for 2019 and Beyond

NYC’s Growing Skyline, for 2019 and Beyond

New York is a place where change has been a constant since the very beginning. Our vaunted skyline, iconic in countless ways, is no exception. In the coming years, supertall construction all across the city where the skyscraper was born promises to revamp NYC’s public face as we build the 21st Century. Here are 5 buildings changing the look of New York City’s skyline in a major way in 2019 and beyond.

 

1 Vanderbilt

When you’re talking about changes to the skyline of the city, a 1,400-foot tower on 42nd street certainly qualifies. Due to top out in 2020, the office building will be the fourth tallest in New York, standing over Grand Central Station in Midtown East. While it’s unlikely any new construction can rival the historic train station aesthetically, this modern counterpart to the 105-year old terminal will serve as a visual reminder of how this city blends the old and the new on nearly every corner.

 

Central Park Tower

No list of towering new constructions would be complete without Central Park Tower, slated for completion in 2020 after a 6-year building process. The finished structure will stand 1,550 feet, making it the second tallest in the nation (behind 1 World Trade Center, 4.4 miles away). Even more intriguing news than that, however, may be indicated in the building’s nickname: the Nordstrom Tower. The venerable luxury brand’s first full-line flagship in New York City will take up seven floors within Central Park Tower, ensuring that for at least some fashion-minded New Yorkers this supertall building will be a can’t-miss destination.

 

15 Hudson Yards

The Hudson Yards complex has been rising above the trainyards for a few years now, with multiple distinctive buildings clustered on Manhattan’s West Side. 15 Hudson Yards, completing in 2019, may well be the most distinctive for multiple reasons. While the upper reaches of the structure will definitely command attention, a planned cultural venue at its feet known as the Shed may well be the most attractive part for most New Yorkers. Opening this year, the Shed’s retractable roof will cover (or reveal) an array of events related to art, film, design, food, and many more.

 

9 Dekalb Avenue

Not to be ignored, the city’s most populated borough has seen a high-rise boom in the 21st century, so it’s only logical that downtown Brooklyn is getting a supertall skyscraper of its own. The site of an historic Dime Savings Bank building (whose Greek Revival facade will be preserved) is where 9 DeKalb Avenue will soar 1,066 feet into the air, dwarfing the area’s current tallest structure by 450 feet. The building will contain retail at ground level while the upper levels will consist of apartments with unrivaled views of nearly the entire city. Among all the talk of Manhattan’s revamped skyline, don’t forget that the growing one across the river is only getting started.

 

1 Manhattan West

Rivaling the Hudson Yards complex, neighboring Manhattan West’s towers will stand as part of the city’s most attention-getting group of buildings this side of the new World Trade Center. 1 Manhattan West, the biggest of the bunch, will top out in 2019 at 995 feet, with its sister building (the creatively named 2 Manhattan West) planned to start as soon as the roof is in place. The two new clusters of buildings represent an almost pre-fabricated neighborhood over a previously unpopulated area, meaning more New Yorkers and more things to do in this always-exciting city. While the skyline of this city will forever be iconic, there’s always plenty of room for improvement.

The Mayors Who Made NYC

The Mayors Who Made NYC

This city’s history can be told in myriad ways, whether through its splendid structures, incredible infrastructure, or titanic transportation. But in the end, what makes New York truly memorable throughout history has been its people.

Of the millions upon millions of citizens that have called NYC home, few have guided the course of the city’s progress like the elected leaders who take on the mantle of mayor. Being a local leader in a global metropolis means our mayors carry a great deal of influence, and throughout the years that influence has made for some memorable tenures. Here are just four of the most notable mayors in New York City’s history.

 

Thomas Willett (1665-1666, 1667-1668)

The first mayor of NYC was born in England, but made his name as a trader in the colonies while simultaneously taking part in administering the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. His fluency in Dutch led to his taking the odd job from Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch leader of the colony of New York (then called New Netherland). Stuyvesant would eventually sign his power over to the English in 1664 with Willett present, and New York City was born. Appointed by new Governor Richard Nicoll, Willett served as mayor of the newly christened city, and his bilingual status was an asset to the transition. When the Dutch briefly retook the city in 1673, Willet was persona non grata and fled back to Massachusetts, where he died the following year.

 

DeWitt Clinton (1803-1807, 1808-1810, 1811-1815)

The son of a Revolutionary War General, DeWitt Clinton’s contributions to New York and the nation were far less combative than those of his father. As mayor of NYC, Clinton was a crucial supporter of the humanities; establishing the New York Historical Society, the American Academy of the Fine Arts, and serving as a Regent of the State University of New York (SUNY).

Moving on after his mayoralty to become Governor of the state, he played a crucial role in the construction of the Erie Canal. This megaproject connected New York and the rest of the Eastern Seaboard to the Great Lakes, massively expanding the young country’s trade possibilities. His name lives on throughout the city–whether a high school in the Bronx, a park in Chelsea, or public housing in Harlem, DeWitt Clinton’s legacy will be emblazoned upon this city for generations to come.

 

William Havemeyer (1845-1846, 1848-1849, 1873-1874)

Son of a German immigrant, Havemeyer grew up in his father’s sugar business. By the time he turned 40, he sold his interest in the successful family store and set out to build a political career. He ingratiated himself with the famously corrupt Tammany Hall, but managed to maintain a measure of independence and fought against Tammany politicians later in his career. Havemeyer was strongly anti-slavery, a position that put him at odds with many in the political establishment of his day. For his third term, he defeated the Tammany-endorsed Abraham Lawrence and reorganized the city’s government much to the derision of entrenched powers. A crusader until the end, Havemeyer passed away while in office and was buried in the Bronx.

 

Fiorello LaGuardia (1934-1945)

Havemeyer famously clashed with the powerful Tammany group, but it wasn’t until the extremely popular and charismatic LaGuardia was elected many decades later that the old party machine was snuffed out for good. As mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia revitalized a suffering city in the midst of the Great Depression.

The son of Italian immigrants, he rallied voters in favor of pro-labor and immigration initiatives during his time as a U.S. Representative for his district in East Harlem. Deciding to run for mayor later on, he claimed the support of the immigrant populations Tammany had long leaned on for control. This popular backing came mostly thanks to his ambitious agenda: financially empowering individual citizens over the banks, expanded work relief for the unemployed, ending corruption and organized crime, and modernizing the city’s transportation and parks systems.

His unmatched charisma helped make these lofty goals realistic, and few mayors in history were as popular as he. Today, the airport that bears his name is a testament to his forward-thinking approach, along with the famed performing arts high school and several more parks and schools. In 1993, LaGuardia was “overwhelmingly” voted the greatest mayor in American history by a panel of historians and experts. In a city that won’t accept any less than the best, Fiorello LaGuardia may well stand for years as the finest municipal leader the nation has ever seen.