News From New York: The ABC’s of Trial Plazas and Complete Streets

Picture_18.pngThe trial plaza at Madison Square
When we wrote about the trial pedestrian plaza on 17th Street and Market Street that DPW expects to start this May, the story generated numerous doubts about how the city would create a successful public space out of a busy street abutting a gas station. 

As commenter Josh said, "This truly is a ridiculous idea! Why would anyone want to "enjoy" a small patch of cemented area that's filled with salvage yard leftovers while inhaling unhealthy fumes from not only the cars on the busy streets that surround the designated area but by the gas station?"

Though we can't make guarantees on a pilot project that hasn't been built, we thought we'd highlight some of New York City's temporary plazas and street treatments as best practice analogs, knowing our DPW and MTA are also looking to the Big Crabapple for inspiration. 

DPW Director Ed Reiskin explained to Streetsblog by email that his goal is to keep expenses low. "As for cost, it should be minimal, since materials cost should be close to zero," he said.  "There will be some labor cost to us and MTA to put up signs, transport and place materials, and install any pavement treatments and cuts."

In New York, even the "salvage yard leftovers" have become very nice public amenities.

Anyone who doubts how much can be done with low-cost, salvaged materials should start by watching this Streetfilm with NYC DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, which shows several of the high-profile projects they have completed at Gansevoort Plaza, Broadway, and 9th Avenue, and follow that up with this Streetfilm detailing the Madison Square plaza that reclaimed 45,000 square feet of space for public use. The NYC DOT's Pedestrians and Sidewalks webpage is quickly becoming a best practices gallery for projects that redefine the public realm, remarkable for an agency that had historically been dedicated solely to moving traffic as quickly as possible.

These examples have also become a stopgap for doubters and old-school engineers who believe that removing road capacity for vehicles and turning it over to pedestrians and cyclists is tantamount to heresy.  If it works in the densest and busiest city in America, it's harder to hide behind agency orthodoxy in your hometown.

In the Streetfilms and on the NYC DOT's website, one can see the numerous elements that have become hallmark in New York's bid to carve out under-used asphalt and open streets to people, including the terra-cotta paint for pedestrian space, green paint for bike lanes, large planters, rough-hewn salvaged or quarried stone blocks, and movable furniture and umbrellas. 

As NYC DOT Director of Strategic Communications Dani Simons explained, these treatments are temporary, budgeted from existing agency funds, and are not considered capital expenses.  She said it wouldn't be difficult mill up most of what they put in, or jackhammer out the islands, and restore conditions to how they were previous to the trials.  In the long run, assuming they are determined to be successful, many of the temporary plaza projects would be slated to be included in the city’s capital construction.  At that point, the agency would have a budget for more interesting, durable materials, and could start to do more work that might require digging up the streets, or making changes to infrastructure in the roadways.

In some cases, like Gansevoort Plaza and 9th Avenue, the agency worked with the neighborhood planning process as that matured, and adapted the project as closely as possible to the myriad interests and stakeholder demands.  In the case of the upcoming Pike/Allen Street project (PDF), the DOT has essentially copied a neighborhood plan over a decade in developement, a plan that many of the stakeholders had given up for dead just two years ago.   On Broadway and in Madison Square, the agency worked quickly with the area Business Improvement Districts (BIDS) to come up with design elements and management agreements, building iconic destinations from formerly car-packed roadways in short order.

Broadway

The idea of taking away excess roadway on Broadway in the heart of Midtown Manhattan raised a lot more eyebrows than the 17th Street project in San Francisco has, but the NYC DOT proceeded with the removal of two lanes of traffic and replaced them with slender pedestrian plazas that have not only become popular lunch spots for area workers, but destinations for tourists and visitors to the city (Project PDF) (Images PDF). 

Picture_11.pngAerial view of a Broadway pedestrian plaza

Within days of opening, people flocked to the new open space.

Picture_12.pngPlanters demarcate boundaries for the various street users

The NYC DOT worked with area BIDs, including the Times Square Aliance, the 34th Street Partnership, and the Fashion Center BID on design elements and division of management responsibilities for the new spaces.

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Picture_13.pngPlanters used as a barrier between traffic and those enjoying the new space.

Gansevoort Plaza

Gansevoort Plaza in the Meatpacking District in lower Manhattan used to be a sprawling empty space with no boundaries between pedestrians and motorists and no seating or design elements that would make it an enjoyable place to wile away an afternoon reading a book.

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The NYC DOT responded to community input and utilized excess blocks from bridge projects that were previously stored in their salvage yards to create amenities for sitting and aesthetic enhancement.

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In addition to creative use of salvaged materials, the NYC DOT added boundary markers that not only gave pedestrians and plaza users safe space, but normalized the traffic that had previously entered from five different streets and crossed in a haphazard pattern through the plaza.

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9th Avenue - A Complete Street

Many of the NYC DOT's projects combine pedestrian, bicycle, and vehicle traffic treatments to provide for the safety, convenience, and dignity of a street's most vulnerable users.  Though there are numerous examples on the website, like Vernon Blvd in Queens and Lafayette Ave in the Bronx, perhaps none is more of a complete street than 9th Avenue in Manhattan.  Having lived in New York City for eight years, the first time I saw these before and after photos, I thought I was looking at good Photoshop work:

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The only good way to ride down this street, which at most hours of the day had light traffic and copious speeding, was at a hell-bent pace, taking a lane, praying that raging drivers would see you and respect your physical safety.  That is, until the NYC DOT did this:

Picture_2.pngA physically separated bicycle lane and quality pedestrian crosswalks
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Is there any wonder why Janette Sadik-Khan has become an icon to livable cities advocates and transportation wonks?