News from NY: What We Can Learn from Times Square’s Public Spaces

roadway_seating_small.jpgThis used to be the scene of gridlocked traffic. A pedestrian plaza was carved out the the old roadbed of Broadway in NYC's Times Square. Photo: berk2804

When Tim Tompkins took over as President of the Times Square Alliance, one of New York City's largest Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), the primary concerns were the security and cleanliness of the most iconic, if chaotic, public space in the world. Despite incessant traffic and pedestrian gridlock ("pedlock" to borrow Tompkin's phrase), his Board of Directors and city officials on the whole weren't initially interested in Tompkins' vision for transforming Times Square into a world-class public space, with less traffic and higher design concepts.

As Tompkins explained to a standing-room audience in the auditorium at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR) building last week, his Board was content that there weren't regular stabbings and violent crime. The quality of public space seemed too esoteric.  Gradually, Tompkins built public support for dramatic changes, starting with the re-design of Father Duffy Square, the site of the TKTS Broadway ticket office. Working with New York City's Department of Transportation (NYCDOT), Tompkins began chipping away at the space allocated to cars and opening it up to pedestrians. Shortly after the completion of Duffy Square in October, 2008, said Tompkins, NYCDOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan approached him with the idea of closing down a portion of Broadway to vehicles to create public plazas.

The Times Square plazas have received acclaim from New Yorkers, tourists, and the often cynical press in New York City (The NY Post still hates the plazas, but what can one expect from a Rupert Murdoch rag?). Now, cities around the country are looking to the "Capitol of the World" for leadership in transforming their own under-utilized or overcrowded streets into quality pedestrian space. After meeting with San Francisco city leaders and officials (Great Streets Project Director Kit Hodge, who organized Tompkin's visit to San Francisco, said the meetings were very productive), Tomkins sat down with Streetsblog for an interview. Tompkins was very familiar with the Bay Area and had excellent advice for city policy makers and businesses.

Read interview highlights after the jump.

Matthew Roth: What in your opinion has been the biggest change in Times Square over the past decade?

Tim Tompkins: Well I think it was really recognizing that the challenge of Times Square as a public space had changed. It’s not enough that it's just sort of safe to be there, this is one of the world’s great public spaces, what’s missing?

I think over the last couple of decades we’ve learned a lot about how to make parks great, and that parks are important to life of the city. I think there’s been an evolution over the last decade thanks to organizations like [Streetsblog], and Project for Public Spaces, and Transportation Alternatives that have said, you know, “There is another part of the public realm, there is another part of city life that we need to pay attention to.”  And by the way it also intersects with, you know, green issues, and the whole urban environmental movement is something that pushed all of this along, where those just weren’t even considerations before.  So I think the larger world has changed.

What I see is that what’s been happening is part of a larger movement in terms of the revitalization of cities. It’s kind of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where you need to take care of the basics of comfort and security first before you can even think about anything else. That played out with respect to nature and parks, but wasn’t really playing out in the streets and sidewalks. I think not only in Times Square and in New York City, but in a bunch of places… we’ve been paying attention to that. And that’s been the paradigm shift that’s driving a lot of this.

duffy_square.jpgThe re-designed Father Duffy Square. Photo: TSA
I think the biggest change is that now, especially with the introduction of Duffy Square, which opened in October 2008, [we redefined the] expectations for Times Square as a public space. Until we actually had Duffy Square as a kind of a concrete, tangible paradigm, it was all theoretical, and people couldn’t really experience it. Duffy Square took up a lane of Broadway, and took up a lane of 7th Avenue, the [NYC]DOT was good enough to give us that extra space. We doubled the amount of pedestrian space, created this beautiful glass staircase, which on the one hand was a great urban design statement, but also was for the first time a place for people to be still amidst the chaos and the energy of Times Square.

This was kind of a variation, which was this is a place where you can be still, but you’re still in the city. You’re experiencing the city, but you don’t have to stand or walk through it the way you did before. Finally, we created a place for that observation to happen, for people to see what we called the second best show on Broadway, which is Times Square itself. It’s people watching people in this unique way. And so sometimes it’s about looking up, sometimes it’s about noticing the store across the street, but as much as anything it’s about watching this urban fugue, which is the special nature of a public space in the city, where you’ve got all these different things going on. Different people, different languages, different looks, and a little bit of chaos, but also a tremendous amount of energy.

MR: Now that you've closed portions of Broadway to cars and opened it up to people, what would you say to skeptics of pedestrianization and pilots that limit private vehicles?

TT: Well, I think… pedestrianization of a former roadway is a mixture of art and science. There are people who have studied this, you know, what do people do in public spaces, and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It has to do with design, management, the nature of the space, what’s going on around it.  So it’s not an easy thing to get right.  One of the great things about this commissioner and [NYC] Mayor [Michael Bloomberg] is that they’re willing to experiment and see what happens, and this commissioner is doing it in the context of even having something like the streets as a public space be a part of the discussion, which is a kind of philosophical shift for an agency. Many transportation agencies often focus exclusively on the engineering of moving cars. So the discussion changed. 

And then we’re still learning how to make this work. How to bring some authentic sort of street style programming back to Times Square without overwhelming it, without it being too noisy for the office tenants, or the theaters.  How to have the furniture look good, but not be just like everything else… Even just how you keep it clean so it doesn’t look ratty.  Because when it was asphalt it’s like, well this is a street, it’s not supposed to look good. The second it was painted red asphalt, then there was this challenge, because people were no longer looking at it as a street that happened to have a chair on it, they were looking at it as a public space, and they were like, 'This is not Piazza San Marco, this is crap.'  And in some ways they’re right, but it’s a function of shifting expectations.

MR: What has the reaction been among businesses in the district?

TT: I think that there was definitely concern and fear during a time of economic vulnerability, and you’ve got to acknowledge that.  Longer-term interests, like somebody that owns an office building, they’re there for decades, but you know, restaurants in Times Square live hand to mouth. If Broadway tickets are down 20 percent, their business is down 20 percent. You have to pay attention to the reality of somebody’s economic situation. 

"The second it was painted red asphalt, then there was this challenge, because people were no longer looking at it as a street that happened to have a chair on it, they were looking at it as a public space, and they were like, 'This is not Piazza San Marco, this is crap.'  "

I think at the same time listen to what they say, and then modify the plan accordingly. There were some issues about theater access on 45th Street, and what was going to happen when you change the traffic patterns. We had conversations and DOT was great. They sat down and they said, 'Okay, we were initially thinking we wouldn’t let you make a right turn, but we’re going to modify the plan and allow that to happen,' and that addressed a really big issue.  So that’s another case where … it’s important to have the conversation between the private interests and the government that’s doing it.  And to say, you know, maybe that might not have worked, and then we would have had to say, 'Okay, we’re three weeks into it, let’s change something else.'

The other thing to keep in mind, though, is that you’ve got to think about your long- term competitiveness. A business understands that you’ve got a competitive environment.  What are your advantages versus some other place?  In a place like San Francisco, in a place like Times Square, they’re major tourist destinations, and people can choose to go somewhere else.  Just like whether it's an amusement park, or it's a beach resort, they’ve got to do some upgrades, they’ve got to pay attention to the competitive environment and say, 'What’s going to keep people coming here?'

MR: What advice would you give city leaders and business interests in San Francisco for transforming Market Street and other business districts? How can we learn from the example in Times Square?

TT: In a place like San Francisco, and in Times Square, especially when real estate and finance and banking are doing much, much worse, tourism is a major economic engine, and you’ve got to keep people coming, and you’ve got to make your product better…. You’ve got to think of your public spaces as these assets, which fundamentally as much as anything else shape peoples’ perceptions.  When Times Square was down and out and dangerous, New York was down and out and dangerous. When it was making a come back, then New York was making a come back. 

I’m sure it’s the same case with certain key places in San Francisco like Market Street. I think you’ve got a major perception problem on parts of Market Street that’s right on the edge of your tourist district. And that’s got consequences because part of what I say is you don’t know who’s NOT coming to your neighborhood. You may be scared that your business is going to get worse because cars are going to be inconvenienced a little bit, but there may be 20 percent of your potential business that isn’t even getting near your place because the larger public space environment is unpleasant, or unwelcoming....

Be patient, because it takes a long time for these things to happen, it takes a long time for people to accept a different way of doing things. Often times you’ll have a lot of concern for people whose economic interest is directly affected, and you shouldn’t just be dismissive, you’ve got to find out what’s actually going on with their customers, which of their customers arrive by cars. How do we make sure that we’re addressing those issues? 

Know your facts, know what’s actually really going on in terms of the economic activity, and the relationship between transportation uses for that public space versus a pedestrian use, and that means on both sides of the equation. People also may say “Oh well, this is going to kill the neighborhood.”  Well, do some surveys. Are people noticing retail that they didn’t before? So I think, you know, stick to the facts, but also be patient. And also experiment. 

This is a work in progress, no public space is exactly the same.  I mean, if every public space was the same, then every single park would work perfectly….  Each one is different, and has a different personality, has a different dynamic, and you’ve got to tinker with it to make it work. I think, most importantly, the core notion is understanding that this street or sidewalk has a multitude of potential uses, and can be an asset in a neighborhood for a bunch of different purposes.