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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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:


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
Picture 3_1.png

Is there any wonder why Janette Sadik-Khan has become an icon to livable cities advocates and transportation wonks?

  • As nicely comprehensive can you get in an article summing up what is going in NYC? NIce job. Where can one purchase this book?

  • The idea is great; I really support it and am looking forward to enjoying the Castro St. plaza. I would suggest some big planters and other fairly substantial “salvage yard leftovers” in case some elderly driver confuses the plaza with a farmers’ market and tries to take it out.

  • NoeValleyCat

    Not sure why Josh thinks that this is so ridiculous. I guess he doesn’t live in SF or spend much time in the Castro. As someone who does, I’ll be happy to not have to dodge cars getting from the corner of Market & 17th to 17th and Castro. Also, there is no place even remotely park-like in that area. If you’d like to have lunch in the Castro, you have to sit inside to do so. I don’t think it’s too European to hope to have a small plaza with a few benches and a table so residents and tourists can enjoy the human parade that passes by.

  • @NoeValleyCat, Harvey Milk Plaza is right across the street from the proposed street park. Across Market is the small Holocaust memorial park. Around the corner 3 blocks SW from that is Collingwood Park. Up the hill 7 or so blocks is Buena Vista Park. Six blocks SE is Dolores Park.

    17th and Market is probably closer to more parks and open space than any intersection in the City. Not to argue that it should not be built.

    Today is a windy day. That spot is often quite windy because it is at the base of several hills. Even waiting at the Muni stop for an F can get chilly. NYC has different humidity and wind patterns that make such parks usable for 3 seasons out of the year. San Francisco’s wind and humidity patterns are much less forgiving, especially in the winter months when the buildings to the south offer up permanent shade.

    Imagine average San Francisco winds whipped up to dangerous levels for cycling like today due to the added heights along Market Streets put forth as TOD. One reason why there isn’t much “stoop” life in SF has to do with wind and cold patterns.


  • Schtu

    I am struck by how much of an impact that the roadbed surface treatment has on delineating these spaces. I hope that is a lesson that SF heeds in developing our own trial plazas.

    @marc – I think you make a valid point about how our climate differs from NYC but I also think that outdoor spaces can accommodate different functions and still be successful. Perhaps the 17th street plaza won’t be welcoming to sit at all the time but merely providing an opportunity for people to cross the street without dodging traffic, to continue their conversations without interruption, I think have a greatly positive effect on the area.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think Harvey Milk Plaza will ever have the critical dimensions necessary to be a true plaza.

  • I am drooling over New York’s physically separated bike lanes. Can we have some of those, please? Pretty please?

    Sadly, Harvey Milk Plaza is a dark, cold, dreary place that one rushes through to get to the Castro Muni station (without being panhandled or accosted, if one is lucky.) As a nearby resident, I welcome the 17th street plaza. The traffic calming alone that it will provide is enough to justify it. And if a hundred days a year it is warm enough to sit there and enjoy “the human parade that passes by”(nice line),even better.

  • I believe that Harvey Milk Plaza runs back to Collingwood to where the old Twin Peaks tunnel southern portal entrance is. I’d imagine that an audacious! rethinking of that triangular spot would make it more than just a subway station entrance. Press releases tell me that Newsom is audacious.

    Once upon a time in the 1990s, Muni was refurbishing the Upper Market subway tracks (were they installing Alcatel ATC?) and for a few months, all metro trains/cars emerged behind the Safeway, travelled down Church to 17th and into the tunnel.

    Manhattan is very flat and has a redundant flat street grid. Taking space from the peripheral avenues is not difficult. One of the few places that are similar in SF is SOMA. Let’s see how the MTA handles the redesign of Folsom and Howard and budgets their 82.5′ ROW. In SF, there are rarely more than one good way to get from point A to point B.


  • I agree with Marcos that a pretty fundamental redesign of HMP is overdue.

    Dear 1970s transit plaza designers,

    You were wrong. Nobody wants to sit in a concrete pit, and people even hate walking around them.

    That said, I hear things that indicate somebody is working on that (did somebody say design competition?) Might make a good followup SB article. Perhaps when that redesign happens, it will be time to make the 17th street plaza permanent, and the two can reinforce each other.

    I agree that there are parts of the city that need this more (I think Treat @16th, and BurritoJustice blog thinks Valencia at Mission), but I don’t begrudge the Castro residents and visitors this plaza, since it seems easy to do and might encourage the city to do more.


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