Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recent comments connecting the plazas and the problem he sees with panhandlers and street performers has touched a nerve among the media and New Yorkers, but we feel he’s missing the forest for the trees, or in this case, the happy tourists for the body paint.
The performers come for the crowds, and crowds come because the space works: Every month, 400,000 people walk through Times Square to take in its grubby, consumerist, crowded, neon-bathed (and yes, naked) glory. If there are some issues with the number and style of the performers, we are confident that there are smarter and simpler solutions than a bulldozer, and the destruction of what has become a valued public space in a city with too few of them.
In a hyper-dense area of the city, the plazas offer a no-fee entry to the wonders of Times Square. The joy of observing the passing of strangers, eyeing one of the world’s highest concentration of skyscrapers and public art, and just be is free of charge and an experience that rivals anything on stage in the Theater District. More importantly, the intent of the plazas’ design offers citizens and visitors a zone of public safety from the multi-modal traffic mayhem of the streets.
Since the plazas were initially pedestrianized in summer 2009 by the NYC Department of Transportation, there has been a 35% reduction in crash-related injuries to pedestrians and there are 80% fewer pedestrians walking in the street. This progress aligns with the mayor’s ambitious Vision Zero plan, and should be celebrated.
At Van Alen Institute, we have special affection for Times Square: In 1997, we worked with the Theater Development Fund to hold a design competition for a new TKTS booth in Father Duffy Square. Since it opened in 2008, its red steps have become an icon of the area, and are a great place to sit and hang out.
We also know that Mayor de Blasio cares about public space, and making sure everyone has access to it: his Community Parks Initiative, which targets funds for improving parks in growing, high-need neighborhoods, is already making a difference in places from Brownsville to the South Bronx. Times Square’s plazas already embody two important parts of the mayor’s agenda – equity and pedestrian safety – and so we hope that he comes to see them as the incredible amenity that they are