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Closing the Crossroads
New York to keep Broadway plazas, plan major redesign
The city will soon rework its Broadway plazas, which were installed in August.
Courtesy NYC DOT

With a half-foot of snow all but cleared away and the sun shining down on Times Square, the “Crossroads of the World” had returned to normal this morning. Taxis whizzed by on 7th Avenue as tourists gawked, salarymen brushed by, and pedestrians milled about the new plazas created on Broadway, where cars ruled until the city’s Department of Transportation shut them to traffic in May.

A map of western midtown showing the changes to traffic speeds after the closure of portions of Broadway. (Click to enlarge)
Courtesy NYC DOT
Today, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced that the plazas would become permanent, and said the city would soon be putting out bids for short- and long-term improvements to them. “It’s going to be innovative and sustainable and celebrate the most famous streets in the world,” the mayor said at a Times Square press conference. “The project gives a green light to pedestrians, to mobility, and to safety. The new Broadway is here to stay.”

In an interview after the announcement, Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan explained that her department hoped to have two RFPs ready by March. One would be targeted at sprucing up the plazas with new paint, planters, and chairs, which would be completed by this summer. This would address one of the few non-motorist complaints about the plazas: A Times Square Alliance survey found that nearly 70 percent of New Yorkers, suburbanites, local employees, and retail managers thought the plazas could use a better design.

“It can be very simple,” Sadik-Khan said. “I’ve seen amazing things done in the Netherlands with nothing but polka dots. And we did a lot already with nothing more than epoxy gravel.”

Herald Square, before (top) and after the plazas arrived.
Courtesy NYC DOT

The other, larger RFP is to create a more permanent program for the plazas that not only includes public amenities but also entertainment infrastructure for the various events and performances that take place in Times Square and Herald Square throughout the year. The department is still developing a timeline for this phase of the project.

Among the other issues being worked out, Sadik-Khan would not say how intensively designed the new plazas will be: “That’s why we’re working with the best and brightest in the architecture and design fields, to see what they come up with.” That said, this RFP will only be open to the eight “large firms” in the city’s Design & Construction Excellence program. While this could limit the range of opinions involved in the project, it will greatly speed the process up, as the eight firms are all prequalified for city work.

In addition to announcing the new plaza plans, Bloomberg and Sadik-Khan heralded a department study on the effects of shutting down parts of Broadway. The study had become a hot topic after the Times reported on February 1 that the results would be below expectations. This turned out to be true, as travel speeds in western Midtown improved by 7 percent, as opposed to the projected 17 percent when the plaza plan was announced last February.

Sadik-Khan said during the press conference that this had to do with changes made to the plan between modeling and implementation, such as a request by the Broadway League, which represents local theaters, that traffic patterns be altered on 45th Street to accommodate theaters there. Plus, Sadik-Khan added, it was impossible to predict how drivers would react to the plan. “The real world is not the model world, as we all know,” she said.

Mayor MIchael Bloomberg (at podium), Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan (at right), and local business leaders announced the success of the Broadway plazas pilot program today.
Matt Chaban

Still, the mayor insisted that the plan worked, as not only did traffic flow improve, but so, too, did safety and satisfaction in the area. Injuries to motorists declined 63 percent since Broadway was closed, while pedestrian injuries were down 35 percent, and 80 percent fewer pedestrians complained of having to walk in the streets. The Times Square Alliance survey found that 74 percent of the thousands of people it surveyed favored keeping the plazas.

Times Square Alliance President Tim Tompkins expressed frustration at reporters’ continued questioning about the traffic results, including one or two who harped on a 2 percent decline in southbound travel times. “There’s been a lot of questions about traffic, but most people in Times Square aren’t driving. It’s important to understand it’s more than just a minute or two of traffic improvement. It’s about altering the entire Times Square experience.”

The mayor said he looked forward to extending this new approach to city streets to other areas—something the Department of Transportation *has pursued on a smaller scale for some years now, carving public plazas out of underused sites from DUMBO to the Bronx. Asked what might be next, though, Sadik-Khan demurred.

“We’re doing traffic and safety improvements all over the city,” she said, and nothing more.

Related News: While the mayor is trying to transform Times Square, one Toronto developer wants to turn it back into the zoo it once was. Well actually, it's an aquarium.

Matt Chaban