General gladness and near unanimous support greeted Mayor Bloomberg’s February 27announcement that he was malling Times and Herald squares by closing off portions of Broadway in the interest of easing traffic, widening sidewalks, and reclaiming some three acres for pedestrian use. The Regional Planning Association has been pitching the idea since 1974, and so the group’s president, Robert Yaro, was triumphant: “This plan is a win-win-win strategy for New York’s motorists, its residents, workers, visitors and property owners. All will benefit as the City’s Broadway plan is brought quickly to reality.” Streetsblog called it “a bold transformative new vision.” And what’s not to like? The $1.5million plan is supposed to reduce southbound motor vehicle travel times by 17percent on 7thAvenue, and northbound travel times by 37percent on 6thAvenue. And the Naked Cowboy will have someplace to sit down.
The notion of banning cars on Broadway has reared up every decade or so since the 1960s, when a malling craze seized the entire country from Kalamazoo (where the first downtown pedestrian zone opened in 1959) to Atlanta. Only 15percent of 200pedestrian malls survived, according to Sam Staley, director of urban and land use policy at the Reason Foundation; the ones that did not were absent two essential ingredients: plenty of pedestrians and a unique sense of place, with viable retail. Those two are resoundingly on hand in Times Square, and always have been, along with efforts to subtract the traffic. In 1977, a $500,000federal grant was paid to the city to create an “experimental pedestrian mall” with trees and potted plants that—just like the one announced by Bloomberg—would become permanent if it worked. And that was the last we heard of a plan that made local businesses fear they’d lose curbside traffic; annoyed taxi drivers for the inconvenience; and flew against the city’s thinking at the time that only more and wider roads could make traffic flow faster. This time around, things are different, not least because the plan seems motivated in part by the mayor’s determination to have something highly visible go his way after congestion pricing went so wrong. The attitude of other stakeholders has also changed—except perhaps the taxi drivers—reflecting more enlightened thinking about public amenities and transportation. They get it now: Cars in the city are headed for extinction.
And yet as radical as the plan is, it was disappointing to see it quite so completely devoid of design. As Deborah Marton, executive director of the Design Trust for Public Space, pointed out, “No one thinks these plazas should look this way. Just claiming the ground was kind of heroic; they can always go back and rethink the detailing.” That’s true, but why doesn’t the Department of Transportation, which is spearheading the plan, have a landscape design consultant on call to sketch up a vision that’s a little less ad hoc, more layered, and not so isolated from side streets? The agency’s so-called piazza islands—like the new pedestrian spaces at Madison Square and 14thStreet—are risible for their smatterings of cafe tables and glued-in-place gravel. Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan deserves enormous credit for shaking the lead off this decades-old plan and making something happen that this time might stick. It’s still a shame, however, that landscape designers seem to belong to the second wave of the solution, not the first.