Kate Hinds is an Associate Producer for WNYC News. She also reports for WNYC and Transportation Nation, a public radio reporting project that combines the work of multiple newsrooms to provide coverage of how we build, rebuild and get around the nation.
PHOTOS: The Mayor May Not Be Permanent, But the Times Square Pedestrian Plaza Is
Monday, December 23, 2013 - 04:05 PM
No five-borough mayoral victory lap would be complete without talking about the transformation of Times Square, so Michael Bloomberg checked off that box by cutting the ribbon on the city's latest permanent pedestrian plaza -- with just a week left in his administration.
The city first closed off part of Broadway to cars four years ago. It was initially done on the cheap (earlier this year, New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan described it as "we put out the orange barrels"), but the city is now permanently pedestrianizing the five blocks of Broadway north of 42nd Street.
On Monday, officials unveiled the first "enhanced" plaza, 30,000 square feet of Broadway between 42nd and 43rd Streets. (The other four blocks will be redone by 2015, with additional work on Seventh Avenue wrapping up in 2016.) The newly revamped space now has granite pavers instead of asphalt. It will also have seating and wayfinding signage, as well as providing extra breathing room for the some 400,000 pedestrians who flood the area daily.
By almost any measure -- pollution, safety, retail sales -- the Times Square pedestrian plaza has proven successful. But it was originally a hard sell -- even to the mayor himself. At Monday's event, the mayor described his reaction when Sadik-Khan, first raised the idea with him. "You know when somebody walks in and says 'we're going to close the main thoroughfare through the city and traffic's gonna get better,' you say 'huh?'"
But Sadik-Khan recalled the cars-only Times Square. "For years it was a place that pushed pedestrians into the street," she said. "It was crowded, it was dangerous, it was certainly not worthy of a world-class city." She praised the mayor for getting on board. He "not only endorsed the plan," she said, "he did so in an election year."
For the mayor, the proof is in the sound of ringing cash registers. "Since we started remaking Times Square four years ago, " Bloomberg said, "it has become one of the ten most successful retail destinations in the world."
Sadik-Khan said remaking Broadway was a "mammoth job" -- and not only because of the resurfacing. "The underground work includes replacing water mains from 1904, sewers from 1919, and century-old streetcar tracks."
Janette Sadik-Khan, Michael Bloomberg, and incoming Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer cutting the ribbon (Kate Hinds/WNYC)
But now Bloomberg is leaving office, and the city's next mayor, Bill de Blasio, has described himself as having "profoundly mixed feelings" about the issue of pedestrian plazas.
When asked if he thought de Blasio would keep them in place, Bloomberg said "I think he'll take a look at this and find out this is exactly the right thing to do, but you've got to address the question to him."
Later he added: "You'd have a very tough time rolling this back," he said, citing the enthusiasm of the neighborhood's retailers. "The rent on the ground floor is greater than the entire rest of the building."
He offered some advice to Mayor-elect de Blasio. "Listen to everybody and do what you think is right," Bloomberg said. "The mayor is elected to lead, not to do a poll and follow where the crowd is going."
Janette Sadik-Khan and Michael Bloomberg (Kate Hinds/WNYC)