Times Square BID Leader on the Art of Street Reclamation

roadway_seating_small.jpgThis used to be the scene of gridlocked traffic. Photo: berk2804

Seven years ago, when Tim Tompkins took over as president of the Times Square Alliance, one of New York’s largest BIDs, security and cleanliness were the top concerns. Despite incessant traffic and "pedlock," few decision-makers were focused, at first, on the vision of Times Square as a world-class public space where people take precedence over motor vehicles.

Speaking to a standing-room audience at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research building last week, Tompkins recalled when the lack of regular stabbings and violent crime seemed good enough for the crossroads of the world, and the quality of public space felt too esoteric to address. Gradually, Tompkins helped build public support for dramatic changes, starting with the re-design of Duffy Square. Working with NYCDOT, Tompkins began chipping away at the space allocated to cars and opening it up to pedestrians. Shortly after the completion of Duffy Square last October, said Tompkins, DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan approached him about closing down a portion of Broadway to vehicles to create public plazas.

Now, cities around the country view the new Times Square plazas as potential precedents for transforming their own under-utilized or overcrowded streets into quality pedestrian space. Streetsblog San Francisco caught up with Tompkins during his west coast trip to talk about the new Times Square, how it came about, and the lessons we can draw from its ongoing transformation. Here is an edited transcript of the interview. 

Matthew Roth: What in your opinion has been the biggest change in Times Square over the past decade?

Tim Tompkins: The challenge of Times Square as a public space had changed. It’s not enough that it’s just sort of safe to be there. This is one of the world’s great public spaces. What’s missing?

Over the last couple of decades we’ve learned a lot about how to make parks great, and that parks are important to life of the city. I think there’s been an evolution over the last decade thanks to organizations like [Streetsblog], and Project for Public Spaces, and Transportation Alternatives that have said, "There is another part of the public realm, there is another part of city life that we need to pay attention to."

What I see is that what’s been happening is part of a larger movement in terms of the revitalization of cities. It’s kind of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where you need to take care of the basics of comfort and security first before you can even think about anything else. That played out with respect to nature and parks, but wasn’t really playing out in the streets and sidewalks. I think not only in Times Square and in New York City, but in a bunch of places… we’ve been paying attention to that. And that’s been the paradigm shift that’s driving a lot of this.

tkts1.jpgThe re-designed Duffy Square. Photo: Brad Aaron.

The biggest change is that now, especially with the introduction of Duffy Square, which opened in October 2008, [we redefined the] expectations for Times Square as a public space. Until we actually had Duffy Square as a kind of a concrete, tangible paradigm, it was all theoretical, and people couldn’t really experience it. Duffy Square took up a lane of Broadway, and took up a lane of Seventh Avenue. The DOT was good enough to give us that extra space. We doubled the amount of pedestrian space, created this beautiful glass staircase, which on the one hand was a great urban design statement, but also was for the first time a place for people to be still amidst the chaos and the energy of Times Square.

This is a place where you can be still, but you’re still in the city. You’re experiencing the city, but you don’t have to stand or walk through it the way you did before. Finally, we created a place for that observation to happen, for people to see what we called the second best show on Broadway, which is Times Square itself. It’s people watching people in this unique way. And so sometimes it’s about looking up, sometimes it’s about noticing the store across the street, but as much as anything it’s about watching this urban fugue, which is the special nature of a public space in the city, where you’ve got all these different things going on. Different people, different languages, different looks, and a little bit of chaos, but also a tremendous amount of energy.

MR: Now that you’ve closed portions of Broadway to cars and opened it up to people, what would you say to skeptics of pedestrianization and pilots that limit private vehicles?

TT: Pedestrianization of a former roadway is a mixture of art and science. There are people who have studied this — you know, what do people do in public spaces — and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It has to do with design, management, the nature of the space, what’s going on around it. So it’s not an easy thing to get right. One of the great things about this commissioner and mayor is that they’re willing to experiment and see what happens.

We’re still learning how to make this work. How to bring some authentic sort of street-style programming back to Times Square without overwhelming it, without it being too noisy for the office tenants, or the theaters. How to have the furniture look good, but not be just like everything else. Even just how you keep it clean so it doesn’t look ratty. Because when it was asphalt it’s like, "Well this is a street, it’s not supposed to look good." The second it was painted red asphalt, then there was this challenge, because people were no longer looking at it as a street that happened to have a chair on it, they were looking at it as a public space, and they were like, "This is not Piazza San Marco, this is crap."  And in some ways they’re right, but it’s a function of shifting expectations.

MR: What has the reaction been among businesses in the district?

TT: I think that there was definitely concern and fear during a time of economic vulnerability, and you’ve got to acknowledge that. Longer-term interests, like somebody that owns an office building, they’re there for decades, but you know, restaurants in Times Square live hand to mouth. If Broadway tickets are down 20 percent, their business is down 20 percent. You have to pay attention to the reality of somebody’s economic situation. 

"The second it was painted red asphalt, then there was this challenge, because people were no longer looking at it as a street that happened to have a chair on it, they were looking at it as a public space, and they were like, ‘This is not Piazza San Marco, this is crap.’"

I think at the same time listen to what they say, and then modify the plan accordingly. There were some issues about theater access on 45th Street, and what was going to happen when you change the traffic patterns. We had conversations and DOT was great. They sat down and they said, "Okay, we were initially thinking we wouldn’t let you make a right turn, but we’re going to modify the plan and allow that to happen," and that addressed a really big issue. So that’s another case where it’s important to have the conversation between the private interests and the government that’s doing it. And to say, you know, maybe that might not have worked, and then we would have had to say, "Okay, we’re three weeks into it, let’s change something else."

The other thing to keep in mind, though, is that you’ve got to think about your long-term competitiveness. A business understands that you’ve got a competitive environment. What are your advantages versus some other place? In a place like San Francisco, in a place like Times Square, they’re major tourist destinations, and people can choose to go somewhere else. Just like whether it’s an amusement park, or it’s a beach resort, they’ve got to do some upgrades, they’ve got to pay attention to the competitive environment and say, "What’s going to keep people coming here?"