I have just contracted with Rutgers University Press for the publication of What Works: Placemaking in Bryant Park. Revitalizing Cities, Towns and Public Spaces in the Spring of 2019. I am so fortunate to be working with the experienced publishing professionals Peter Mikulas and Micah Kleit on this project.
The American Planning Association (APA) New York City Chapter recently hosted an event entitled “Small, Medium and Large: How Main Street Management by BID’s Affect Different Size Neighborhoods!” The event was organized in response to the Crain’s article about BIDs that was published last fall – about which I wrote at the time (http://www.theplacemaster.com/2016/09/26/in-defense-of-bids/). On the panel were a city representative and four BID managers – three of them from smaller BIDs.
I attended and felt old (and was the oldest person in the room!). The BID world has changed a lot in the last twenty-five years. When I started working for the midtown Manhattan BIDs, there were a grand total of around ten BIDs. Today there are over seventy. While the first few BIDs were of relatively modest capacity, the trend at the time was to take the concept of downtown management organizations onto a larger scale. New organizations of with substantial resources were being established in the most-dense commercial areas. Now the trend is for the proliferation of small organizations with limited staffs and funds of under $500,000 – which, according to the presentation at the event is about the current mean BID size. In the mid-90’s, since there were fewer than a dozen BIDs and half of those were the of BIDs with budgets over $5 million (which remain the same group), the BID world in New York was all about those larger organizations: Grand Central (GCP), 34th Street, Bryant Park, Times Square and the Downtown Alliance. Continue reading →
In the 90’s metal and plastic containers distributing newspapers, magazines and ads were scattered all over New York contributing to the sense of chaos and social disorder in public spaces. While newsracks are no longer the issue they once were in most downtowns, the process by which we organized and informally regulated them might be instructive as to how apparently impossible problems can be addressed. It takes a deep knowledge of the regulatory and legal environment, creativity, flexibility and persistence – the last being the most important.
In response to my last post about street vending, the thoughtful and wise downtown observer and consultant, David Milder, sent me a note concluding that improving the street vending problems in New York City is impossible. My response to that was that while improving the vending situation was complex and difficult it was by no means hopeless. If someone were to take on the task, had the capacity to keep at it over a period of years, and some resources to contribute to whatever solution might be worked out – eventually they were likely to be successful. Folks can say no a million times, I wrote David, but you only need them to say yes once. This was certainly the case with all of the streetscape issues we faced at the midtown Manhattan business improvement districts in the 90s. Continue reading →
When I went to work for Grand Central Partnership among my first assignments from Dan Biederman was to figure out how to deal with sidewalk issues: vending, newsracks, newsstands, payphones and making public toilets more available. In dense urban centers sidewalks, while public space, are highly contested territory, and the regulation of activity on them in New York City is arcane and labyrinthine. Not only pedestrians care about sidewalks. Adjacent property owners not only have responsibility for cleaning and maintaining their sidewalks, but they care about what happens in front of their multi-million dollar investments; particularly with its impact on ground floor retail. In midtown Manhattan, many buildings have vaults under the sidewalks that expand their basement space – and so are concerned about how much weight is put on them and whether anyone is punching holes in them.
A range of people have traditionally engaged in commercial activity on the New York City sidewalks – and these uses are heavily, if often ineffectually, regulated. There are separate governing schemes for four kinds of sidewalk venders: general merchandise, food, veterans and first amendment vendors. The Department of Parks and Recreation has its own scheme for concessioning venders within city parks as well as on adjacent sidewalks, and even sidewalks across the street from a park! The City permits individuals to erect newsstands at any sidewalk location that meets certain siting criteria – with no discretion by the City with respect to the location. If the proposed structure fits – the applicant is entitled to a permit. The Department of Transportation manages the enforcement of some (but not all) of these rules and is ultimately responsible for the physical condition of the sidewalks and with seeing to it that sidewalk uses don’t interfere with transportation (bus stops) or public safety (fire hydrants). Continue reading →
Bryant Park from the air on movie night. The flagship success of BIDs.
The September 19th issue of Crain’s New York Business carries a broadside attack on business improvement districts on its front page, featuring a photo of Dan Biederman the founder of Bryant Park Restoration Corporation (“BPRC”), Grand Central Partnership (“GCP”) and 34th Street Partnership (http://www.crainsnewyork.com/article/20160918/REAL_ESTATE/160919896/shaping-a-neighborhoods-destiny-from-the-shadows). The article rehashes a range of charges that were the subject of dozens of newspaper articles published in the 1990s, as well as a half-dozen government inquiries, including those by the New York City Council, the City’s Comptroller’s office, the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and a forensic audit commissioned by City Hall. Given New York’s tabloid culture, many casual (and even some well-informed) observers assumed that where there was journalist smoke, there must be fire, but in fact, the BIDs under Biederman’s direction were shown to be models of good not-for-profit governance and transparency, and none of the negative policy arguments have been shown to be of any merit. BIDs work, and Biederman’s BIDs work better than most. They provide essential services without compromise of any important democratic principles. (BIDs Really Work, City Journal, Spring 1996 http://www.city-journal.org/html/bids-really-work-11853.html).
In fact, I would argue that the downtown renaissance, which began in the early 1990s, was catalyzed by the work of Biederman’s BIDs (of which I was a staff member), and particularly by the success of BPRC. The reopening of Bryant Park in 1992, following philosophies articulated by William H Whyte and George Kelling, demonstrated that social control could be reasserted in the urban core. GCP created “clean and safe” programs for the blocks around Grand Central Terminal in a successful effort to reverse what was feared to be the hollowing out of the city center and its occupation by the violent and homeless. Bryant Park and GCP proved that through high quality maintenance (“fixing broken windows”) and active programming, public spaces previously perceived as being dangerous could be made inviting and attractive. Cities all over the country, from Detroit to Houston, and around the world copied and continue to copy the model. Continue reading →