Thomas Hart Benton, Instruments of Power from America Today, 1930–31 / The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Providing a great experience to visitors to public spaces is something we know that Disney gets for its parks. It’s also essential to the hotel business. Even museums and other cultural institutions are focused today on being responsive to visitor needs – to providing great customer service. They do this because the visitor experience is essential to generating repeat visits and building brand loyalty. At not-for-profit institutions treating visitors well is also part of their development strategy – happy visitors are more likely to become future donors.
In the world of public space management we don’t talk much about the visitor experience – but we should. Most public spaces are operated by government agencies, and the incentive systems of government bureaucracies are oriented towards different goals – minimizing costs, preventing graft and corruption, minimizing risk and avoiding political problems (analogous in some ways to good consumer relations, but not exactly the same thing). Those goals can often be in conflict with providing park visitors with a positive time. Perhaps those of us in downtown revitalization and public space management ought to think a little more about how the individual visitor is treated in our spaces. Continue reading →
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 →
Perhaps the most egregious awnings on 34th Street. Maybe the bottom one has some utility — but the other two?
Recently, I gave a tour of downtown Jamaica to a major retail developer. It was his initial close look at the downtown while walking. We met in a restaurant, and when we walked out on the sidewalk, the first words out of his mouth were, “The streets looks awful. The signs are terrible.” Nothing is more of an obstacle to downtown revitalization then poor storefront presentation – and nothing is more difficult to fix. Nope, not even street vending is as hard as trying to improve as retail signs, storefronts and the merchandising visible from the street.
Malls are able to have high quality signs and retail presentation because of their unitary ownership. Leases give mall owners review rights for retail presentation and have a long list of rules regarding their signs, storefronts and displays – and mall owners tend to enforce those rules. Downtowns have multiple owners, and even more individual retail tenants. There is little incentive for any landlord to enforce the sign provisions in their lease, since the woman next door isn’t enforcing hers and all you really want is your monthly rent check. Why alienate a high rent-paying tenant, who pays every month, over a trivial issue like how his store looks? 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 →
If your organization has unlimited resources and wants to spend tens of millions of dollars on surface treatments, go ahead and make my (and your contractor’s) day! But in my experience just about the least effective, most expensive thing you can spend your public space improvement/downtown revitalization money on is distinctive sidewalks, signature corners, curb cuts, crosswalks and inset plaques. Nobody notices them. Nobody looks down. And this was true even before people’s’ eyeballs became glued to their phones. These fancy capital improvements create unnecessary maintenance issues. For some reason a lot of groups think they haven’t done anything unless they’ve spent tons of money on hardscape. But that’s not what makes space users perceive public places as great. Here’s another example of where programming and maintenance are more important than design and construction. That money is better spent on a fully blown-out horticulture program – which people WILL notice and which DOES improve the perception of public space. Continue reading →
The number of Business Improvement Districts has expanded greatly over the last twenty years, both in New York City and nationally. There are now close to 1,000 BIDs in the US, with over 60 in New York, and more in the pipeline. The focus of most BIDs is what’s been labeled “Clean & Safe.” Following the model we set up at Grand Central Partnership, they provide staff to sweep the sidewalks and curbs and empty trash baskets. Larger BIDs also tend to provide unarmed private security services on sidewalks within the district, and often those staff members are trained to provide directions and other tourist information. While at GCP, as well as in Bryant Park and 34th Street Partnership we hired and trained our own staff to provide these services, many small BIDs, and even some larger ones contract out to third-party providers for this work.
Data from the Furman Center indicate that while larger BIDs have a significant effect on commercial property values, smaller BIDs in New York City lack sufficient resources to make much of an impact (http://furmancenter.org/files/publications/FurmanCenterBIDsBrief.pdf ). The Furman Report questions the efficacy of the creation of small organizations, much of whose budgets is necessarily spent on administration, and in recent years, it has been smaller BIDs that have been started in New York. This was certainly my experience in Downtown Jamaica, Queens, which has three BIDS, two of which are quite small. None of the three can afford to maintain a security program, and even the largest of them finds itself with very limited resources, given the magnitude of the challenges with which it has been tasked. 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 →