in June 2008, the New York City Department of Transportation launched the New York City Public Plaza Program, part of then Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to ensure all New Yorkers have access to livable open-space within ten minutes of home.
While ambitious in scale, the strategy was simple — convert the excess capacity of underused streets and inefficiently designed intersections into lively and social public plazas.
Since 2008, dozens of bland and subdued streets have been transformed into vibrant new public spaces teeming with life. These new spaces range from the icons of Times Square and Astor Place, to smaller neighborhood plazas like Hillel Place at Flatbush Junction, Brooklyn, completed in August 2018.
The Astor Place plaza with the iconic Alamo sculpture “the Cube”. In the background is new plaza furniture and kiosk retailing, run by a small business.
Once constructed each new plaza needed bringing to life, animating in its own unique way with programming to reflect the diverse cultural tapestry of New York City. In most cases Business Improvement Districts (BID’s) took on these responsibilities.
In addition to basic functions, which include providing street furniture, sanitation, and public safety, BID’s have developed extensive plaza activation programs. Astor Place, managed by the Village Alliance BID is one such example, where 10,000 square feet of new plaza space opened in 2016.
Astor Place, at the crossroads of Greenwich Village and the East Village remains close to the heart of many generations of New Yorkers. Punks, artists, skaters, among others would meet around the iconic spinning “Cube”, often participating in spontaneous urban rituals, community gatherings, creative flash mobs, yarn bombings, and more!
Temporary public art installations at Astor Place have included “The Last Three” sculpture which launched a global campaign for wildlife preservation
Not surprisingly, the redevelopment of Astor Place, and reclamation of under used streets into new plazas ignited debate about gentrification, and the erasure of the neighborhoods soul. Recognizing this, the Village Alliance BID developed programming to reflect the cultural, artistic, and ethnic diversity of the neighborhoods heart and soul, working closely with community partners. Free public events include performing arts festivals, collaborative and participatory arts events, silent discos, public art, community resource fairs, and much more.
The creation of large plazas like Astor Place and smaller plazas like Hillel Place demonstrate the unleashed potential existing within underused streets and urban spaces. Through reasonably simple reconfiguration and development, these spaces of excess capacity can be transformed into vibrant public spaces, providing social, economic, and health benefits to neighborhoods and communities.