Open Streets: a vital way to support businesses
July 14, 2020
The Meatpacking District has a unique urban character. Tucked on the far west-side of Manhattan, slightly askew from the rest of the borough’s grid, the neighborhood’s low slung historic buildings, public plazas, and cobbled streets make people feel at ease in the hustle and bustle of New York. Unlike larger office districts with tall buildings and long shadows, the sun sweeps across the District daily and the breeze off the Hudson River keeps the air clear.
Despite our pedestrian scaled streetscape, the neighborhood still remains the domain of the automobile. Even with 30,000 square feet of public plazas, about 80 percent of all public right of way is dedicated to automobiles. Just 20 percent of public space is left for people — the folks who shop in our stores, eat in our restaurants, and work at all our businesses. That can change for the better, and it’s happening around the world.
The imbalance of public space needs to be addressed to help businesses thrive, and we need to ensure all residents, workers, and visitors feel comfortable traversing and enjoying our neighborhood by providing additional pedestrian spaces throughout the district.
One solution, which the City has begun to implement, is opening up the roadway to pedestrians. The first program was just for walking and exercise, but it has been expanded to include curbside dining as well. These programs, called “Open Streets” by the Department of Transportation (DOT), are part of a larger push in urban planning to share street space between automobiles and pedestrians.
Shared streets can be a variety of programs, implemented differently on each block and in varying contexts. Some shared streets do away with the curb entirely, providing simple guidance for automobile traffic, while others transform throughout the day adapting to traffic patterns, the needs of commercial businesses, and pedestrians. While this program is relatively new in the United States, around the world, shared streets are successful, particularly in economically bustling historic city centers, like the Meatpacking District.
From the outset of the City’s Open Streets program, the BID has advocated for inclusion in the program. As a result, five blocks are now included as part of the City’s various open street programs. These include Gansevoort Street, Little West 12th Street, and W. 13th Street between Hudson and Washington Streets as part of the Open Streets: Restaurants program, the 9th Ave slip lane as a temporary street closure between W. 14th and W. 15th streets, and W. 17th from Eighth to Tenth Avenues as an open street.
Having these blocks included as part of the City’s program has allowed five restaurants to extend dining into the street, supporting their recovery and facilitating employment for more workers within the district. People want to be outside, dining and (responsibly) enjoying these hotter months after months of quarantine, and they need safe space to do it. As retailers begin to reopen the need for safe space outside for businesses to implement queuing and other crowd management programs will likely be needed. The additional street space provided through the City’s Open Streets program will hopefully create more space to support retail management, too.
New York has done a good job with its open streets program, though we’re many years behind other global cities. The temporary nature of this program makes it difficult for businesses to plan and for people to build new habits.
Currently the BID is utilizing french barricades and blue sawhorses provided to us by the City to block off the streets, but barricades are repeatedly run over by cars and trucks. More appropriate — and attractive — infrastructure is necessary to make this program safer and look better, too. We have worked to improve the program, including through the creation of barricade covers that provide more clarity and visibility to the program, but we plan to keep improving.
Permanent shared streets are a vital way to support our businesses and make the district a destination for all New Yorkers as they travel out of their neighborhoods and look further for experiences and entertainment. When visitors return, they’ll find our streets safer and more welcoming, too. And we want to figure out how best to do it so businesses and our community can thrive.
We know that good public space is good for business — and we want ours to be the best of the best. We’re excited to begin exploring how we can continue to improve and expand the district’s public spaces to better support businesses, drive foot traffic, and make the district safer, cleaner, and greener for all.