When the New York City Department of Transportation started to turn streets into plazas in 2008, public opinion varied. Hundreds of New Yorkers demonstrated their enthusiasm by immediately populating what had just recently been the realm of the car while others proclaimed that traffic congestion and loss of parking would cripple surrounding businesses. The Department of Transportation’s 71 plazas are now more figuratively and literally cemented into the landscape of the city, and the benefits of these open spaces — increased foot traffic, activating programs, beautification, pedestrian safety — are well recounted.
Each of these plazas requires a local nonprofit partner to fund and carry out their maintenance and programming, an extension of the kinds of public-private partnerships, including conservancies and “friends” groups, that are increasingly relied on for operational and maintenance funding at parks across the city. The Neighborhood Plaza Partnership (NPP), a program of The Horticultural Society of New York, seeks to support low-capacity organizations that have taken on the role of plaza manager by providing them with services and capacity building. And as NPP Managing Director Laura Hansen explains, the Partnership is leveraging the plazas by using their maintenance as a workforce development tool and documenting the needs of their managers to consider the future of the public-private partnership model that currently supports them. Hansen lays out the motivations, realities, and potential behind plaza management while asking the very important question of how much we should, and can, rely on private support for maintaining our public realm. –J.T.
Tell us about the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) Plaza Program, and how and when it came about.
The program started in 2008 as a PlaNYC initiative to achieve the metric that every New Yorker should live within a ten-minute walk of an open space. The DOT sought to create neighborhood plazas by taking underused streets and transforming them into vibrant, social public spaces. From the beginning the DOT has prioritized sites located in low-income areas and areas that lack open space. The sites are on average a half-acre in size, are typically located in a commercial district near transit, and are still technically considered streets, not parkland. The one in Fordham, which is the biggest, is 72,000 square feet, and they are as small as 3,000 square feet. Sometimes the plaza addresses a safety issue: in New Lots, for example, people were spilling out of the subway and buses right into the street, so it was a simple fix to extend the existing pedestrian area into the street.
Andy Wiley-Schwartz, formerly of Project for Public Spaces, was hired to direct the Plaza Program as part of a larger Complete Streets rethinking of the department’s work under Janette Sadik-Khan. He infused it with the Holly Whyte philosophy that public space is most successful when it is animated and programmed. Because there was a mandate that no new open space could be created without a maintenance plan, the DOT created a public-private partnership agreement, which gives a local manager responsibility for the operations. Individual plazas are developed through an annual application process at the DOT open only to non-profit entities — often Business Improvement Districts or community-based organizations — interested in managing a new plaza in their local area. The City builds it, but the community organization has to demonstrate local support as well as the capacity to be the manager responsible for all plaza operations. The organization signs an agreement that requires them to indemnify the City and insure the site, maintain it, and provide regular programming. Since 2008, DOT has created 71 new plazas, most of which came through this process.
Because these plazas are in the heart of their neighborhoods, people are sometimes sitting in them before the paint even dries. They are transformative spaces — they provide needed open space, beautification, safer streets, increased foot traffic and economic activity, and a space for community events and civic participation. You see all sorts of really amazing programming: different national or ethnic holiday celebrations, arts festivals, live music, municipal ID organizing, community board meetings, exercise classes. But I think the impromptu, informal activity is the Plaza Program’s best gift to New Yorkers — there’s nothing sweeter than seeing a game of hide-and-seek among the planters.
Where did the idea for the Neighborhood Plaza Partnership come from?
For ten years prior to this, I worked at the J.M. Kaplan Fund, a grant-making foundation, and my portfolio was New York City parks and streets. I was constantly encountering the issue of parks having lots of money for capital projects but never enough for maintenance. The High Line emerged during that period; more parks conservancies were created while others got bigger. And after the DOT started the Plaza Program, I began to hear from community groups who wanted funding to be able to operate a plaza.
When the funding requests started coming in, it struck me that the model for the plaza program was not feasible for some non-profit managers in high-need areas. The public tends to love the plazas, so even struggling organizations are willing to invest time and money to manage them. For a non-profit to pay for plaza maintenance and programming, they have to raise more money by either convincing existing funders or finding totally new sources — both are really hard. Creating programming is what the managers love, and it’s the right role for them, but it requires the funding. I began talking to Andy about how to address these funding and maintenance questions and what a useful private partner to these plaza managers would look like. I also talked to a lot of plaza managers about their issues as well as explored various maintenance models and public-private partnerships in low-income neighborhoods to see what has and hasn’t worked.
Those were the beginnings of the Neighborhood Plaza Partnership, a program of The Horticultural Society of New York that seeks to ensure that the plazas continue to flourish by supporting low-capacity plaza managers with direct services and advocacy work. The first focus was on maintenance. Using the plazas as a vehicle for transitional employment for crews in a workforce development program gave us a framework for raising seed money. Hosting NPP was a natural fit for The Hort, a very old organization that was known almost exclusively for its flower show up until the 1980s but now operates like a social service agency. For 20 years, The Hort has run a horticultural therapy program on Rikers Island. When people come off the island, they can continue that work through The Hort’s GreenTeam, which builds and works in gardens for schools, libraries, supportive housing sites, and community gardens. By combining street cleaning services with horticulture care in the plazas, we were able to provide more opportunities for these kinds of workforce crews.
We set up a partnership with Association of Community Employment Programs (ACE), a workforce development program with comprehensive literacy training and job placement. They have good job placement and retention stats in part because their philosophy is that you never leave: once you get a job, you get help with your taxes, childcare, or whatever obstacle you might have to keeping it. We pay for ACE crews to maintain the plazas, and the community managers pay us a fee. It costs us about $50,000 a year per plaza and the average fee is $11,000, so it’s highly subsidized. This provides really straightforward financial relief for these groups and relieves them from the difficulty of trying to do it on their own with volunteers. But maintaining the funding to keep the subsidy going creates a sustainability challenge for us.
We started with two plazas and now have 14 in our portfolio. Getting those up and running was the bulk of our work for the first year and a half. Partnering with ACE allowed us to scale up pretty quickly, and we’d like to support around 20 plazas with our current funding. Finding public money for the workforce piece will be crucial. There’s also the possibility of using the revenue mechanism built into the plaza agreements to provide some additional funding for plaza operations.
How does that revenue mechanism work?
Plazas managers are able to generate revenue in two ways. The first is through limited sponsorship: you can, for example, brand your umbrellas or have an event with a local sponsor. While not always easy to do, it is pretty straightforward. If your organization has the capacity, you can sign a license agreement with the DOT that gives you the ability to issue an RFP for concessions on site. You can use the revenue generated by the concessions to fund the site’s operations. That agreement has to be approved by the City’s Franchise Review Board and includes rigorous reporting, which is a heavier lift that really requires a staff person or a consultant to manage it. Some of the groups we work with may never get there.
Whether or not these options will be meaningful in low-income neighborhoods remains to be seen. I feel there’s an opportunity to aggregate sites and then go to corporations to see if sponsorship could work across a network. We’re starting to work on a project with SoBro, an economic development organization in the South Bronx whose plaza will open in 2016. We’re working with them to design pop-up concessions in vacant storefronts around the plaza to understand how to appeal to the buying power that exists there and determine the revenue that the concessions could generate for the plaza.
What does this look like on the ground? Can you give some examples from different plazas and managers?
It’s all over the map. In Brownsville, Daniel Murphy of the Pitkin Avenue Business Improvement District (BID) manages Zion Triangle Plaza, which is right next to a school. If you go to the plaza at three o’clock, it’s full of kids. On weekends there are often yoga classes for adults. In partnership with local organizations, the BID produces holiday events, including a very creative Father’s Day event, and a street fair in the summer. He has figured out the value of the plaza as a programming space but struggles with the extra expense of it.
Morrison Plaza, which is managed by the advocacy non-profit Youth Ministries for Peace & Justice, is interesting because it isn’t in the organization’s mission to do this. They were very involved in organizing around the creation of Concrete Plant Park and for the removal of the Sheridan Expressway, but being an advocate for public space is very different than actively managing it. They came to us and asked that we spend a year training them on the maintenance routine so that they can then hire locally for a maintenance crew that would also do work elsewhere in the neighborhood. That’s a real value add. It will be interesting for us to think about how to take that idea to other places.
The Ozone Park Plaza is another interesting case. It was formed out of a street closure: the DOT took one lane from a formerly two-way street to create a large plaza, which straddles two Community Boards and two boroughs. The group that manages it, Bangladeshi American Community Development & Youth Service (BACDYS), provides South Asian youth, seniors, and the community at large with social service and cultural programs. The local business man that runs BACDYS wanted the plaza because it would give area seniors a place to sit, literally — the “before” here was dozens of elderly people in this multi-generational immigrant neighborhood coming outside to stand or sit on folding chairs on the sidewalks to socialize. The road here has been a little rocky as the businesses, neighborhood organizations, and residents all vie for the vision and ownership of this space.
That’s what these kind of placemaking initiatives look like locally though, right? The creation of a plaza often involves people who are well intentioned but have different, competing agendas. I see an important civic engagement side to this, in terms of organizations, plaza users, and leadership in neighborhoods. Plazas are vehicles for people who want to be leaders or who want a more public profile for their organization. I would like to see the DOT shift how it sees its partnership with managers: rather than viewing these organizational partnerships as just an answer to budget problems, they can tap into the potential to build community leaders who can engage in a whole host of neighborhood improvements.
So a plaza is not just a plaza; this kind of public space is about so much more than itself, especially on a local level. To what extent does your model include capacity building for these local groups?
That’s our next step now that we have these relationships and understand what the managers need. Business Improvement Districts make up the majority of plaza managers. The ones we work with are smaller BIDs in neighborhoods where the real estate assessment is usually low. They’re already doing a lot with a little, and the plaza adds another expense. We want to be a resource to them by helping to attract sponsors, develop programs, and further beautify the district.
Other non-profit managers have different needs. In Kensington, we have a small plaza run by a loose confederation of people who like to beautify their neighborhood. They spent a year organizing themselves so that twice a day somebody was picking up the trash at that site, but then they started to experience fatigue. It’s a case where we will do some classic organizational and community building to help them improve as public space managers. Staying focused on maintaining and programming the plaza is a way to focus energy and enthusiasm, which leads a stronger organization.
The more complicated but potentially more interesting challenge is to get City agencies to use procurement as a means for workforce development like we are doing with maintenance for the plazas. We’re monitoring our workforce model to figure out the right way to do it. We started out with the idea that crews would be assigned to cover a certain zone that encompasses many plazas in order to take advantage of economies of scale. But we realized we couldn’t really benefit from that efficiency because everyone wants their table and chairs put out at 7:00am and put away at 9:00pm. But that same idea of a network could be a way to think strategically about sponsorships. And we want to think about networks in terms of other strategic partnerships with community anchor institutions — health institutions, businesses, libraries, schools, and churches. That kind of coalition building needs to happen.
The long-term goal is to document what is possible within this model: what sort of a cap there is on the resources a neighborhood can feasibly bring to a plaza. I hope that in five years or less we can say how much it costs to maintain a plaza, what issues are particular to low-income areas, and what is realistic to expect through the revenue mechanisms, local fundraising, volunteer time, in-kind donations, and partnerships. Then we can demonstrate with data that plazas need public support if they are going to make it. The alternative is that we’ll have great plazas in Midtown while some of the plazas in lower-income neighborhoods are good candidates to become neglected sites. I think it would be great if we could solve the funding and maintenance problem so that NPP becomes obsolete. It would also be great if we gather very credible data and experience that allows us to move the needle so the DOT or some other public funding stream could cover the cost of maintenance for plazas managed by a non-BID or a BID under a certain budget level.
Public assets, especially public space, used to come with the guarantee of public stewardship of a certain kind. But now we are increasingly relying on the initiative of citizens and local non-profits to maintain our public realm. What has been the evolution of that conversation and where does it stand?
In the 1970s and early ‘80s, public coffers were greatly diminished. Maintenance of city parks was neglected, leaving them in very bad shape. The Central Park Conservancy, a private non-profit organization, was founded as a way to bring in donations from people who lived around the park. It was really creatively managed by Betsy Barlow Rogers and the Parks Commissioner, Gordon Davis. People saw positive changes in the park, and the Central Park Conservancy pioneered this model of a private conservancy maintaining public space.
The Bryant Park Restoration Corporation, the first BID in the city, was created around the same time and helped turn Bryant Park around. Next came the Prospect Park Alliance, and the same thing happened there. Gradually, the Parks Department began to understand and use this public-private partnership model more broadly and on smaller scales. Over time BIDs started to move into low-income neighborhoods, and Friends groups, which are not conservancies but do generate smaller amounts of money and stewardship for parks in all kinds of neighborhoods, also began to proliferate. Over time, an expectation was created that the private sector will pick up the slack.
I think there needs to be more pushback on this public-private model, because it’s too hard to make it work in lower-income neighborhoods. There is a good conversation happening around this within the parks arena right now, and Mayor de Blasio and the City Council established the Community Parks Initiative this year to address some of the inequities created by that model. That’s a great start. The plazas are structured differently than parks with respect to the agreement they have with DOT, which gives them skin in the game. The question is how much can be reasonably asked of a community with little access to resources. That’s where we need to rethink the public-private partnership. All partners are not created equal. I’m optimistic that the plazas are an ideal laboratory in which to figure this out.
I’ve heard people ask, “How do we know that in 60 years this model is not going to be the urban renewal of our time?” It’s a really interesting thought, because we’re all just steamrolling ahead assuming that this is the way that we should do things.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.