A Roadmap for a 21st Century Times Square

Times Square, often called the “Crossroads of the World,” is at a crossroads of its own. Over the last several years, and increasingly in the last 18 months, unregulated commercial activity, predatory and aggressive behavior, and random violence involving solicitors in Times Square’s pedestrian plazas have become endemic. In addition, pedestrian congestion is pushing people into the streets, not only on the plazas but also on 42nd Street, and vehicular congestion throughout the Theater District remains unabated. Hardworking New Yorkers are accosted too often. Tourists are routinely taken advantage of. And in many cases, law enforcement’s hands are tied because the laws governing Times Square are 20th Century laws being applied to 21st Century problems.

These are big, complicated and important issues, and they require innovative and thoughtful solutions. The plan outlined in this book represents the voice of the Times Square community and addresses the wide range of issues we face at the Crossroads of the World.

Times Square is a critical economic engine with a unique set of facts

Times Square is a bellwether for what is working or not working in New York City’s public realm, and arguably for the City as a whole. Though just 0.1% of the City’s land, it accounts for approximately $1 of every $9 in economic activity and, directly and indirectly, one-tenth of all jobs in the City. Everyday, 170,000 New Yorkers commute to work in Times Square, with 61% coming from Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, the Bronx and northern Manhattan. Times Square is the heart of the City’s tourism economy, with one-fifth of the City’s hotel rooms and more than 39 million visitors annually. Times Square contributes $5 billion per year in City and State taxes. So what’s good for Times Square is good for New York and for all New Yorkers.

Times Square requires a unique solution specific to the area because it has more demands per square foot on its streets and public spaces than any other part of the city. Approximately 350,000 to 450,000 pedestrians pass through the area daily. 81.8 million commuters come out of the Times Square subway stations annually, which is 20.5% greater than Herald Square, the next busiest stations in the city. The Times Square plazas host 12 times as many special events as the next busiest plazas. Thousands of people daily walk in traffic lanes on West 42nd Street at peak times while traveling to and from its four live theater houses, two cinema multiplexes, two major tourist attractions (Madame Tussauds and Ripley’s), three major commercial office towers, one hotel, and the Port Authority Bus Terminal. That, plus the confluence of pedestrians and vehicles coming and going from Times Square’s 39 Broadway theaters, 29 million square feet of commercial office space and 18,000 hotel rooms create a daily state of gridlock that justify, factually, and legally, the special overlay of rules for which we are advocating.

The Pedestrian Plazas were initally embraced because they solved a pressing problem

The creation of the Broadway Plazas transformed Times Square’s public spaces, relieved dangerous pedestrian overcrowding, and created a new category of public space celebrated by New Yorkers and transportation advocates worldwide. Before the plazas were created, the number one complaint from employees was the lack of pedestrian space. Surveys of New York City residents showed that satisfaction with Times Square jumped by over 30% once the plazas were opened (see chart on the next page). Since the creation of the plazas, average asking retail rates have soared from $500-$800 per square foot to just under $2500 per square foot because pedestrians have more time to linger and notice retail. Sign companies have also benefitted from this additional dwell time, and after initial skepticism, the Times Square Advertising Coalition vigorously supports them. 

An old legal framework inhibits effective MANAGEMENT of these new spaces

When the City installed the pedestrian plazas in 2009, it did not change the existing legal framework, so the spaces are still treated like roadbed. Hawkers and hustlers are free to roam Times Square, approaching people for photos and often aggressively intimidating them into paying for it. Unfortunately, because of the legal ambiguities of these spaces, police officers have fewer regulatory (i.e. non-arrest) tools to address this negative behavior. In addition, traffic in Times Square is at a stand still, with too many idling buses and too much pedestrian congestion. This congestion is often augmented by street closings and commercial events, which are not governed by any fact-based criteria when it comes to location and time of day. As a result of this confluence of activity, our residents, workers, and visitors are too often impeded, and many wish they could go elsewhere.

A mix of regulatory, enforcement & anaytical tools

The creation of a Times Square task force was a great first step by the administration, but now it’s time to narrow in on tangible solutions. To address the range of issues facing Times Square, we recommend implementing a unique set of land use and regulatory changes that allow for maximum flexibility and optimal balance of competing demands. Times Square’s designations and rules should be based on the extensive sets of facts specific to this unique area, which is a stronger legal approach. The below suggestions, which come from studying the issues and talking to New Yorkers, business owners, community members, theater-goers and tourists, require many different city agencies and government officials working innovatively and collaboratively. Here is how we think it can be done:

1. Provide the legal and regulatory tools to manage these new public spaces

The Times Square pedestrian plazas are new, but the laws governing them are old. Therefore, we recommend legally redefining the plazas as a public place called the Times Square Commons. This would require a Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) to de-map the plazas as streets and re-map them as a public place. This newly defined space would stretch from 42nd to 47th Street and encompass all of Times Square. Creating the Times Square Commons will form a clean slate that gives the City the flexibility to properly regulate it. It will also ensure that Times Square remains the home for art, culture and free expression, while also protecting the hard-working New Yorkers, residents and tourists who visit Times Square every day.

Within the Times Square Commons, the City would create 3 distinct zones that protect the diversity of people and activities in the area. 

I. The GENERAL CIVIC ZONE would have tables & chairs, arts & programming, & occasional events.

Daily.png
 

The following activities are allowed in the General Civic Zones:

a. Free speech activity Street preacher or someone giving a speech Panhandlers Musician not seeking tips Artists not seeking tips
b. Free speech assembly Political demonstrations (subject to permit over 20 people)
c. Informational or advertising fl yering (without physical encumbrances) Leafl ets (e.g. Chicago, Scientology) Held signs or advertisements
d. FCRC approved programming & concessions Alliance red tables & chairs Alliance food & information kiosks

The following activities are prohibited in the General Civic Zones:

a. Activity involving solicitation for immediate exchange of money for goods, services, or entertainment
b. Physical encumbrances (unless FCRC or SAPO permitted) Tables & chairs Advertisements with placed placards

II. The DESIGNATED ACTIVITY ZONES would have first-come, first-served spaces that respect free speech and the constitution, allowing any activity involving the immediate exchange of money for goods, services or entertainment.

The following activities are allowed in the Designated Activity Zones:

a. Activity involving solicitation for immediate exchange of money for goods, services, or entertainment.

Musicians seeking tips
Costumed characters
Fake Buddhist monks
CD sellers
Desnudas
Ticket sellers (bus, comedy, Broadway, sports)

The following activities are prohibited in the Designated Activity Zones:

a. Physical encumbrances (e.g. table, chair, placed placard, stage, stool)
b. Food, general merchandise, and portrait artist vendors with chairs/tables

III. The PEDESTRIAN FLOW ZONES would be dedicated exclusively for the flow of pedestrian traffic without physical encumbrances, solicitation, or static distribution of promotional needs.

Activity that in any manner obstructs the free flow of traffic is prohibited in the Pedestrian Flow Zones. This includes:

a. Solicitation for the immediate exchange of money for goods, services, or entertainment
b. Vending
c. Standing or sitting in one location for continuous or repetitive distribution of any physical/tangible things or for promotional purposes
d. Physical encumbrances (e.g. table, chair, placed placard, stage, stool)

In order to accommodate SAPO-permitted events and programming on the plazas, there would be a temporary overlay when those events take place. The total number, timing and location of events should be determined by a comprehensive neighborhood impact analysis (which would also inform more nuanced sound regulations), so that event regulations can be responsive to neighborhood needs and preferences. SAPO or DOT should have the tools to cap or limit events in certain circumstances. Furthermore, all large and mega events in Times Square should require community board review.

Medium Size Event

Medium Size Event

Large Size Event

Large Size Event

In the long term, the City needs to establish authorization for the DOT Commissioner to create rules and regulations governing flow, solicitation and commercial activity. The system currently is murky at best when it comes to who has the power to create rules and regulations for these spaces. The rules then established by DOT should be responsive to Times Square’s unique facts and challenges, and should not adversely affect other neighborhood plazas that may have different facts or preferences.

2. Complete comprehensive congestion study to address pedestrian and vehicular issues

A comprehensive study of Theater District traffic would analyze what’s choking it, from street fairs to clustering hop-on hop-off buses to pedestrian crossing bottlenecks. Times Square thrives on the approximately 450,000 people passing through daily, and with record tourism in New York City, we must find a balance among pedestrians, vehicles and both civic and commercial events. A comprehensive study of Theater District traffic to analyze what’s choking it needs to happen. This study would allow the Department of Transportation to create fl ow and fact-based criteria for filtering street closures, event applications, tour buses and film shoots in Times Square every day.

Here are the specific areas requiring attention:

SAPO-permitted events & street closings: The number of street fairs in Times Square has doubled since 2009, from 25 to 39. These street closings rarely take into account the realities of a weekend day in Times Square, where thousands are traversing the area to attend matinee theater performances, countless people are checking in and out of hotel rooms, and large swaths of tourists and New Yorkers attend the restaurants and other entertainment venues the district has to offer. These events must be reevaluated. We recommend that street closings that do not fi t the current SAPO exception for City or neighborhood promotion be permitted only after a traffi c-based neighborhood impact assessment is conducted. Similarly, there is a need to look at the total number of SAPO-permitted events on the plazas, as well as the number and mix of commercial events, to determine the appropriate number and placement of such events, as well as the cumulative effect of these events on the civic life of the plazas and Times Square. 

42nd Street pedestrian flow: We need a fact-based analysis of traffic on 42nd Street, and we should establish smart and fair vending regulations governed by time, place and manner. Thousands of people at peak hours are forced to walk in the bus traffic lanes on 42nd Street because of temporary encumbrances that impede pedestrian flow. There should be consideration given to current vending regulations at peak times in areas of high egress, such as theaters and other large entertainment venues. In addition, if triggered by excessive pedestrian hazards (defined by an objective standard such as 500 or more people walking in the street in a 2-hour period due to sidewalk congestion), objects to be placed on 42nd Street should be subject to a neighborhood impact assessment and level of service analysis that takes into account non-permanent but regularly permitted uses.

Vehicular flow: We recommend exploring the impact of tour bus stop locations and developing more nuanced criteria for bus stop placement. Furthermore, we need to examine the impact of bus clustering and dwell time and find a way to regulate and enforce this congestion. There are also several turn lanes, particularly the left turn lanes onto 44th Street and 46th Street, that serve as key vehicular pinch points. We should reexamine the effect on traffic of opening these turn lanes. Finally, the City should consider pedestrian traffic agents for peak times and intersections to encourage a more efficient flow of both pedestrian and vehicular traffic.

3. Sustain and support new NYPD Times Square Unit

We applaud the recent step of adding a dedicated unit to Times Square, and having more cops who are familiar with the area has already started paying dividends. But this is bigger than just an NYPD solution. We have too many repeat offenders and not enough tools to help them. We suggest making civil penalties in Times Square returnable to the Midtown Community Court so that we can track recidivist offenders and get troubled defendants the help they need. We can build on the above by having focused officer training about the subtle forms of intimidation by solicitors in Times Square and the complex legal issues related to enforcement. There should also be monthly meetings of the Times Square Unit with district constituents and the Midtown Community Court. By continuing to build a dialog, we will maintain open lines of communication and instill confidence in the community.

While there are a variety of opinions among the briefing book authors as to whether it should be mandatory or voluntary (and how to ensure that it would pass legal muster), it is the current belief of the Alliance that we need renewed enforcement and further regulation of ticket selling and costumed characters, perhaps through some form of a city registration system. Countless people have been victims of verbal harassment and physical assault in Times Square in recent years, and we can’t keep letting that happen. We need a better system for educating solicitors about what behavior is acceptable and what behavior is not. With help from the Department of Consumer Affairs and NYPD, we can make incredible gains in the quality of life of our residents and workers. The justice system is currently serving neither the victims nor those perpetrators in need of help or other economic options.

The path to implementation

The Times Square community and its elected officials are eager to discuss these items and work with City Hall and the relevant City agencies to implement this plan. There have been several ideas floated, from ripping up the plazas to turning them into parks, but we feel this set of proposals best accounts for all of the issues facing Times Square and offers a comprehensive solution that has the support of the Times Square community.

The de Blasio administration has recently demonstrated a commitment to resolve the problems threatening Times Square. We strongly encourage them to follow through by taking those good intentions and turning them into real policies that help make Times Square the 21st Century space that all of New York, and the world, so deserves it to be. 

A vision for the future

Finally, the discussion of what problems we do not want to see in Times Square must be accompanied by a discussion of what we do want to see. Having the City and the community define the vision for what Times Square can be is essential to shaping and creating the tools that must be in place to achieve that vision.

In discussions over the last year with its board, stakeholders and civic groups, the Alliance has come up with the following draft principles and admonitions for Times Square:

BE CURRENT & CHANGING & RELEVANT but don’t lose what connects us to our past
BE COMMERCIAL but not if it overwhelms civic activity
CREATE SPACE FOR RELAXING but don’t make it sterile, banal or ordinary
CREATE & CURATE ORIGINAL PROGRAMMING but allow for the random, unexpected & organic
BE FREE, TRANSPARENT AND DEMOCRATIC but don’t let it become a free for all
WELCOME THE VISITOR but make sure New Yorkers feel it’s theirs

In addition, the Alliance has drafted the following vision statement for the future of Times Square:

A thriving town square,
innovatively designed and beautifully maintained,
that celebrates its commerce and culture,
its past and its future,
and reflects the best of New York City, America and the world.

Times Square is for everyone. It can and should be a place where public art is on display, where magical events are held, and where people congregate. Times Square is for New Yorkers of all backgrounds who want to come to and spend time, to celebrate, protest, debate, or just gaze up in wonder on their way to a Broadway show. It should captivate and inspire and be a place where the very best of New York City is on display.