Sep 10, 2015

It's Hip to be Square

Toronto is often referred to as the “little New York”. I guess the current controversy in Times Square means NYC is the “big Toronto”. Well the new controversy is topless tip seekers, folks with just body paint on wandering the pedestrian plaza. I remember back in the late 1990’s an Ontario court decision that led to topless hot dog vendors in front of the bank plazas on Bay St.

So it seems one alternative being explored for dealing with all this debauchery is to revert the plazas back to the narrow sidewalks and busy  “pedestrian hitting” road network the previous Mayor got rid of back in 2009.  In true and common fashion, a task force has been established to study the problem.
This New York Times photograph illustrates how some people
in body paint only in an effort to get tourist dollars, is
prompting a look at to possibly reverting the plazas back
to roadways and traffic.

It is important to remember that when the plan was first announced, there were a lot of naysayers, there would be traffic chaos etc. Yet since being installed the plazas have been touted as wonderful spaces in one of the busiest tourist destinations in the world.

It is always interesting to look at the arguments for and against on public initiatives like this, then follow up a few years later to see which visions came true.  In Calgary for example, I can think of the Stadium Shopping Centre site where strong opinions exist on both sides of the development. As the development takes shape all will monitor it carefully.

In the current Times Square debate, opinions from civic leaders like the Police Commissioner and the large employers’ downtown are telling.  The Police Commissioner was quoted by the New York Times saying, “I’d prefer to just dig the whole damn thing up and put it back the way it was”, unfortunate but not unexpected.  We have to balance the needs of everyone. In my last job, in the D.C. suburbs, we were getting a big entertainment venue that integrated an old department store facade. We identified a real opportunity to integrate the back lane into the development to create a terrific mid block space where the adjacent restaurants could help transform the space into a very cool and programmed space (think a bit like the club behind the Palamino downtown or when Charcut would have people line up in the alley for alley burgers).

Well the Council balked at the alley idea.  It was too “edgy” for the D.C. Suburbs and they placed a restriction saying if the police did not like the idea then it would not go ahead.  Not surprisingly the police did not like the idea - alleys are bad places it seems.

You run into the most unusual people in Times Square as this NY Times photo
highlights. Probably would not have happened if the roads had not been
transformed into public space.
Back to Times Square - The Partnership for New York City, which represents large corporations was also quoted by the Times saying, “It’s not the plaza itself; it’s the activity going on in the plaza. I am not questioning the urban planning, traffic management purposes of the plaza. The issue is whether or not it’s creating an atmosphere that is creating inconvenience and potential danger”.

I spent some time in Times Square last USA thanksgiving, the biggest shopping period off the year. The place was packed. And not just Times Square, there are other places in NYC where they have created plazas in the middle of former vehicular right of ways. The Google headquarters (they paid $1.9 billion for it) sits on top of an internet highway very near the highline in NYC. A few blocks away next to the Apple Store (not the one right downtown), there is a wonderful little plaza used by adjacent restaurants and office workers. Just the kind of space that corporations like Apple and Google want to be next to.

This is the little public spaces created within the street right of way down by the Apple Store on 9th Ave. and W 14th St.  Spaces like these are popping up around North America, sometimes referred to as pop up parks not unlike tested here in Calgary although these open up for retail uses as well. The Container Park in Kensington is a great example.
All this is timely given that this month we are presenting our work on the Civic District Public Realm study. Also, we are working with the Mayor’s office and Councillor’s Wooley and Farrell, to develop a plan for improving the pedestrian infrastructure throughout the downtown. Like Google, we see tremendous value by investing in our public spaces to enhance the office market environment. And like Google and Apple, Calgary can lead in showing how, just like good businesses cities need to invest in themselves in order to remain competitive.

The Civic District Public Realm study proposes ideas that as the public
spaces evolve and the private lands fronting onto those spaces develops,
Calgary can realize the full potential of integrating the roles of public
and private spaces to create a vibrant neighbourhood where people come
to relax, celebrate, work and live.
We estimate 43,000 per day walk under the Beltline rail corridor. The work currently underway to improve those connections is an investment in the small part of the city that generates close to 30 percent of our property tax revenue. We must invest in public infrastructure.  Perhaps our greatest example is the Peace Bridge which has succeeded beyond anyone’s imagination and has given us so much free advertising around the world.

The City is investing in the public connections that bring 43,000 pedestrians and cyclists into our downtown every day. This underpass has being transformed into a “new” public connection.

Be sure to watch for our report on the Civic District study, it should be available online in a few weeks. Imagine a space that integrates with the public spaces around it, where the streets like a MacLeod Trail could have surface treatments that could function as gathering spaces for large events, not unlike the current striping at City Hall marking the Gay Pride celebrations.

It is an exciting time in Calgary to get involved in ideas like the Civic District study. And we can learn from so many other places.  The more voices the better the outcome.

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