CB 5 Embraces Permanent Pedestrian Plaza Above Penn Station

The pilot pedestrian plaza created last summer on West 33rd Street seems headed for permanent status in the block just north of Penn Station and Madison Square Garden. | 34th STREET PARTNERSHIP
The pilot pedestrian plaza created last summer on West 33rd Street seems headed for permanent status in the block just north of Penn Station and Madison Square Garden. | 34th STREET PARTNERSHIP

BY JACKSON CHEN | Community Board 5 has given its approval to efforts by a real estate company and a local business improvement district to create a permanent pedestrian plaza just north of Penn Station.

On March 10, CB5 followed the lead of both its Transportation & Environment and Parks & Public Spaces Committees by adopting a resolution expressing support for the project, Plaza33, proposed by Vornado Realty Trust and the 34th Street Partnership.

The pedestrian plaza — to be established on roughly the eastern third of the block of West 33rd Street running from Seventh to Eighth Avenue — is expected to alleviate the congested jam of foot traffic descending on Penn Station, Madison Square Garden, and office buildings in the area. Vornado, which owns several properties nearby, will foot the bill for the public plaza that is expected to increase the value of surrounding real estate.

To assess the impact of a pedestrian plaza on an overcrowded street scene, Vornado partnered with the 34th Street BID on a pilot version of the plaza — designed by W Architecture — that operated from August 10 to October 11 last year. Throughout the pilot, pedestrians were offered live music, televised sports events, and yoga programs in a wide area furnished with a tiered seating pyramid, wooden planters, and folding chairs. The western two-thirds of the block of West 33rd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues remained open to allow commercial vehicles access to the mid-block street that runs from 33rd to 31st Street for deliveries to Madison Square Garden and Penn Station.

“People reported they loved being in the area and that it was huge improvement from being a street bed,” said Maureen Devenny, operations associate for the 34th Street Partnership. “Now it’s this place that’s a lot safer for pedestrians because they’re not crowded in Seventh Avenue.”

By the time the pilot came to a close, the two project partners surveyed more than 750 people, most of whom expressed support for making the plaza permanent. Vornado and the BID also conducted plaza use studies and enlisted the help of Sam Schwartz, a noted traffic engineer, to evaluate the impact of the plaza on pedestrian and traffic flow.

With extensive data and evidence of strong public approval, Vornado returned to CB5 for its support in establishing a permanent pedestrian plaza.

“Community Board 5 has been our partner in this initiative from the very start, and our design, operations and maintenance, and programming strategies reflect their input,” said Bud Perrone, spokesperson for Vornado.

While the full board largely offered its support for Plaza33, it did make note of concerns regarding both traffic flow and commercial events that arose when Vornado presented its data at a February 22 joint meeting of the board’s transportation and parks committees.

According to district manager Wally Rubin, CB5 generally frowns on holding commercial events in public spaces, and the board advocated strict limits on the potential for profit-making activities on the plaza. The Mayor’s Street Activity Permit Office declined to issue permits for commercial events during last year’s pilot program, and CB5 urged oversight on any such events when the plaza becomes permanent. The community board is expected to join Vornado and the 34th Street Partnership in a working group to monitor and evaluate requests for commercial event permits and ensure that public hearings are held about applications.

According to Clayton Smith, CB5’s parks committee chair, board members are uncertain how the permitting process will play out and believe that continual monitoring is the best approach.

“We didn’t feel comfortable just giving a blanket approval,” Smith said at the full board meeting. “So this working group is an important part of monitoring how this plays out as this moves on.”

As for the board’s traffic concerns, Schwartz’ study concluded that during last year’s pilot run vehicles experienced delays in turning at two nearby points — making left turns from Seventh Avenue onto West 31st Street and from West 33rd Street onto Seventh Avenue. The city’s Department of Transportation, which supports the plaza project, proposed mitigation in the form of split-phase traffic signals at both of those points and suggested that Vornado provide “pedestrian managers” to guide both car traffic and those on foot.

The board requested further traffic analysis by the DOT and said the plaza’s sponsors should appear before CB5 in a year’s time to review the impact of it being permanent.

“The ongoing collaboration with CB5 and the 34th Street Partnership will help ensure this space continues to work well for local residents and workers, while also serving daily commuters,” Vornado’s Perrone said.

Between now and when the plaza opens — which Vornado said could happen as early as this summer — the company will continue to work with CB5 on design elements, before it requests a formal signoff from the DOT.

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