By JOHN TIERNEY, New York Times
JUL 24, 2001
Tomorrow morning, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani is scheduled to announce a new era of broader sidewalks in Times Square. This is welcome news to all New Yorkers and tourists who do not wish to be crushed to death.
It is especially welcome to the members of Times Square Matinee Traverse – the 1999 expedition, bravely led by the mountain climber David Breashears, that made the first crossing of Times Square on matinee day with a baby in a stroller. On behalf of the survivors, I want to thank the mayor. If the publicity from our quest contributed in any way to these new sidewalks, then our casualties were not in vain.
But there is so much more to be done. These new sidewalks are no substitute for the grand urban space that deserves to be there – Broadway Plaza, as it was called by the planners who came up with it in the 1970′s, although we may want to rethink some of the details of that scheme.
This could be New York’s answer to the beloved cathedral squares and promenades of Europe. The tourists who flock to New York want to congregate at some central spot like the Piazza del Duomo in Milan or Florence; they want to stroll through a market-cum-boulevard like Las Ramblas in Barcelona. The logical place for it is Times Square, which is once again living up to its name as the Crossroads of the World.
But we’ve taken the “roads” part of that slogan literally. Most of the space is given up to cars. We’ve taken one of the prime destinations on Earth and set aside most of it for people who are rushing through on their way to someplace else.
The 1970′s Broadway Plaza plan, approved by the city, called for shutting down Broadway to cars from 47th to 45th Streets. Traffic engineers wanted to redesign the 45th Street bottleneck, where Broadway and Seventh Avenue narrow to three southbound lanes apiece as they cross.
Instead, Broadway’s traffic would be diverted to Seventh Avenue, which would be widened to six lanes through Times Square. Cars would get through more smoothly, the engineers promised, and there would be room for the new pedestrian plaza.
The project was eventually canceled, mainly because of understandable fears that the plaza would be taken over by drug dealers and bums, like Bryant Park nearby. Since then, though, the managers who transformed Bryant Park and other spots have shown that New York’s public spaces can be just as civilized as Europe’s.
As originally planned, the plaza would encompass both Broadway and the adjoining traffic island with the TKTS booth, creating a large gathering spot with the giant Coca-Cola bottle looming overhead like a cathedral’s steeple. There could also be room for a second plaza on Broadway south of 45th Street, below the building at 1 Times Square, where the famous ball drops.
“I’m very interested in proposals for a Broadway mall, full or partial,” said Brendan Sexton, the president of the Times Square Business Improvement District. “There have been suggestions that a southbound lane of Broadway all the way from Lincoln Center down to 42nd Street ought to be given over to pedestrians. There are suggestions that all the southbound traffic should be diverted to Ninth or Seventh. I’m very excited with what the city is doing out here now with the sidewalks, and I would love to see the engineering studies that would get us to go further.”
Fred Kent, the president of the Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit planning company, would like to see a variation of the original Broadway Plaza. Mr. Kent envisions shrinking Broadway and Seventh Avenue to two lanes apiece, thereby slowing traffic and creating more room for pedestrians. There could also be wide promenades heading toward Lincoln Center and Central Park, and along 42nd Street. At night and on weekends, Broadway might be closed to cars, as with the original Broadway Plaza plan.
“You need to do more than widen the sidewalks a few feet,” Mr. Kent said. “That won’t ease the congestion. Everyone wants to be in Times Square, but right now you’re barraged on all sides when you try to go there. You get a very poor experience at what should be one of the greatest public spaces in the world.”