34th Street

An Oasis in Midtown's Mayhem

August 26, 2015
Mozes Zarate, Wall Street Journal

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Tyler Sandblom and Alexander Gudding enjoy pizza on the bleachers at Plaza 33, a pedestrian plaza newly opened next to Madison Square Garden. Photo: Agaton Strom for The Wall Street Journal 

The area around Penn Plaza has long been one of the city’s grittiest and most crowded, thanks largely to the presence of Pennsylvania Station.

Now, there’s a refuge from the pedestrian herd.

Plaza 33, a pilot project open until Oct. 11, temporarily closes off 33rd Street between Seventh Avenue and Madison Square Garden’s loading dock, replacing vehicle traffic with shaded lunch tables, folding chairs and planter benches. The plaza is part of a neighborhood-revitalization plan spearheaded by Vornado Realty Trust,which owns most of the nearby high-rises and hopes to upgrade what is now regarded as a second-tier location, real estate-wise.

That effort includes improving the pedestrian experience.

“There’s a lot of pedestrian flow, and it’s nice for people to get out of that flow,” said Barbara Wilks, founder and principal of W Architecture & Landscape Architecture LLC, which designed Plaza 33, as well as the “Edge” park on the Williamsburg waterfront.

The project ran on a short timeline, starting in April with talks among Vornado, the city, the city Department of Transportation and community boards. The community boards approved the project in June, the transportation department closed the street on July 25, and the plaza was opened on Aug. 10.

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Pedestrians use a path created by bleachers and planters. Photo: Agaton Strom for The Wall Street Journal

Vornado agreed to foot the bill, though it declined to discuss costs, said spokesman Bud Perrone.

While a central design goal was to provide a respite for pedestrians, a large bleacher staircase also permits a detached view of the street-level activity, which from up high seems calmer and quieter.

“You want to be able to see people moving, but you don’t want to feel like you’re constantly in the way,” Ms. Wilks said.

The bleacher steps, made of the same durable cumaru wood as the planter benches fixed around the space, are multi-functional. A wide bottom step becomes a stage for local music talent, including David Belmont and Gerry McCord, a New Age blues duo that played on the steps last week as part of series of summer activities at the plaza.

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The temporarily closed section of West 33rd Street. Photo: Agaton Strom for The Wall Street Journal 

During their set, the audience behind them put multi-use to the test. Some read books during the performance, while others chatted or people-watched. Before a security officer asked him to sit up, one man rested his head against a backpack just inches from the duo. The musicians didn’t mind.

“It was part of the vibe,” said Mr. Belmont, 63 years old. “This [space] sort of slows things down. It’s refreshing.”

Other nights, the street tables were moved aside to make way for salsa lessons, which 57-year-old Bronxite Richie Hernandez and his fiancée, Maribel, happened upon last week.

“This is good therapy,” Mr. Hernandez said.

Other forms of art also adorn the plaza, among them Roy Lichtenstein’s 33-foot-tall “Brushstroke Group” and Keith Haring’s “S-Man,” a light-blue figure of more human proportions.

Before it was closed, traffic volume on 33rd Street ranged from 200 to 300 cars an hour during weekday peaks, less than half the average for crosstown streets, said the transportation department. Foot traffic averaged about 6,700 pedestrians on the west crosswalk of 33rd Street and Seventh Avenue in peak hours.

Aside from removing foot traffic from sidewalks and intersections, the plaza makes the area look safer, said Dan Biederman, chairman of the The 34th Street Partnership, a neighborhood business nonprofit that advised on the plaza’s design. Specifically, he spoke of unsavory characters who tend to scare away some people.

“Without any everyday police work, we’ve just civilized those spaces,” Mr. Biederman said.

The partnership is soliciting feedback from users of the plaza, he said. If everything works out, it could stay, or a permanent one like it will be developed in the future.