CB5 hopes to curtail promotional events on plazas

One of numerous promotional events to take place at the Flatiron Pedestrian Plaza last summer (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

One of numerous promotional events to take place at the Flatiron Pedestrian Plaza last summer (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot
Since the city’s pedestrian plazas made their debut in 2009, along with being a peaceful destination for those seeking a place to sit outside – albeit inches from traffic — they’ve also become big business for companies looking to hawk products to passersby.

That ongoing commercialization of the public spaces is the source of some contention for representatives of Community Board 5, who, after hearing about a concert planned for the Flatiron Pedestrian Plaza that’s expected to draw a crowd of 10,000, made their displeasure known to the mayor.

The event is planned for February 12 at the north plaza and will require setup for three days prior to it taking place.

This was the topic of discussion held at a CB5 Parks Committee meeting last Monday, according to Jack Taylor, a member of the committee who attended and said he was against it, and that the rest of his fellow members spoke against it as well.

“It stunned everybody,” said Taylor. “They are planning for an audience of 10,000 people largely in but overflowing from the pedestrian plaza on the west side of Madison Square Park. It’s very alarming and massive and if it’s as described or proposed, it’s going to be very hard for pedestrians and drivers and just about anyone in the district.”

Exactly a week after the meeting, CB5’s chair, Vikki Barbero, along with Clayton Smith, chair of the Parks and Public Spaces Committee, penned a letter to the mayor to ask why community boards don’t get any say in the arranging of such commercial events. Meanwhile the city’s Street Activity and Permit Office apparently has sole discretion.

“The Department of Transportation created the pedestrian plaza network and is the city agency responsible for their oversight,” wrote Barbero and Smith. “The area BIDs were chosen to activate, administer and protect these plazas. Why, then, has the Street Activity Permit Office been given the sole discretion to make final determinations of what special events are appropriate for these public spaces?”

They added that since the plazas were built, the board has had concerns that “this newly created pedestrian plaza network might be usurped from its intended passive use by out-of-scale commercial events.”

The board, which represents the neighborhoods of Flatiron, Union Square, Times Square and Columbus Circle, has also previously objected to commercialization of the Times Square pedestrian plaza.

In the letter, they referred to the concert, which they heard is supposed to feature “A-list” entertainers and NBA athletes. Along with requiring numerous street closures in the area, the event itself would take up the entire north plaza. To make room for a staging area and crowd, the plaza’s furniture and stationary objects such as oversize planters, granite blocks that are used as benches, the Citi Bike dock and the solar powered charging stations would have to be moved. The objects would then likely end up in the south plaza, Barbero and Smith noted, which would mean loss of the entire plaza to the public while the event is ongoing.

Additionally, the four-day prep period for what’s scheduled to be a 45-minute event would be “24/7,” even starting at 12:01 a.m. on February 10. The work, to build a 60-foot-wide steel stage, would require the use of forklifts and heavy equipment near residential buildings as well as businesses.

The letter also went on to note that the event was originally supposed to have taken place at Times Square, and later changed to Flatiron, with no public notice.

“This event clearly demonstrates that public review is essential,” Smith and Barbero argued, adding that it would have “an unacceptable impact” on the community.

They also suggested that a working group be formed to handle future management of the plazas “in a more holistic fashion.” The group would consist of members of community boards, BIDs, the borough president, the DOT and affected City Council members.

The letter was also sent to the borough president and the City Council speaker as well as the mayor.

After seeing it, Town & Village contacted the NBA for more details. However, Barry Parasram, a spokesperson for the NBA, said there was no official NBA event taking place on February 12 at the Flatiron Plaza and suggested it could be something organized by a third party to coincide with All-Star Weekend games.

Though the NBA will be holding events throughout the city in February, “We have nothing there,” he said.

A representative of SAPO, when asked for information about the event, said all media inquiries had to go through the office of the mayor.

T&V then asked the mayor’s office about who the would-be host of the event is, but a spokesperson didn’t provide the information other than to confirm there would be NBA talent.

A spokesperson, Ishanee Parikh, also confirmed the SAPO office has the right to permit the use of the space and all Department on Transportation property. The plazas are considered DOT property.

Parikh added that SAPO has been working with various city agencies, the Flatiron BID, representatives from Madison Square Park, and members of CB5 to ensure things run smoothly and safely. A rep from SAPO had been at the CB5 meeting to address members’ concerns.

SAPO is still reviewing the site plan, which means the fee that will be paid to the city has not yet been determined. But Parikh insisted the fees aren’t considered revenue for the city; they’re an attempt to recoup costs associated with the events. A question about how much the city earned from events last year went unanswered.

Fees range depending on how much space an event takes up and which plaza it takes place at. They start at $290 for extra small one-day events with a curb lane or sidewalk. For an event with a curb lane and sidewalk, the price goes up to $700. Large events are $25,000. However, that price goes up if it takes place at the Times Square Plaza. Large events at Times Square or Herald Square cost $50,000. Extra large events can cost as much as $66,000 though civic and charitable events get 50 and 10 percent discounts, respectively.

When asked for further details about the event from CB5, Wally Rubin, the board’s district manager who handles all press inquiries, declined to comment.

“We’d prefer to let the letter speak for itself,” he said.

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