By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Community residents and business owners in the Flatiron District are hoping to highlight the history of the neighborhood and provide more space for public activities at the neighborhood’s pedestrian plazas.
They got to share their suggestions at a recent community workshop hosted by the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership Business Improvement District on the future of the plazas, which stretch from 23rd to 25th Streets along Fifth Avenue and Broadway.
The workshop was held last month at the Porcelanosa building on 25th Street.
One attendee was neighborhood resident Jeanne Braun, who said the history of the area should be emphasized.
“It should be made to look like a historic district,” she said.
Another person at the meeting, who came because he formerly worked with the Madison Square Park Conservancy, said the historic buildings surrounding the plazas deserved to be treated like a million-dollar view.
“This is a stunning stretch of buildings,” the man, who only gave his first name, Matthew, said. “A lot of those buildings are now being restored and could be highlighted with better lighting.”
He and others at the workshop had additional ideas about installing new types of lighting for the plazas, but specifically bringing back some of the old lamps that used to be on Worth Square to better highlight the statue.
Leslie Spira Lopez of Kew Management, a company that leases small office space, brought this up in a discussion at another table.
“We should highlight the monument more and put back the gas lamps,” she said.
Some participants wanted to create permanent spaces for programming while others had more mixed feelings about crowding the plazas with outside activities.
Lionel Ohayon, a resident of Broadway and founder of nearby business icrave, suggested using temporary walls for projection art to draw people into the space at night and to allow for additional creative programming but Allison West, the founder of Yoga Union at West 28th Street and Broadway, disagreed.
“This is one of the few oases left in the city,” she said of Madison Square Park and the adjacent plazas. “Parks are meant to be a place of tranquility and aren’t meant to be so packed.”
Keats Meyer, the executive director of the Madison Square Park Conservancy, joked that she loves all the programming since she’s the director of the park, but admitted that over-programming is a consideration.
“The balancing needs of what you described is my job,” she said.
Meanwhile, three neighborhood residents argued that the plazas should not be there at all. Those residents had read a Town & Village story that ran in November about the upcoming workshop and expressed opposition to the existence of the plazas, with two disappointed that the bus stops had been moved.
“There was some shifting of the bus stops,” admitted Jennifer Brown, executive director for the BID, when asked about these concerns at the workshop. “But this would be a great forum to bring that up. That’s a legitimate complaint to point out.”
Brown noted that one of the reasons for installing the plazas was to break up the crossing on 23rd Street where Broadway and Fifth Avenue meet.
“It’s one of the longest crosswalks in the city and (before the plazas were put in) there was only a small median there,” Brown said.
Posters from the DOT indicated that approval ratings for the plazas increased from 2012 to 2014 and also noted that accidents had decreased at the intersection since the two crosswalks were separated.
Expressing her concern about preservation of the area around the plazas was urban archivist Miriam Berman, who literally wrote the book on the neighborhood (Madison Square: The Park and Its Celebrated Landmarks). Berman was specifically concerned about the effect on the sidewalk directly around the Flatiron building. She said that she was worried the adjacent South Plaza would be extended, challenging the historical integrity of the original triangle that the architect was originally commissioned for in 1902. The surface of the plaza is currently below that of the curb around the Flatiron building, at street level, and Berman said that in order to “honor the history of the building,” the plaza can’t be raised to meet or go beyond this curb because it would change the shape of the block.
“A builder came from Chicago specifically for this project to design something to be on this amorphic shape,” she said. “(The plaza) can’t match it or come higher. It’s not quite the first skyscraper but it’s early. They didn’t come here for a trapezoid, they came here for that triangle that Broadway created, that Fifth Avenue created.”
The plazas were originally reconfigured in 2008 and were made from temporary concrete barriers, tree planters and low-quality epoxy gravel. The workshop was the first step in the redesign planning process, with another to be held next spring. Construction on the plazas is scheduled to begin in the fall of 2017 and is expected to be completed by the fall of 2019.
Representatives from the Department of Transportation, the Parks Department and the Madison Square Park Conservancy were invited to the workshop to interact with participants about the different possibilities for the spaces.