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Breathing New Life by Jeffrey Grob Principal Landscape Architect Vollmer Associates, New York, NY Two showcase neighborhoods in midtown Manhattan have been given new life as a result of some $54 million in capital improvements funded and implemented by property owners in two Business Improvement Districts (BIDs). The two sections - the Grand Central Terminal area and neighboring section of 34th Street to the south and west - deteriorated in the wake of the financial setbacks that hit New York City in the 1970s. With the city strapped for funds, property owners decided to take the initiative in an effort to revitalize their neighborhoods. The Grand Central Partnership was created in 1989; the 34th Street Partnership three years later. The Grand Central area, with its mid- to upper-scale retail outlets, is now cleaner, brighter, and more inviting to both shoppers and merchants. The 34th Street district, which caters to a mid- to lower-scale shopping clientele, has been spruced up and is attracting a flood of large chain stores and retailers. Funding the Projects Both neighborhoods owe their revitalization to the partnerships that initiated the changes in their respective BIDs. A BID is a private, non-profit organization that raises money from local property owners to fund service and capital improvements. It is a creation of the state legislature and must rely on approval and cooperation by city and state agencies. The city acts as a conduit for the collection and distribution of funds. Once the improvement plan is drawn up, accepted by a majority of the owners and tenants in the district, and approved by appropriate state and city agencies, the property owners assess themselves a surcharge on real estate taxes on a per-square-foot basis. The funds are paid to the city, which holds them in an escrow account to be turned over to the BID. The owners receive a return on these additional fees in the form of increased business, a cleaner and safer neighborhood, and enhanced property values that enable them to charge higher rents. The process has been met with great success in both the Grand Central and 34th Street areas. Grand Central Area In the Grand Central area, where work has been completed, capital projects involving streetscape improvements focused on visible public spaces. These included "signature corners" made of pink, Stony Creek granite pavers, with inclines to accommodate wheelchairs and handcarts; specially designed streetlight stanchions, emitting a more attractive and color-correct metal halide, white light instead of the city-standard, high-pressure sodium yellow; easier-to-read street signs and elimination of surplus traffic signs; trees in specially designed tree pits, decorative planters, and flowers placed along the avenues; clean, convenient trash receptacles; and newly striped streets and crosswalks. One of the primary goals of the streetscape improvement project was to clear the sidewalk intersection corners of all physical encumbrances that reduced the available sidewalk space for the large volumes of pedestrians waiting to cross. These elements included the streetlight and traffic signal poles, located at the apexes of the corner. Typically newspaper vending boxes for the five major daily papers as well as other free publications are chained to the poles creating, clutter and minimizing pedestrian space. The solution developed to increase sidewalk accessibility was to move the poles off the corner and to relocate the newspaper boxes to an area close to but not within the intersection. A multiple publication news rack was custom designed to include all the daily papers as well as the free publications. Once off the corners however, the proposed news racks could not be located in bus stops, over subway grates or near other existing news stands. An inventory was performed to determine the location and contents of every existing news box in both districts. A plan was then developed that blocked out all the areas in which a potential news rack could not be placed for various reasons. In the remaining areas, a proposed multi-news rack location plan was developed and circulated to all the publishers for their input. Competition for prime spots was keen and negotiating with all the publishers brought about economic as well as First Amendment free speech issues. The goal of clearing the corners was accomplished with the installation of over 100 multiple news racks on the streets throughout the districts. On a somewhat grander scale, the two blocks of 41st Street between Fifth and Park Avenues, opposite the New York Public Library, have been transformed into "Library Way." The blocks are being further enhanced with 100 granite plaques cut into the sidewalk, each bearing literary quotations from a noted author. In similar fashion, "United Nations Way" has been created between the UN and Grand Central Station, on 43rd Street between Second and Lexington Avenues. All traffic and street light poles on those two blocks have been adorned with displays of flags of member nations. The area's architectural heritage is commemorated at 101 Park Avenue between 40th and 41st Street; for decades the site of the Architects Building. Twenty bronze sidewalk plaques around three sides of the building show replicas of such notable neighborhood architectural landmarks as the top of the Chrysler Building, the GE Building, and Grand Central Station. 34th Street BID While many of the improvements taking place in the 34th Street BID are similar to those in the Grand Central area, the thrust of the program has taken a different approach. The spruce-up began with the removal of canopies and obtrusive signs from in front of stores and on the sides of buildings, which had given the area the look of an overgrown flea market. The design of the streetscape has been improved with increased lighting levels, signature corners, and freshly painted street and crosswalk stripes similar to those in the Grand Central district. The most comprehensive changes are being made in Greeley and Herald Squares, located between West 32nd and 34th Streets and Broadway and Sixth Avenue, which have acquired a run-down look over the years. Both squares have been completely reconstructed with decorative granite and asphalt block pavers, new trees and seasonal landscape displays, benches, granite seat walls and columns, commemorative plaques, sculptures, information kiosks, drinking fountains, concessions, movable tables, chairs, and street-level restrooms. These newly renovated squares opened to the public in July 1999. The initial returns on this urban experiment are in: The approval rating is high. Street crime in the BID areas is down more than 75% in the Grand Central area and 55% in the 34th Street district. The streets and sidewalks are among the most litter- and graffiti-free in Manhattan. Property owners attest to increased pedestrian traffic, and merchants report a marked improvement in retail business. The prospects for the future, they agree, never looked better. Lasn "The design of the streetscape has been improved with increased lighting levels, signature corners, and freshly painted street and crosswalk stripes..." The architectural heritage of Manhattan is commemorated at 101 Park Avenue between 40th and 41st Streets with twenty bronze sidewalk plaques around three sides of the building showing replicas of such notable neighborhood architectural landmarks as the top of the Chrysler Building, the GE Building, and the Grand Central Station.

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October 15, 2019, 4:57 am PDT

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