Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Closing a Street (and Businesses?) in Little India in Queens

Dateline: 10:39 am March 19, 2012 Filed under:

Today’s New York Times article about a pedestrian plaza in Little India in Queens will undoubtedly provoke a mixed response among urbanists and retailers across the country. Last September the city of New York blocked off a one-block stretch of 37th Road in Jackson Heights in order to create a “park” and decongest a nearby roadway.

According to business along 37th, the plan has worked too well. Business is reported to be way down for those located along the affected street. Gee, I wonder why? You have one guess – that’s right, because it is harder to get to these businesses, so customers are apparently shopping elsewhere. Retail 101.

The model referenced for this move by the city is the success of closing Times Square to traffic. The problem is, Times Square is truly one-of-a-kind. It is such an immense draw, known around the world as a major destination, that closing the street actually helped it. The same can be said of closing the street between Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery in London – again, a one-of-a-kind place. The key is, tens of thousands of people still show up to these destinations because of their surrounding density and access via transit and sidewalk. The same realities don’t apply to most downtowns, and apparently not to Little India, either.

Decades ago, dozens of downtowns closed off a major retail street to traffic. Most results were disastrous, as shoppers (who, as Bob Gibbs points out “don’t need to shop”) either stayed home or took their business elsewhere to places that were easier to access. Few downtown pedestrian streets survive, like Pearl Street in Boulder, and it is due to a large stable nearby pedestrian population (the University of Colorado) and a concerted effort on behalf of both the public and private sector to draw customers and help them find a place to park.

What bothers me most about the situation in Queens is there was no apparent plan to attract and retain customers – the city just shut off the street. That said, there apparently was an 18-month study on traffic, but still no report that an actual plan existed between the city and local businesses. Still, I have to scratch my head at how local business owners can be unaware of an 18-month study that affects their livelihood so directly. Perhaps there was communication the city and businesses, although the Times reports there wasn’t much if any. Perhaps only the building owners received notification, and if I know some building owners, communication with tenants isn’t always very good. Still, this wouldn’t be the first time a city has made life more difficult for small business owners, although I must say, if a city action hurts your businesses, you should be able to prove it by showing your books. Furthermore, the Times doesn’t report that any business has actually closed…yet.

I can also see it from the residents’ perspective. They want traffic calming and some more open space. But they also value their small businesses, which are often put on a pedestal without a full understanding of how blocking access can submarine already razor-thin margins. It is one thing to be a NIMBY and worry that a nearby housing development may affect your quality of life in some way, but entirely another when the street in front of your store is blocked off and the impact on your revenue is immediate and dire. Area residents don’t always understand the economics of operating a small business. Good placemaking must be rooted in economic and market realities.

We can only speculate that maybe the best process would have been to openly engage all stakeholders and come up with a plan that provided advertising for affected businesses, created alternative parking nearby, charged for on-street parking, created a woonerf (shared street), only shut the street down on Sundays, coupling it with an event of some kind, or found financing for more attractive bollards and street furniture. Of course, it is possible that an open, transparent process would have led to a stalemate on the issue. Then again, perhaps in this case a stalemate would have been the best action.

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