Janette Sadik-Khan, the sui generis city transportation commissioner, was standing on 51st Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues as rush hour was just starting last week. Rather, she was standing at the intersection with 6½th Avenue, her latest asphalt confection. The pedestrian passageway was designated and demarcated about two months ago, connecting up a series of plazas running from here to 57th Street. Ms. Sadik-Khan was out for her first official stroll.
“It’s kind of a secret garden, one of the new secret spaces we’ve helped create; we’ve got 500 of them in the city and we’re trying to connect people better to their surroundings, make the city that much nicer,” Ms. Sadik-Khan said.
She gazed up at the cute little green street sign one of her construction crews had installed. “6½th Avenue” it read, like a sign on any other corner, though it, along with five others along the seven-block passageway, are the only ones in the city bearing fractions. The commissioner looked down and smiled. “It’s like Harry Potter,” she said. “The 9¾ platform. Or Being John Malkovich, with the 7½ floor.”
“I love it.”
Back in the 1980s, a special zoning district in West Midtown required developers along this stretch to include public arcades and passageways within their buildings. Some are grand, like the public galleries at the UBS Building between 51st and 52nd Streets, full of benches and sculptures, a giant Sol Lewitt hanging on the marble walls two stories up, and not a few smokers, whose fumes wafted about the space. “They’re killing themselves, but I guess that’s their right,” Ms. Sadik-Khan quipped.
There are others that are more bland than grand, like the passage between the City Center and CitySpire, a dimly lit hallway with posters advertizing upcoming shows. At the Metropolitan Tower across 55th Street, there is little more than a stark, neon blue lobby. Tiny video screens, lined up the length of the space, burble away silently, adding to the Matrix-like feel. As with all seven passages, these are privately owned public spaces, or POPS, and it is clear some landlords are more eager than others to invite outsiders in.
“I like that they’re all different, that you have six different experiences,” Ms. Sadik-Khan said. “Though I prefer the ones where you can sit down. This is actually something I hope we can work with the landlords on, making the spaces nicer.”
The transportation commissioner, in her unending quest to re-engineer the city’s streets, sidewalks and public spaces, hit upon a simple solution to connect up these spaces and make them more inviting: add crosswalks. For $90,000, or $15,000 an intersection, stop signs, bollards and road paint went down in June, following consultation with, and enthusiastic support from, local Community Board 5 in the spring.
“It really makes a huge difference, doesn’t it?” Ms. Sadik-Khan said. “Before, maybe you knew about these spaces, but now, they’re unmistakable. This ties them together and telegraphs where to go next.” According to Department of Transportation counts, more than 12,000 people use the walkways a day as an alternative to the crowded avenues half a block away.
But before the crosswalks, vehicles regularly used to block the curbs between them, and there was no guarantee oncoming traffic would slow down to let people cross. During lunchtime, when the combination of cars and lunch-seekers peaks, the mid-block streets came to resemble a game of Frogger.
Now, even cabs calmly queue up at some of the few stop signs in Manhattan (the others are at Vanderbilt Avenue, beside Grand Central) as women in heels, men in suits, listless tourists and dog-walkers, the menagerie of New York pedestrians, scurry by.
Ms. Sadik-Khan hopes to bring programming to the spaces at some point, but first any kinks have to be worked out, like getting landlords along the strip to open and close the spaces at the same time. Some are closed at 7 p.m., some at 10 p.m., some are open weekends, some are not. “You could see any number of cool art installations coming through here,” the commissioner said. “You could see doing a design competition, food carts. Anything that’s going to stimulate more people is going to be good. People are hungering for this, especially in Midtown.”