Will New York ever get Rockefeller Center right? For the third Christmas since Mayor Bill de Blasio took a half-measure — closing 49th and 50th streets — New York’s premier public space remains an incoherent mess.
Mayor-elect Eric Adams can do better, so that if more foreign tourists return next winter, they’ll find something besides total confusion.
De Blasio was right, in 2019, to close off the cross streets near the tree from early November to mid-January (thank you, sir!). With 800,000 people coming each day — rivaling the 900,000 people who, pre-COVID, drove into Manhattan below 60th Street daily — the crowds no longer fit on the sidewalks.
Christmas 2019 was much better, as businesspeople and shoppers could coexist with people taking pictures. The city also moved the mid-block crosswalks on Fifth Avenue to the corners, improving pedestrian movement.
But we’ve had two COVID Christmases to take advantage of sparse crowds to make more ambitious fixes.
Instead, the city and Tishman Speyer, which manages the real estate, make head-scratching decisions.
The city’s transportation department never moved the mid-block crosswalks on Sixth Avenue to the corners, and the NYPD still uses metal barriers to close them for the season.
Giving people less room to cross when there are more people around has never made sense. Funneling crowds to cross at the south side of 49th and 50th, rather than letting them cross at all corners, undoes some of the good deed of closing 49th and 50th. It re-bunches everyone together.
And now, the NYPD greets people coming from Fifth Avenue with a giant sign warning you to “SECURE FROM THEFT” your wallet and other riches.
If thieves are such a plague, the police should arrest them, and DAs should prosecute them. (The police did arrest one chronic thief — only to see him walk free.) The sign makes it seem like the city has abdicated its responsibility to keep visitors safe.
The city also inexplicably litters 49th and 50th streets with metal barriers. The barriers are not directing people any which way. They’re just . . . there.
Now, Tishman is borrowing the city’s bad habits. For the second year, it has blocked the big plaza to the west of the tree (with, of course, junky metal barriers), rather than secure the tree with a sturdy fence (and guards), which worked fine for 88 years.
So commuters can no longer walk mid-block from 51st to 48th streets but must detour to an avenue. It also means you can’t walk through 30 Rock on a cold day (you can hack this by walking through the J.Crew).
Tishman is also creating uncomfortable crowding where none exists. On the east side of the tree, it’s thrown up two layers of metal barriers to obstruct the view of the skating rink. Why?
On the south side, it’s blocked the walking corridor to and from Fifth Avenue so that people who have bought $6 churros can sit in a little hut and not be bothered by people who don’t have $6.
The huts are cute (try it!), and the overlook churro shelters are a nice idea — but with three views of the rink blocked, that means people congregate on the north side, which must serve as a viewing area and the only west-east pathway. Block off one view, fine, but not three out of four.
Tishman has also used metal barriers to create a maze on this only usable north side — just because.
This is uncomfortable, even with a tiny crowd. It won’t work at all if we get close to normal crowds next year.
Bryant Park manages to do stuff like cozy eating hideaways without blocking off foot thoroughfares (or erecting abstract metal-barrier sculptures).
This spatial illiteracy deters people who live and work in the area from spending time there — not a good thing when only a fraction of office workers are back.
Why not spend 2022 redesigning 49th and 50th as permanent pedestrian streets, protected by retractable poles rather than ugly movable barriers? Retractable poles would allow for morning deliveries and, for most of the year, buses.
Then, work with Tishman and restaurants and stores to bring fun to the two streets and official entertainment to crowd out the Elmos while keeping pathways clear.
And let people cross Sixth Avenue at crosswalks!
Next to murder and mayhem, prettifying Rockefeller Center is probably No. 3,338 on Adams’ list.
But making a pleasant space would be easy and cheap — and he will need to boast of an easy, cheap accomplishment soon enough.
This piece originally appeared at the New York Post
Photo by TriggerPhoto/iStock