A debate question about pedestrian plazas, like the one in Times Square, has transportation advocates defensive, as both mayoral candidates suggested they'd revisit the transportation initiative. Credit: Getty Images
A stray question about pedestrian plazas in Tuesday's mayoral debate has advocates befuddled and defensive, as both major-party candidates suggested they would revisit the often-celebrated transportation initiative.
"I'm disappointed about each of them hedging," said Dan Biederman, head of the 34th Street Partnership, which manages the plaza in Herald Square. "The plazas have been a great success."
After a fiery line of questioning about public safety, education and taxes, the candidates were asked if they would remove the tables and chairs in Times Square and Herald Square, reopening Broadway and effectively shutting down the pedestrian plazas.
Democratic candidate Bill de Blasio, who has previously expressed support for such spaces, said he had "mixed feelings," adding that more assessment needs to be done.
"The jury's out on that particular question," the public advocate said.
Republican candiate Joe Lhota concurred.
"I don't understand why it's there 24 hours a day," he said.
Both candidates suggested the plazas mostly benefited tourists and could possibly snarl traffic — two sentiments Biederman and other transportation advocates debunked.
"The jury is not out. A verdict has been rendered," said Steve Vaccaro, a lawyer who serves on the board of StreetsPAC.
Multiple surveys show between 70 and 80 percent of businesses owners, pedestrians, residents and workers in Times Square support that plaza, according to the Times Square Alliance.
Since closing Broadway from 47th to 42nd Streets in 2009, pedestrians walking in the street and injuries to pedestrians in the area have decreased, said Tim Tompkins, president of the alliance.
"Business, public, retailers, doctors — we're seeing resounding support for the changes from all those sectors," said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives.
While Lhota's comments came as no surprise to the advocates, they were confused — and even a little disappointed — by de Blasio.
"We think it's likely he misspoke," Vaccaro said, noting that de Blasio said that he supported the plaza program in a mayoral questionnaire for StreetsPAC, which endorsed him last month.
When asked to clarify de Blasio's stance on the plazas, campaign spokesman Dan Levitan said in a statement that the candidate supported "Vision Zero," a set of policies developed in Sweden that prioritizes safety in the transportation system.
Though Levitan said that pedestrian plazas remain a part of that approach, he did not say that the candidate misspoke during the debate.
"There is nothing wrong with continually examining projects to find ways to make them better for business and more effective at managing traffic," Levitan added.
De Blasio's campaign did not express any intention of getting rid of the Times Square or Herald Square plaza if he's elected to replace their creator, current-Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Sounding wistful, Biederman said the plazas were one of the best things the Bloomberg administration has done.
"These sidewalks, when they had three or four lanes of traffic rushing by them, they were not pleasant," Biederman said.