Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Creating a successful open street

Nur is an associate at Larisa Ortiz Associates

Last month, I got up on a beautiful Saturday afternoon to the sound of loud, popular music from a neighboring street. As I followed the music, I was brought to Tompkins Avenue in the residential neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, where I was faced with gridlock traffic. Every car was being rerouted to Gates Avenue because, as it turns out, Tompkins Avenue was closed to vehicles for the annual Tompkins Avenue Merchants Association (TAMA) Summerfest.

TAMA Summerfest is a local open streets event organized in partnership by local Bridge Street Corporation and Tompkins Avenue Merchants Association, and this year it was in its 4th year running. Since its inception in 2013, the open streets event has more than doubled in size from only covering two blocks between Hancock Street and Putnam Avenue to a full four blocks between Hancock St and Monroe St.

All over the country, Open Streets programs have sprang in numbers from only 10 of such programs a decade ago to over 70 by the end of 2011. In New York, we call it 'Weekend Walks' – multi- block, multi-day events on commercial corridors supported by NYC Department of Transportation. They also entail closing traditional streets to automobiles and converting them into temporary public spaces for pedestrians and cyclists. As with other types of public spaces, a variety of activities is often programmed to occur on the street, for example, musical performances and catwalk shows on Tompkins Avenue. These programs often attract local residents in the neighboring areas but also increasingly attract visitors from much farther away, which might result in higher-than-normal foot traffic for local businesses lining the street.

However, as I found at TAMA Summerfest, the activities programmed on the street only work best for businesses when:

1. They relate to the services and goods already available at adjacent storefronts

I sat along Tompkins Avenue during the Summerfest observing users of the street and found that food vendors out on the street had a very organic relationship with the local bars and wine stores. The products offered were complementary so as visitors walked away with snacks in hand, they would venture slowly over to Bed Vyne Brew to get a cup of sangria, wine, or soda.

In addition, many of the established businesses on Tompkins Avenue were also active street vendors during the Summerfest and were creating physical outdoor extensions of their already existing or soon-to-be storefronts. As a result, many customers were seen venturing further into storefronts after perusing the small selection of products on display out on the street.

In fact, a study of open streets programs by Hipp et al, 2012, in St Louis supports this observation. 73% of participants in an open streets program in St Louis had spent money at a nearby business and 68% became newly aware of a store/ restaurant. These findings certainly bode well for the merchants on Tompkins Avenue.

2. Sprinkled throughout the corridor and not just concentrated on one end or another

Overall, areas along the street that were punctuated with a hub of activities found visitors lingering for longer periods of time. From my observations, I noticed parents would browse products in store windows while their children played in the bounce castles, and younger women were getting their nails done outdoors as their spouses finished their beers. 

In the same study of open streets in St Louis in 2011, each participant reportedly spent an average of 108 minutes on the route, which might have translated to increased expenditure at nearby businesses. 

However, on Tompkins Avenue, there was a distinctly inactive zone at the intersection of Madison Street (see diagram above). This was a result of no programmed activities in that area, aside from one vendor selling mobile phone covers. Not only was the product offered not complementary to the Chinese food stall behind it, it was sitting isolated from all the other activities on the street. Businesses such as Calabar Imports, a specialty home goods and furnishing store, located across from the Chinese take-out restaurant, did not appear to benefit from cross shopping as a result of the inactive zone. It's therefore important to ensure that an even spread of activities and street vending occurs along the open streets route to avoid a dip in vibrancy in the public space that might affect the foot traffic to the few businesses located around an inactive zone.

Aside from this single inactive zone, however, the Summerfest on Tompkins Avenue appeared to be a lively event that showcased local businesses on the corridor (new and existing!) and that seemed to work on the whole as a public space. There were pedestrians, cyclists, skaters and even parents with strollers throughout the corridor that afternoon. Merchants were interacting with customers in the open space, promoting products and services offered on a regular basis, and ultimately ensuring a return visit was in the works.

The 0.25 mile open street on Tompkins Avenue certainly had all the features recommended to encourage local economic and community development. Local businesses were set up as active street vending participants and the program was organized in partnership by the local merchants association and not-for-profit Bridge Street Corporation. Finally, the free public activities including the NY Public Library mobile library and music performances were critical in getting local residents to participate on the day itself.

I hope TAMA Summerfest continues to enliven the commercial corridor in my neighborhood for years to come and hopefully this brief social observation study provides an insight to how they might improve the positioning and programming of activities along the corridor in future iterations. 

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