Inside the transformation of Bryant Park

New York Daily News
February 23, 2012

by Jason Sheftell

When flying over New York City in the dark of night, look down. Two areas shine with white light. All others are dull yellow. From the ground, if you look closely, the buildings in these areas seem brighter. People's faces are lit better. Just blocks apart in midtown Manhattan, the areas share something: Both Bryant Park and the 34th St. retail corridor are managed by groups led by Dan Biederman, a pioneer in neighborhood improvement and the first person to use private funds to better public spaces.

Biederman runs the Bryant Park Corporation, 34th St. Partnership, and Chelsea Improvement Company. His Biederman Redevelopment Ventures helps cities worldwide. Behind the scenes, perhaps no other person has done more for city neighborhoods. One of his biggest mantras – it's in the little things.

"People don't know they are judging, but they are," says Biederman, who started running Bryant Park with a grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in 1980. "They feel how an area is inside, like an emotion. We might make very subtle changes, but when you add them up, they make for incredible improvements that elevate the value of the surrounding property and make the city a better place to live."

Like white lights.

"Studies show that yellow light is not a crime deterrent," says Biederman, sitting in his office conference room with direct views onto CitiPond, the sponsored skating rink where citizens and tourists skate for free in the shadow of the New York Public Library. "It makes buildings look worse. It might have cost slightly more, but the white makes a huge difference in the pedestrian experience."

Biederman is probably the world's foremost expert on "pedestrian experience" and physically improving a neighborhood. He's been studying it since the day he took over at Bryant Park. Back then, it was a drug den and bathroom for the homeless. Brooke Astor was offered marijuana on the library steps. Graffiti covered most of the stone. No fountains worked. The great lawn was a dirt patch.

Today, it's midtown's social center, enjoyed by more than 6 million people per year who come to lunch, sit after work, watch their children ride a carousel or enjoy an event. It's become one of the top parks of its size (9 acres if you include the library building) in the world.

"We think this is the top small park experience, on par with Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, St. James in London or the Temple of Heaven in Beijing," he says. "We improve the park 12 to 15 ways per year and are constantly doing capital projects. We just completed a $5 million irrigation upgrade. People have described the park as a 'little jewel.' We work hard to hear that. Our goal is to keep getting better."

With an annual operating budget of $7 million, around 15% (or 10 cents per square foot) comes from assessments on local business and building owners. The other 85% comes from sponsorships, events and concession rents. CitiPond brought in $2 million for the 2011-12 season, most of which goes to rink and market operators. Rents paid by kiosks and restaurants such as Bryant Park Grill bring revenue. So do programs such as the HBO-sponsored film festival. On 34th St., where events and sponsorship are more difficult, the budget is $9.9 million and landlords pay 29 cents per square foot.

"We're deal makers now," says Biederman, about the Bryant Park Corporation, part of which operates similar to 34th St. as a New York City Business Improvement District, a city-led program to improve retail and commercial areas by taxing local owners. "After stopping the crime, getting rid of the graffiti, building the restaurants and improving the appearance, we targeted young people working in the area. We built on that with seniors at the Reading Room and kids with the Carousel. The average income of someone using the park is $54,000. This park is for the average New Yorker."

Biederman is highly competitive. He lives to innovate, for his organization's ideas to be copied around the world. He thinks the city is doing a terrible job policing illegal food vendors. Whenever he walks the streets anywhere in the world, he looks to see if they're doing a better job than he is. If they are, he searches for the individual in charge.

When he walks in Bryant Park, he smiles and smirks, and picks up trash. His groups do meticulous studies. One showed that more than 10,000 people per hour walk 34th St., where usage has doubled in 10 years. Of the 600-plus stores on the corridor, they have identified 70 needing improvement. That's down from 400 in the early 1990s.

Biederman's innovations include sleek tree pits, benches designed by a strong in-house design team and an award-winning horticulture and street plaza program that has brought life to Greeley Square and the triangle outside the Apple Store on W. 14th St. Under Biederman, Bryant Park was one of the first parks in the world to use kiddy-size tables and chairs. That idea was copied worldwide.

Biederman's team counts 60-plus people, including an archivist who studies park and area history. The company is broken into a retail component, events and programming team, capital improvement construction group, design department, business affairs, operations, sanitation and security.

They come together in a weekly "Streetscape" meeting that is the most educational and informative urban teaching symposium we've ever seen. Slide shows, presentations and open discussions dominate the two-hour Biederman-led sessions. Opinions are mandatory. Cell phones are forbidden. They discuss bathroom air dispensers, illegal vendors creating odors, streetlight design, go over all area press, read tourist reviews, and schedule potential events.

A slide show examining a similar-size park in Vienna lends ideas on how to promote socialization for single adults. When a good idea comes up, Biederman inevitably asks, "Who will pay for it?"

"These meetings resolve issues and increase internal communications," says Biederman. "More than one-third of the staff is under 30. Education is a must. We get into microscopic detail. Right now, I think we're the best in the world at what we do. Staying on top of everything will keep us there."

Biederman is more matter-of-fact than arrogant. His proof is in the pudding. The park and 34th St. look better than nearby areas. Commercial and retail rents are up significantly more in the districts he manages than surrounding areas. Bryant Park has seen the construction and leasing of the Bank of America tower, with another class-A office building on the way. Around 34th St., upscale brands have increased.

While some critics argue that Business Improvement Districts and Biederman's groups increase the pace of gentrification, others criticize the sterility of Biederman-managed areas, calling them too clean.

"People say I don't like grit," says Biederman. "I don't. If they want to bring back the drug dealers and human feces to Bryant Park, let's try that and see how it works. This is midtown Manhattan. This is what people dream about when they think of New York City. This is where the action is. This kind of urban improvement not only helps the immediate area by making it safe, enjoyable and more esthetically pleasing, it ripples out to the surrounding streets. And, if rents go up and building values increase, the city can collect more taxes at no tax expense to the average citizen. It takes a lot of work to get these neighborhoods beautiful, but in the end it makes for a better city."

So what areas would Biederman like to get his hands on next?

"I'd love to get a call about the Grand Concourse in the Bronx," he says. "I think the design has flaws and has hurt the area, but it has great potential. Bleecker St. could use help. The lighting stinks. It could be nicer. It's missing something."

 

Dan Biederman (BRYAN SMITH FOR NEW YORK DAILY NEWS)

The carousel at Bryant Park (BRYANT PARK CORPORATION)

Bryant Park in 1984, a haven for drug dealers and the homeless (BRYANT PARK CORPORATION)

The fountain in Bryant Park (BRYANT PARK CORPORATION)

HBO Film Fest in Bryant Park (BRYANT PARK CORPORATION)

Peter Howard and Barbara Cook do their act under umbrellas at Bryant Park in 1958 (BRYANT PARK CORPORATION)