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Saturday, July 26, 2014

Where Is the Plaza at Bay Plaza?

My family ends up out at the Bay Plaza shopping center in Co-Op City on a somewhat regular basis. Cinemas are becoming few and far between in The Bronx, and the AMC at Bay Plaza is one of our best options for a date at the movies. Despite all the drawbacks of the sprawling strip mall environment, it also remains one of our more convenient shopping alternatives for some needs. Like many others who frequent Bay Plaza, we get there by bus.

Unfortunately, the good money spent on bad design in Bay Plaza does not create a positive sense of place. It just makes transit passengers and the pedestrians from Co-op City feel second class. It makes the place less attractive and functionally inferior for shoppers who arrive by car as well.

There is no coherent network for internal pedestrian circulation.  Everything has been designed to move cars in and out of the parking lots, resulting in sidewalks that are narrow and often disconnected, as well as poorly designed crosswalks.  The transit stops have been dropped in as an afterthought, and are further challenged by their location on private property. Even for those who drive, getting between stores, restaurants, and entertainment is not particularly pleasant. Bay Plaza has put some attention into its landscape architecture in recent years (although there is room for great improvement for stormwater management with the endless acres of pavement!), but what it actually needs is an urban designer.

Nice landscaping.
Where's the sidewalk?
The name Bay Plaza is ironic. There's no view of the bay, and there is no plaza; like a typical suburban strip mall, it is essentially devoid of public space. Its defining characteristic is the sprawling parking lots.

Like almost all parking lots, the paved fields at Bay Plaza act as a shared space.  Pedestrians find their way through while carefully negotiating with the cars driving by.  In an objective sense, these are relatively safe places.  I have never seen, nor do the parking lots have any reputation for pedestrian crashes. Drivers maintain relatively slow speeds, so if a pedestrian were struck, chances of surviving should be fairly high. Nevertheless, getting crowded by drivers who can force their way through is an invariably uncomfortable experience.

It may seem plausible enough to argue that the lack of pedestrian comfort in these shared spaces is due to the auto-oriented design. There is certainly some truth to this. Walking over asphalt, between rows of metal cars, is unpleasant - particularly so on hot summer days. Yet most of us have felt the unpleasantness of pushy drivers when confronted by service or police vehicles on calm paths inside of parks as well. A person with a car can always bully a person on foot, and more often than not in my experience, pedestrians come out feeling abused when forced to "share" space with cars.

Where crosswalks are marked at all, markings are minimal and faded.
There is also a lack of pedestrian refuge islands where they would be helpful

Of course, there are some major sections of sidewalk that are connected well enough. Yet even here, sidewalk widths are often narrow, particularly at some of the major bus stops. Because the bus stops are located on private property, the City's street furniture contract does not provide the bus shelters. Without the advertising dollars, neither Bay Plaza nor the MTA was apparently willing to invest in anything more than the cheapest shelter. Compared to the investment in a nice, new parking garage, this only reinforces the image that only second-class shoppers take the bus to Bay Plaza.

The trash can is an amenity that is normally lacking at NYC bus stops.
Unfortunately, it has encroached on a sidewalk, which is already
somewhat narrow at the bus stop

This bland, generic strip mall layout stands in stark contrast to the rest of Co-op City. While Co-op City as a whole was designed with more focus on the car than many of us would like, it has a strong pedestrian network and a streetscape that supports bus stops. The neighborhood strip malls embedded in the Co-op City neighborhoods are also focused on public spaces that actually support social life. Co-op City is a NORC (naturally occurring retirement community), and the local shopping centers have become a place where the elderly can gather and pass the time. It's not like these are places of desperation, where trapped old people go because there is nothing else; other residents make good use of the public space as well.

Public space in neighborhood shopping centers.
Local residents congregate and socialize.

A couple months ago, Caitlin Blanchfield wrote an excellent profile on Co-op City over at Urban Omnibus. She captured much of what I have been telling people for years, and my bottom line has been that the tower-in-the-park model does not appear to be such a categorical failure. There were clearly problems with many early implementations, but by they time they built Co-op City, the model appears to have worked well. Co-op City itself is not without issues, yet they look like details that could be addressed, rather than representing uncorrectable structural problems.

To the extent that Co-op City didn't get the balance between private autos, transit, and active transportation quite right, Bay Plaza serves as an enormous weight dragging the whole thing down. While transit and bicycle infrastructure could be further developed to improve on the fabric of Co-op City, with the new indoor mall isolated at the back of the parking lots, Bay Plaza continues to double down on generating more car traffic that chokes off access and dominates the image of the entire place. 

Even as it stands now, or will stand, actually, once the new mall addition opens in the coming month, Bay Plaza could be greatly improved by extending Co-op City's network of public space and active transportation infrastructure across the street and weaving it through the disjointed parking lots. Adopting urban design elements from Co-op City, or developing designs in a complementary style, would further improve the situation. Importantly, rationalizing the bus stops, providing them with adequate space and better amenities, and connecting them properly to the full range of destinations within Bay Plaza is a critical need. Retrofitting Bay Plaza will never yield any sort of ideal commercial district, let alone a fully developed mixed-use neighborhood, but it could become a substantially more functional and enjoyable place.

Co-op City has urban design features, like its distinctive supergraphics way finding signs,
which would greatly improve Bay Plaza

In this regard, Cascade Station in Portland could serve as a realistic model for the improvement of Bay Plaza. Even though Portland's big strip mall with its huge parking lots was a missed opportunity for a true mixed-use neighborhood, it shows how much more urbane and functional Bay Plaza could become if it started to embrace a pedestrian network and integrated its transit services more fully into the urban design.

View Larger Map

View Larger Map

(Note these Google Street View images in Portland were captured early in the morning, before there was much activity.)

Perhaps, somebody, I will be able to go enjoy an actual public plaza when I want to spend a little more time with my wife before going home from a movie date night. Right now, that day seems a long time away.

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