At 140 B'way Plaza Design Hearing, Threatened Vendors Are Heard, Too

Left: Rendering of benches and planters proposed for the sidewalk outside 140 Broadway that would replace the vendor carts that now occuply the space during weekdays. Right: Musthafa Tharuvayi, who has been selling food there for 13 years, testifies before the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Photos: NV5 (rendering); Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib (Tharuvayi) 

Mar. 23, 2018

Members of the Landmarks Preservation Commission lent moral support, if not legal authority, to the plight of food vendors now threatened with expulsion from the sidewalk of 140 Broadway.

Their comments came as representatives for the owners of the the landmarked 51-story Brown Brothers Harriman Building and its plaza went before the commission at its Tuesday, March 20 hearing, seeking approval for a redesign of the plaza.

That proposed redesign was modified following heated criticism of parts of an earlier version of the plan, first published by The Tribeca Trib. But a proposal to install street furniture on the sidewalk along the Broadway side of the plaza, largely meant to displace six food carts from the sidewalk, remained in the proposal.

Because the city’s Department of Transportation, and not the LPC, has jurisdiction over the city’s sidewalks, the commissioners could not rule on the street furniture. But following the testimony of two vendors, their advocates, and others (“I would hate to lose providing my food and taking care of my family because I have no other choice,” testified vendor Musthafa Tharuvayi), some commissioners did not hesitate to make their own wishes known.

“I’m sure that on more than one occasion each of you have served me my lunch,” said Commissioner Frederick Bland. “I appreciate that and I appreciate the vitality that the gang of those carts brings to the plaza. I hope that those who have a say will allow it to be kept there and not allow these benches that we see here.”

In 1999, the plaza underwent a redesign that replaced round planters and benches on the Cedar Street side with the current long, blocky ones. The new redesign calls for a look similar to the original one, leading Commissioner Michael Goldblum to note: “It is out of our purview to talk about the [Broadway] sidewalk, but I think it is interesting that the applicant has gone to such great lengths to restore the intent of the open plaza and yet junk it up at the front.”

Like many of the other commissioners, Jeanne Lutfy lauded much of the redesign, but said the vendor-displacing benches and planters on Broadway only serve to “deactivate” the space. “So I hope that DOT pays attention to what we’re saying,” she said, adding, “I appreciate the very important role that vendors play in the life and vitality of our landscape of the city.”

In a statement to the Trib, the DOT said it has directed the designers to come up with a revised plan that “aims to strike a balance” between vendors and street furniture by putting benches and planters toward each corner and allowing space for three vendors in the middle of the block. That would maximize “views of the Noguchi Cube from directly across Broadway and on diagonals through each corner,” the agency said.

That plan will go before Community Board 1 and a public hearing for comment. (In its January resolution on the plaza redesign, CB1 said the street furniture should be rejected because it is not in keeping with the original design.)

The Landmarks Commission approved the planters on the Cedar Street side of the plaza and liked the proposed replacement of a large granite monument to the building’s developer, Harry Helmsley, with a plaque embedded in the pavement. (The designer’s original idea, recreating the memorial as part of a large round planter with seating near the corner of Broadway and Cedar Street, had drawn a wave of criticism.)

The proposed installation of 12 lighting stanchions along the building’s Cedar Street property line would have prevented vendors from setting up carts on that side of the plaza. (One vendor now operates there.) The commission roundly rejected those elements as unnecessary obstructions. The commissioners were less certain about the granite surface proposed to replace the deteriorating pavement. Should it instead be travertine like the original, when the building and plaza was constructed to great acclaim in 1969? An effort should be made, the commission decided, to see if a more durable version of the porous travertine pavement can be found.

In the meantime, a battle may loom over the DOT’s compromise that would still add some benches and planters and displace three vendors. Along with the likely objections from CB 1 will be the Street Vendors Project of the Urban Justice Center that advocates for its members.

“We hope that the Department of Transportation understands that the benches and planters are solely there to displace the vendors,” said Matthew Shapiro, a lawyer with the Urban Justice Center. “There’s no reason why someone would want to sit on the side of the street, on a bench where cars and buses are flying by them.”

“More importantly,” he added, “we hope the Department of Transportation understands that these are people we’re talking about. People and their livelihoods.”