What Does Summer Streets Mean for Business?

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All this relaxed foot traffic surely brought a smile to the face of many a retailer and restaurateur

While press coverage of Summer Streets has been generally positive, tales of the miffed muffler shop owner and complaining cabinet maker are bound to continue, as reporters hunt for naysayers to "balance" out their stories. But what will be the economic reality of Summer Streets? Here, Streetsblog Publisher Mark Gorton gives his account of Saturday lunch with the family at an outdoor café on Park Avenue and 51st Street.

The host told us that he could seat us, but that they couldn’t put our order in for at least a half hour because the kitchen was so backed up. He said on a normal Saturday they would have had three or four tables occupied, but there were about 30 tables filled. He pointed and said, "Look, even the manager is taking tables." We were happy to wait, so we sat and ate. As I looked around the café, only a couple tables looked to be filled by bikers. My guess is that lots of people who would never have bothered to walk along Park Ave. on a Saturday suddenly found it an interesting place to be.

Most of the stories we’ve seen reflect Mark’s experience: In general, businesses which rely on foot traffic expected and/or received a boost from Summer Streets. Streetsblogger Larry Littlefield has suggested altering the route to exclude more car-dependent enterprises, like furniture stores.
What else could, or should, the city do — if anything — to take such businesses into account? And how did (or will) Summer Streets affect your spending habits?

Photo: Ben Fried

  • fred

    You can’t shut down commercial avenues is NYC.

  • Braddy

    Once Summer Streets becomes a regular feature, hopelly affected businesses will figure it out and locate THEMSELVES to avoid or benefit from the closed streets. For some enterprises a tough break, I know…life is like that.

  • Max Rockatansky

    I’m calling BS – with a little creative thought any of these problems are easily fixed. It’s only one avenue that is blocked, so sidestreets are completely accessible. If someone needs to pick up or drop off anything they can easily get within one block of their destination. Dropping off a car for repair? Park around the corner and leave the keys. Need to pick up or drop off furniture? Walk it with a dolly around the corner. What’s the big deal? (Who really picks up furniture in the city anyway???) If anything the extra foot traffic makes their business more visible – they should focus on getting those potential customers in the door.

  • MrManhattan

    Fred,

    They didn’t “shut it down”, they opened it up.

    And it was wonderful!

    I was thinking as I road the route (twice) from Grand Central to the Brooklyn Bridge that one disappointment was how few merchants took advantage of the increased foot traffic. I’ll bet, now that they see the oppertunity, many more merchants will figure out how to cash in.

  • I’m a little ambivalent about the role of merchants in this event. I’ve had enough of tube socks and sausage and pepper. You don’t want it to turn into a street fair. It strikes me that it would be difficult and time-intensive to pick and choose which merchants would be allowed, plus there is the potential for litigation from hopeful licensees that were excluded.

    You could limit it to merchants with brick-and-mortar establishments on Park Ave. However many of those would not be interested. I can’t see James Robinson putting out a set of 19th C. porcelain on a table (and the possibility of a bicyclist crashing into it isn’t the only reason). Many of the goods for sale on Park Ave. are deliberately overpriced and rarified, and cannot be sold excpet in the fully-controlled retail environments that Park Avenue merchants pay $75 a square foot to rent. The same goods would never fetch a profit (given the overhead) on the street. I suppose Robinson might set up a table and let their staff look at stuff people brought by a la antiques roadshow.

  • Brooklyn Guy

    I’d actually like to see Summer Streets running up Broadway instead of Park Avenue. The vast majority of businesses there are oriented towards foot traffic. And there are lots more restaurants, book stores and the kinds of shops that would really benefit from being able to extend out to the sidewalk. I want to be able to hop off my bike, grab a slice of pizza and roll on. You can’t really do that on Park Avenue.

  • Maybe the success of Summer Streets opens up the possibility of closing an entire area to cars instead of a linear route. I imagine a 10 block area of the East Village, for example, would be a great place for a Summer Streets type event. Many of those businesses would surely take maximum advantage of the open space. If we hold an event in a way that creates money for small businesses, we could potentially enlist many more enthusiastic supporters of car free streets.

  • Max Rockatansky

    I don’t think anybody wants the street fair vibe – but the potential is certainly there for existing merchants to increase their business, including the antiques stores. The Summer Streets crowd was pretty diverse – and Park Avenue isn’t solely comprised of Mercedes Dealers and porcelain retailers. One article mentioned a Papyrus store that met its sales quota in 2 hours during what would typically be a slow day. They certainly didn’t have a tent set up on the street.

    The idea of trying different areas is interesting. Wasn’t turning Times Square into a no-traffic zone one of Gehl’s ideas? Although I would expect a lot more resistance along the lines of Prince St. with some of the more residential areas.

  • Jay D

    I think the Park Avenue/Lafayette Avenue routing is actually the best possible routing for this program. I mean, you’re never going to please everyone; no matter what route you choose, there are always going to be those who are going to feel adversely impacted. But the stretch of Park Ave above 59th Street is residential – likely a lot of wealthier people who are going to be out of town at summer homes anyway, Park Ave between 59th and Grand Central is a largely empty business district on Saturdays, the fact that the route goes above 42nd Street prevented a true bottleneck, and Lafayette Avenue south of Canal is largely civic center and government offices that are closed.

    I was totally inspired by how amazing it was to have a car-free stretch of street in the middle of Manhattan, open to just recreational activity. The mood of the crowd was infectious, people were just so happy and you could really sense a collective awakening to the possibilities of what New York City can be.

    If I could change anything:
    – I would extend the hours of Summer Streets closing to 2pm,
    – I would leave the route exactly the way it is,
    – I would extend this program to every Saturday between mid-April or Memorial Day to perhaps Labor Day or the end of October
    – I would add a few porta potties along the route, at least at the major rest areas.
    – I definitely would not want to see the route cluttered by street fair vendors.

    It was an amazing, eye-opening experience to see that the American urban condition can be changed.

  • It sounds great, I think adjustments can be made accordingly so that everyone can be satisfied, even in NYC.

  • Danaeo

    Does Streetsblog know what metrics DOT is using to evaluate the project? Will they be surveying store owners, for example?

  • Larry Littlefield

    Ever watch Rick Steve’s travel show? In Milan, I found out, they closed the number one shopping street to motor vehicles, over the objections of the merchants. The one with all the Italian fashion designers and other high-end stores on it.

    The result was a boom. The merchants were big winners, and would never want it back the way it was.

    Almost anything on a street closed to motor vehicles wins, except building materials and similar places. The loser is through traffic, which benefits the merchants not at all.

  • Larry Littlefield

    They really need to consider doing this on 5th Avenue in Brooklyn, perhaps end to end, as the street has three “main streets” on it in Park Slope, Sunset Park, and Bay Ridge. It would pull in a lot of people.

  • Larry, aren’t you aware of all the “failed” street closures in the US? In the ’70s and ’80s many towns around the country closed their main streets downtown in an effort to compete with suburban malls. In most cases, business kept going down and many stores closed or moved out to the malls. A lot of business people equate pedestrian streets with empty storefronts.

    I think they’re right, but only half right. If the majority of customers drive, a pedestrian street is going to discourage business. But if the majority take transit or walk, a pedestrian street will encourage business. If the sidewalks are empty, then figure out what’s driving the pedestrians away. If the sidewalks are overflowing, then make more space for the pedestrians.

    I think there are plenty of neighborhoods, including the ones you mention, where there’s enough foot traffic to expect a street closure to benefit businesses. Seventh Avenue in Park Slope, Steinway Street in Astoria, and Fordham Road in the Bronx are other possibilities.

    Through traffic can benefit merchants – if it has a chance to stop. That’s why crossroads are good locations for stores. It’s also why I’m in favor of removing the rush-hour parking restrictions on Queens Boulevard in Sunnyside. Business is better when people are going slower and can see the stores and go inside easily.

  • That cabinet maker’s clientele will adapt, no doubt about it, even if a fewer-cars trend continues and grows.

  • Braddy

    As a tradeoff, if we gave area merchants free reign over the sidewalks (to set up tables, displays, etc.) while pedestrians & bikes got the open street, I’m sure they would soon see the benefits.

  • Marc P

    Financial districts all over the US go completely dormant at night and throughout the weekends. It would seem like a missed opportunity not to take advantage of this situation. Not only can we use utilize these spaces when there is significantly less car traffic but I can easily see businesses capitalizing on spaces that lose money when they’re not in operation during the weekend.

  • gecko

    There has got to be nothing better than sitting at a sidewalk cafe watching a Summer Street. Might be nice to expand seating permits during these events.

    Might be good if DOT polls the vendors on Summer Streets on how conditions and or services might improved if issues do exist: could be an opportunity to use human-powered cargo vehicles, pedicabs, electric pallet trucks, etc.

  • gecko

    Extending sidewalk table permits would be justified since there is plenty of room for pedestrians.

  • In addition to the streets that Angus mentioned, Austin Street in Forest Hills is just crying out for a weekend car ban…

  • Good one, Andy. Also most of downtown Flushing. So as not to exclude the “fifth borough” of Hudson County, I’ll also nominate Bergenline Avenue. In Bergen County, the obvious place for a Ciclovía is Bogota, of course.

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