Hemming Plaza vs NYC's Bryant Park: A Tale of Two Parks

October 17, 2014 49 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

What Jacksonville’s Hemming Plaza Can Learn from the Historic Restoration of New York’s Bryant Park by Metro Jacksonville contributor Ken Bowen.

Friends of Hemming Park

Friends of Hemming Park with Mayor Brown (News4Jax.com)

In August of 2014, on the steps of Hemming Plaza, Mayor Alvin Brown signed control of the city-owned space over to Friends of Hemming Park. FHP founder and President Dr. Wayne Wood told the press, “Hemming Plaza has been at the heart of downtown for over 150 years, and for downtown to be successful, it must have a healthy and vibrant heart. We look forward to making Hemming Plaza just this and it being the first step in revitalizing Downtown Jacksonville.”

Dr. Wood is one of Jacksonville’s premier historians, authoring seminal works on the Great Fire of 1901 and Jacksonville’s historic architecture. Wood established Riverside Avondale Preservation (RAP), chaired the Historic Landmarks Commission, and most recently, founded the wildly successful Riverside Arts Market.

FHP’s (who plan to restore the area’s original name, Hemming Park) five-member board also includes Bill Prescott (former CFO of the Jacksonville Jaguars), Terry Lorince (Executive Director of Downtown Vision), Diane Brunet-Garcia (Board Member of the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville), and Mike Field (downtown activist, event organizer, long-time MetroJacksonville contributor). The Downtown Investment Authority, Downtown Vision, Cultural Council, One Spark, Spark District, and numerous other downtown organizations have also pledged support. Thankfully for Jacksonville, Hemming is in some of the most competent, capable hands in the city.

Vince Cavin, director of operations and finance for the One Spark crowdsourcing festival that annually brings over 100,000 visitors to the downtown core, was chosen to be FHP’s inaugural executive director. Cavin’s first order of business will be moving Friends of Hemming Park into the ground floor of the Main Library, adjacent to Hemming in the space formerly occupied by Shelby’s coffeehouse. Cavin will also be tasked with booking daily entertainment and events, hiring new front-office and park staff (including safety and hospitality workers, a cleaning and beautification crew, and a social services outreach specialist) and executing the board’s short-term and long-term plans for Hemming. FHP has been given a $1 million operating budget for its first 18 months, which includes $200,000 from the Parks Department and an additional $800,000 from the Downtown Investment Authority. During this time, the group will be required to raise $250,000 in additional capital on their own.

As Friends of Hemming Park begin to map out the plaza’s future, it is this guest writer’s humble opinion that FHP should draw broad inspiration from one of the most successful urban renewal projects in American history, the restoration of New York’s Bryant Park.

What follows is a brief case study of Bryant Park, discussing decisions made by the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation that proved successful and suggesting similar approaches that Friends of Hemming Park might take now or in the future. Before moving forward though, I would like to make two points clear. First, my intention is not to suggest that Jacksonville pretend to be New York City. We are unique cities, with different population densities and different financial constraints. I instead simply suggest that we work from a proven model, in an eerily similar physical space, that has been successfully replicated in other cities over the last two decades. Secondly, this piece in no way reflects a distrust in Friends of Hemming Park. The space is in successful, proven hands, and FHP have previously cited Bryant Park as an inspiration for future work at Hemming Plaza.

With that said, let’s take a look at Bryant Park.


Bryant Park – A Brief History

Early Bryant Park

In 1686, the land where Bryant Park now sits was declared public property by New York Colonial Governor Thomas Dongan. This area would serve numerous purposes over the next two centuries, most infamously acting as a mass burial ground for the lower class between 1797 and 1803 during New York’s devastating yellow fever pandemics. The bodies were eventually moved by mid-century (most of them, anyway), paving the way for the 1884 establishment and dedication of Bryant Park, named after longtime New York Evening Post editor, William Cullen Bryant.

With construction for the adjacent New York Public Library and the Interborough Rapid Transit subway tunnel raging on for decades, Bryant spent much of the early 20th century looking more like a torn up storage yard than a city park. Once the projects were finally completed, Bryant Park was given a much-needed grand redesign in 1934, intended to transform the congested square into a quiet urban oasis, away from the hustle and bustle of the city around it.

Ironically, it was this celebrated redesign – which elevated Bryant Park four-feet above street level and enclosed it with granite walls, narrow entrances, and tall hedges – that led to the park’s blight in coming decades. The design effectively sealed Bryant off from the streets, making illicit activity alarmingly easy to carry out undetected. A Bryant Park advocate told the New York Times, “It’s incredible, but it seems the park was designed for pushers.” Architectural critic Paul Goldberger joked, “The park could not be seen clearly from the street, and people inside could not see back out to the sidewalk. A set of conditions ideal for drug dealers, but of little comfort to anyone else.”

Bryant Park’s Fortress-Like 1934 Design

Bryant Park Crime Map (1979)

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Bryant Park was a depressing and scary place, with up to 500 felonies recorded each year. Local headlines read, “Bryant Park: An Oasis Rife with Crime,” “Murder Scene in Bryant Park, A Place to Drink and Gamble,” and “Civic Leader Wants Bryant Park Closed.” Drug abuse and violence was rampant, and the under-funded New York Police Department could do little beyond chaining the park’s gates shut at 9:00 PM.

When the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation took control of the park in the 1980s, they partnered with the New York Public Library and sociologist/urban planner William Whyte to begin restoring safety and vibrancy to Bryant Park.

Despite Bryant Park’s troublesome, isolating layout, BPRC’s historic turnaround of the park didn’t necessitate an expensive, radical redesign. In fact, drastic changes weren’t even an option given the park’s status as a protected historic landmark. BPRC instead focused on making a series of small but brilliant tweaks and adjustments that ultimately added up to far more than the sum of their parts. The primary components, which have since proven to be a bit of a magic formula for the restoration of fallen public spaces, include:

• Smart, Safe, Social Design
• Flexibility
• Amenities
• Private Staff
• Programming
• Diverse Sources of Revenue

Smart, Safe, Social Design

In 1979, the New York Public Library -- weary of seeing their backyard used as a restroom and drug den -- hired famed urban planner William H. Whyte to conduct a study of Bryant Park. Whyte spent weeks observing the park before presenting the library with an 88-page report titled “Intimidation or Recreation?” In the report, Whyte concluded that simply increasing visibility and physical access to Bryant Park would go a long way toward transforming it into a vibrant and safe space. Clear sight lines, from both the outside and inside, would make the park more appealing to those on the street and would foster a deeper sense of security for park visitors inside. His suggestions were basic – remove an iron fence here, some shrubbery there, widen entrances and make steps more gradual, improve lighting, and cut through walkways and railing to encourage free-flowing pedestrian movement throughout the park.

Once these suggestions were implemented by the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation, the results were staggering.  Crime dropped 92%. Annual muggings dropped from 150 to zero. Park visitors more than doubled. When the ASLA presented Bryant Park with a prestigious Landmark Award in 2010, the group marveled at how “the social environment of Bryant Park was transformed within days.”

Following the park’s redesign, the New York Times lauded the improvements, noting that “where once the park was the home of derelicts, drug dealers and drug users, it is now awash with office workers, shoppers, strollers and readers from the New York Public Library next door.” The Times praised the simplicity of the redesign, calling it “a plethora of small changes in an unworkable design that, taken together, fix what was broken.”

William H. Whyte

William Whyte’s unique approach to derelicts and the homeless, a problem shared between 1980s Bryant and modern Hemming Plaza, is also worth noting. While city planners have spent decades trying to create the most uncomfortable environment possible for vagrants, often eliminating seating and shade altogether for fear that the homeless might get too comfortable, Whyte believed this approach counterproductive. “[Undesirables] themselves are not too much of a problem,” he wrote. “It is the actions taken to combat them that is the problem.”

Instead of creating a space intended to keep the homeless out, Whyte famously suggested that, “the best way to handle the problem of undesirables is to make a place attractive to everyone else.” If citizens are provided with a beautiful, functional, social space, Whyte believes that they will be drawn in regardless of who else may share it.

This philosophy proved successful at Bryant Park, where the New York Times noted, “This park has not been gentrified beyond all reason; on a recent lunch hour, when office workers poured in from surrounding buildings, they shared benches with people who were quite obviously not rushing back upstairs to check their faxes. The poor do not appear to have been driven out of the park, but merely to have begun to share it. There was a generous ethnic mix and, in what experts say is a good indication of the public’s belief in the safety of a public open space, at least as many women as men.”

Bryant Park (Photo by Ken Bowen)


Modern Bryant Park

 “People want control of their environment; they do not want their environment to control them.” – William H. Whyte, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

In addition to opening Bryant up to the street and creating clear sight lines, Whyte also suggested improvements that would increase the physical and social flexibility of the park. First, the great lawn was cleared and expanded. This central greenspace – which covers the roof of an underground library facility containing 3.5 million books -- affords Bryant Park limitless flexibility. Bryant Park also brought in lightweight, movable furniture. Based on his observations of hundreds of public squares, Whyte believed that citizens are more likely to utilize a space if they are in control of the environment, rather than controlled by it. This movable furniture, common in some of Europe’s great parks, is so light that (as BPRC President Dan Biederman brags) an elderly woman can move it with two fingers. And because of the park’s open, self-enforcing layout, the BPRC doesn’t have to worry about furniture being stolen or vandalized if they don’t put it away at night (on average, only one of the park’s 2,000 chairs goes missing each year). The BPRC also utilizes a temporary stage and a portable big-screen TV (provided by HBO).

On any given day, the park can be found hosting a movie night, staging a concert, offering a yoga class, putting on a fashion show, hosting a jazz or film festival, or even housing an ice skating rink. Because the core of the park is essentially a blank canvas, Bryant Park can rapidly and economically transition from one use to the next.

Bryant Park – Infinitely Flexible (Bryant Park.org)


Key to Bryant Park’s post-restoration success was the installation of numerous temporary and fixed amenities. For Bryant Park to be successful, the BPRC believed that in addition to being a clean, safe space overall, the park also needed to contain various smaller points of interest and utility. These spots would serve as gathering places within the gathering place. Some of these amenities include:

Food Kiosks - As part of Bryant’s restoration, permanent food kiosks were built to provide park visitors with concessions. In various corners of Bryant Park, you can buy coffee, frozen yogurt, crepes, sandwiches, hamburgers, soft drinks, and other easy-to-eat foods. Since 2005, most kiosks have been operated by New York Chef Tom Colicchio under his ‘Witchcraft label. Sandwiches from ‘Witchcraft can be bought directly in the park, or orders can be placed online and picked up at the window. ‘Witchcraft also runs coffee and frozen yogurt kiosks throughout the park. These kiosks are relatively inexpensive to maintain and provide a valuable source of revenue for Bryant Park.

‘Witchcraft Kiosk at Bryant Park (Bryant Park.org)

Landscaping - Shade trees and covered seating line the perimeter of Bryant Park, providing shelter from the sun. Elsewhere, beautiful softscaping (sponsored and maintained by multiple New York garden clubs) adds beauty while still preserving the sightlines between the sidewalk and interior. Park benches are built into the planters, combining beauty with utility.

Shades Trees Surround the Perimeter of Bryant Park/Planters and Benches (Bryant Park.org)

Public Art – Public art is on display throughout the year in Bryant Park. Works are rotated out regularly, giving visitors reason to keep coming back. Bryant’s permanent sculptures and fountain provide interesting secondary gathering places for visitors to congregate.

Fountain and Sculptures at Bryant Park (Bryant Park.org)

Technology & Productivity - Wi-Fi is provided at no charge to park guests, and in recent years, solar-powered charging stations have also been installed.

Solar Powered Charging Station (BryantPark.org)

Family Entertainment - A children’s carousel – Le Carrousel – provides amusement for families visiting the park. The New York Public Library also operates an outdoor reading room in the park, allowing guests to enjoy a hand-picked selection of rotating books without the need to present a library card.

Le Carrousel at Bryant Park (photo by Sydney Sadick)

Restaurants - Two popular restaurants border the park. The Bryant Park Grill offers upscale dining with rooftop seating overlooking the great lawn, while the more casual Bryant Park Café remains one of Midtown Manhattan’s most popular hotspots for happy hour.

Bryant Park Grill (Left); Bryant Park Café (Right) (Bryant Park.org)

Games - Various corners of Bryant Park contain ping pong tables, putting greens, and permanent chess and checker boards. In addition, over 35 board games can be rented from Bryant employees for use in the park. Visitors looking to make friends can take part in Wednesday Night Game Socials, where people are randomly paired to compete.

Bryant Park Games (Bryant Park.org)


Perhaps the most important amenity of all at Bryant is the park’s staff. Together, security, maintenance, and hospitality workers provide a deep psychological sense of safety and community. Days after Bryant’s initial restoration was complete, New York Magazine marveled, “It appears to be cleaner. No matter the time of day one goes for a stroll there, one always seems to come across people cleaning up the place… The police also seem to be vigilant. No one is allowed to lay over the steps. There is no harassment of the parkgoers.”

When the New York Times reviewed the park, architectural critic Paul Goldberger joked, “Bryant Park feels like it has been airlifted out of the West 40’s and dropped into some idyllic landscape far, far away. Security guards who smile and ‘Good morning’? Maintenance workers who pick up papers as soon as they fall to the ground? This is not the New York that I know.”

The constant presence of uniformed security and staff, coupled with the park’s open design, improved lighting, and prominently-displayed park rules creates a self-enforcing, self-policing environment that by its very nature encourages accountability and discourages deviant behavior. Even Dan Biederman, founder and President of the BPRC, can be seen regularly strolling through the park, greeting visitors, and picking up loose trash that his crew might have missed.

Bryant Park Security Officer (BryantPark.org)


Before a single physical change was made to Bryant Park, the BPRC began to program the park daily. Programming -- the regular hosting of diverse events and activities – gives citizens a reason to come to the park, and keeps the regulars coming back often. As the BPRC noted during their presentation to the city, “A crowded park is a healthy park.”

In addition to small concerts, lectures, exercises classes, and performances, Bryant Park hosts fashion shows, lunch time concerts by Julliard students, the New York Times young performer’s series, the JVC Jazz Festival, summer movies in the park, the HBO Film Festival, and more. These events vary daily, and a conscious effort is made to select events that will attract a wide variety of age groups and demographics.

Seasonal programming is also a staple of Bryant Park. From June to September, for example, Bryant’s Art Cart is on hand. Free drawing supplies are provided for adults (crayons for children), and local artists are on hand to give basic art lessons to visitors. During summer months, chess experts provide free lessons at one of the park’s permanent tables. And during the winter, Bryant Park is famous for hosting outdoor ice skating.

Ballet at Bryant Park (BryantPark.org)

Diverse Sources of Revenue

The Project for Public Spaces believes that in order for a public square to be successful, it must create and exploit diverse sources of revenue. The Bryant Park Restoration Corporation has continuously risen to this challenge, drawing revenue from dozens of different places.

In addition to the money that Bryant Park has received in the past from the New York Parks Department (in recent years, Bryant accepts no city funding), the BPRC also raises money through vendor fees from kiosks, event and area sponsorships, and kickbacks from the owners of adjacent buildings and businesses who have seen a $3 billion increase in value since Bryant’s restoration. Fundraisers are held annually, and prominent New Yorkers donate generously to the park. Bryant can also be rented out for private events (with city permit). Though these events, particularly New York Fashion Week, often prove frustrating to park visitors and the BPRC (the city controls the fashion shows, which are the only events not free to the public), they play an important role in the park’s self-sustainability.

By keeping a close eye on their budget and capitalizing on diverse sources of revenue, the BPRC has created a space that is not only self-sustaining, but profitable. This profit allows BPRC to continuously reinvest in itself. As New York Magazine put it, “The money no longer goes into a giant city pot, where much it would disappear, often misappropriated for crazy projects or sometimes stolen.” Instead, extra revenue can be used to continuously enhance or upgrade the park, whether it be by hiring additional staff or through infrastructure improvement (Bryant now has a fully-attended, award winning public restroom).

When taken together, all of these factors – design, flexibility, amenities, staff, programming, and broad revenue generation – have combined to radically transform Bryant Park from the mugging capital of Manhattan into what is universally considered to be one of the finest urban parks in the world.

With the BPRC’s successes in mind, let’s now take a look at our own urban park, Hemming Plaza.

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