Should we Design our Neighborhoods like our College Campuses?

If you Google pictures of “La Defense,” you’ll find glamorous photographs of a beautiful esplanade draped on either side by sleek skyscrapers that look like they belong in New York or London. No, they’re actually found a short subway right from Paris, a city that’s practically built its name on historic preservation. Just as amazing as its contrast with the character of central Paris is its relatively low profile–I had never even heard of Paris’ financial and business center until I visited. But what struck me particularly sharply as I was walking down the central esplanade was how much it reminded me of a traditional college campus.


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I know my beloved USC doesn’t exactly provide me with one of those, but no matter your experience, there are certain aspects of traditional campuses that tend to repeat themselves from school to school. A central gathering space (let’s call it a quad), accommodation for pedestrian linkages (assuming the majority of their students won’t own a car–or at least won’t drive them the short distance to class everyday), and a central monument, statue, structure, idol, or other ridiculous looking figure flexing every muscle in his body (couldn’t leave you out, Tommy Trojan) with the purpose of providing the students with a sense of pride, unity, observation of glorified history, etc., as well as being a nice thing to put on recruitment pamphlets.

La Defense has all of these and then some. Since Paris developed La Defense for the purpose of being the financial and business district of the city, they ensured transportation infrastructure would be in place; a great number of commuters arrive on the Metro or regional train, and those who drive find themselves separated from the pedestrian areas above once they enter La Defense. This means that during the day workers find a comfortable central gathering space to meet with other employees or have lunch or even hold small group meetings on a nice day. The linkages even continue to buildings not directly on the esplanade, often providing direct paths so workers need not interact with cars at all. And of course, the central point of interest: the massive Grande Arche at the western end of the plaza, commemorating the French Revolution bicentennial.

La Defense has found a lot of success, even developing enough to begin building housing and schools (a nice service, given how expensive housing in Paris is due to its stringent building codes). I don’t see why this can’t serve as a further model, so long as we’re looking at PEOPLE rather than PLACE, and this is a necessary distinction. A lot of things that college kids need/desire also tend to be pretty important for workers, and really just city-dwellers in general. With gas prices going way up, good transit and pedestrian accommodations are great–especially for our long-term health. Central gathering or hanging-out places can serve very well for business meetings when you just need to get out of the office, showing clients around, or just re-stressing with coworkers after a long day. And of course, a central monument or emblem not only makes you feel at home but provides for a nice navigation tool (fellow Trojans, how many times have you said “meet me at Tommy Trojan”). However, notice that we’re talking about people’s actual needs, and not just generalizing into themes. For instance, we can’t get caught up in simply having open space in a neighborhood because that doesn’t mean anything unless we actually put it in the context of how it will be used by the people.

This may all seem obvious, and of course a big reason all cities can’t provide this is because they don’t have the money nor the willingness to spend so much on such projects. But simply reorganizing our built environment so as to serve its people better need not be necessarily too pricey, and a lot of what we need is already there. A number of neighborhoods in our greatest cities already have central monuments of one sort or another–even if it’s just an old, cool-looking building. Most cities have some sort of central open space that can be reconfigured to be good (see my post on Pershing Square). Simply reorganizing seems to work wonders just so long as we actually put ourselves in the users shoes. Let me know what you guys think.

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MSG vs. Penn Station: Why MSG Should STAY

DISCLAIMER: I’m a Knicks fan. Like, a pretty big one. But I did everything I could to keep my often-unrequited fanship out of my opinions that you will see below.


I’ll let it out right from the get-go: I’m a huge critic of historic preservation simply for preservation’s sake. I understand the wonderful effects that preservation may have for building community morale and the indirect economic benefits that it may yield to the city, but far too often I can’t help but pull my hair out by people who want to see something preserved that keeps the “old feeling” of a certain city or neighborhood or street in lieu of a development that adds to the economic vitality of the region as well as its citizens’ well-being (just look at Broad Street in Charleston, SC, hailed by the American Planning Association as one of America’s “Great Streets of 2012”; the city’s colonial heritage is certainly preserved, but most who have visited would agree that there’s not a lot happening on Broad Street). The current conflict regarding Madison Square Garden in Manhattan is slightly different in that the preservationists are actually the ones in favor of demolition and redevelopment now, but the ideals are the same. Unfortunately the battle seems all but over, but I can only hope that something falls through and MSG remains, enabling the city to reap its economic and cultural benefits for years to come.

First some background: from 1910 to 1963, Manhattan’s beautiful Pennsylvania Station sat on the current site of Madison Square Garden. Adored by many, its Beaux-arts exterior and ornate interior gave those entering the city by rail a welcome worthy of the greatest metropolis on earth. However, amongst financial issues and a sharp decrease in ridership (this was the automobile age, after all), the station was demolished in 1963 to make way for Madison Square Garden, a brutal sports and entertainment arena that still stands today—the station was placed underneath the arena, where it also still remains. Now, after years of fiddling around with redevelopment plans that were unable to materialize due to what can pretty appropriately be described as “politics” (keep this in mind), the ball may finally be rolling on demolishing The World’s Most Famous Arena to make way for a brand new Penn Station. On June 26th, two key City Council committees voted unanimously in approval of a ten-year permit for the arena, after which Madison Square Garden will have to either pack its bags or reapply for a permit.

In simpler terms: Old Penn Station was beautiful, and the new Madison Square Garden that occupies its former place is ugly. Penn Station, the busiest rail terminal in North America, is currently cramped and dingy, with essentially no natural light or air entering its subterranean concourses. Good move to get rid of MSG to build a better Penn Station then, right?

Not so fast. It’s almost as if we forgot that Madison Square Garden’s owners have done everything possible to adequately renovate the arena at the request of The City Council (without a penny of aid from taxpayers, I might add). It’s almost as if we forgot that the arena should be allowed to remain where it is by New York law. It’s almost as if we forgot that MSG is now just as much a New York Icon as the old Penn Station was—you don’t get the moniker of The World’s Most Famous Arena for nothing—and most importantly, it’s almost as if we forgot that MSG has consistently been one of the top contributor’s to the city’s economy. Madison Square Garden currently adds almost $1 billion to the city’s economy, as well as 6,000 jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenues. Funny that we forgot all these things, considering all of the economic issues that our nation’s cities have been facing over recent years, isn’t it?

As noted, I understand the affect that quality architecture and design can have on the urban fabric of a city. I understand that preservation of historic monuments can work wonders for the pride of a city’s residents, as well as reaping economic and social benefits. In fact, had I been around in the early 1960s, perhaps I would even be one of the few protesting the demolition of the beautiful Penn Station.

Unfortunately, I was not, and the efforts of those who were clearly weren’t enough—the station is gone, and the arena now stands. Nothing we can do now can change that, so it’s time for us to move on and consider the situation at hand. The Garden, while externally ugly, helps the city with immense economic and social benefits. The central arguments of those who have called for its demolition can be summed up quite nicely by a quote from City Council Speaker Christine Quinn: “For the last 50 years, tens of millions of commuters, business travelers and tourists have had the lackluster experience of entering and departing Midtown from a dismal Penn Station that is dangerous, overcrowded, lacks adequate ingress and egress, and is not fully ADA accessible.” Let’s address these one by one and truly examine if demolishing MSG and rebuilding the station is the best way to address these issues and benefit those who live, work or play in New York.


1)            Penn Station is dangerous. As Jane Jacobs noticed, the greatest deterrent to crime is people. Penn Station is the busiest train station in North America. There are always people. There are always a lot of people. Ergo, there isn’t much crime. I’ve traveled alone, as a minor, through Penn Station numerous times and never encountered anything more harmful to my well being than a homeless man seeking shelter from the elements.

2)            Penn Station is overcrowded and doesn’t offer an adequate welcome to those entering New York. It’s hard for me to argue with this. I’m sure I speak for a number who have entered the city via Penn Station when I say that it is indeed cramped, dark, and ugly, and it’s a shame that tourists, business travelers, and other commuters must experience this when entering such a great city. But what do they do after they leave the station? Walk or ride to work in one of it’s innumerable office buildings, shops, or restaurants; tour its various landmarks or vibrant districts; study at one of it’s world-class educational institutions; or simply meet a friend or two, adding to the city’s already vibrant social fabric. While it would be nice to have a greater entrance to such a great city, the city itself is so great that an ugly train station does little to inhibit one’s urges or needs to experience and embrace it. While this may sound strange coming from someone who honestly loves and appreciates the benefits of an architectural masterpiece, Penn Station is good enough.

3)            Penn Station must improve capacity, lacks adequate ingress and egress, and is not ADA accessible. Unfortunately, those in favor of Penn Station’s rebuilding made it clear that this goal, while practical and necessary, is only secondary to their aesthetic goal when they fought for the elimination of a clause in an initial permit allowing for MSG to remain if it works with the railroads that use Penn Station to improve infrastructure, which would require only the approval of the City Planning Commission. This was seen as a “loophole,” and any such deals must now be approved by the members of the City Council, who have made it clear that they want MSG gone. As for proper ingress and egress and ADA accessibility, these improvements are clearly possible at a cost much lower than the cost of demolishing a commercially stable and iconic arena.


There is no practical reason for Madison Square Garden to be demolished. While it may be ugly on the outside, The Garden is now an iconic and more than adequate (thanks to ongoing renovations paid for in full by the arena’s owners) sports and entertainment venue hosting the Knicks and Rangers, two staples of New York sports, and hundreds of concerts each year, adding to the city’s economy and supporting thousands of jobs. Meanwhile, it’s demolition and rebuilding of Penn Station would be incredibly costly to the city and its taxpayers, as would be the construction of a new arena elsewhere in the city; let’s not forget how ridiculously expensive sports facilities truly are. Citi Field and the new Yankee Stadium will eventually cost taxpayers $4 BILLION—that’s public money that could be used for, oh, I don’t know, basic infrastructure or the improvement of an educational system in freefall.

Furthermore, a plan for redevelopment would require cooperation between local, state (both New York and New Jersey) and federal governments, as well as the railroads that use Penn Station, and indirectly related institutions such as the US Postal Service. Want proof that this won’t work? WE’VE TRIED IT BEFORE. Numerous projects have been proposed for the redevelopment of Penn Station and relocation of The Garden that fell apart due to—say it with me—politics! What was Einstein’s phrase about insanity?

Herein lies the problem with historic preservation. Adding to a city’s culture and pride can raise citizen morale, thus adding to creativity, social innovation, and economic benefits, and thus preservation is very important. However, we need to identify and steer clear of preservation simply for the sake of preservation when it in fact adds next to nothing substantive to the city besides being a bit more pleasing to the eye.

Madison Square Garden does its job and then some. Penn Station, while not exactly in a magnificent fashion, does its job as well. It’s really a shame that MSG is ugly, that the city is now deprived of a beautiful structure in the old Penn Station, and that entering New York isn’t as grand an experience as it once was (a point against which I could argue, but I’ll save that for another time). However, we’re now left with an iconic and economically stable sports and entertainment facility in Midtown that does so much for the city’s economy and social fabric, and a rail station beneath that does the job it needs to do, and could certainly improve without demolishing the arena on top of it. If MSG were to be torn down, the various parties were to SOMEHOW come together to agree on a rebuilding plan, and a new, beautiful Penn Station were to be constructed in its place, perhaps it would be more pleasing to the eye, and perhaps it would even add to the area’s urban fabric (not a guarantee if the project is given to a starchitect). Unfortunately, my eye’s pleasure will do little to help taxpayers who needed to pay for the costly redevelopment, nor will it help the local government earn back anywhere close to the billions of dollars it paid for the project, money that could be spent on more pressing issues. But hey, it’ll be pretty, and unfortunately for a number of stakeholders, that’s all that matters.


Sources and Acknowledgements:

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Planning and Design Takeaways from Madrid

Perhaps it’s obvious, and it’s certainly a shame that it took me so long to realize this, but reading a fantastic planning book prior to and during a trip to a fantastic city really does so much to enhance your experience. For me the book and city were Jeff Speck’s Walkable City and Madrid, respectively. The fact that Speck’s book focuses mostly on development in The States (there I go referring to my own country as “the states,” how wannabe European can I get?) only helped me recognize both the obvious and not-so-obvious differences between how we organize our cities, and how they in turn affect how we live. However, what I really got out of this trip from a perspective is a reinforcement of the fact that there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to planning problems. Furthermore, planning is a long-term process, and planners and designers mustn’t expect to see the tangible effects of their decisions until long after their implementation.

First of all, and this isn’t too much of a mystery, European cities just pay far more attention to the public realm than those in America. This is of course a bit of a generalization but when speaking of first-class cities in the US as compared to those in Europe, there’s a pretty noticeable difference. The streets, sidewalks, plazas, facades and pieces of public art were all manicured with extreme detail in Madrid. Of my travels within my own country, the only city I’ve seen that comes close in this respect would be perhaps San Francisco, whose streets and sidewalks are generally designed to not only accommodate lots of pedestrian traffic but also entertain them and enhance their experience. A few years ago I may react to this distinction between our cities and Europe’s with anger, but it really makes perfect sense. Why would American metropolitan areas spend more of their resources beautifying the public realm when the vast majority of its inhabitants and employees spend the vast majority of their time in a car, zipping from point A to point B? It makes sense that Madrid, which has already built a great pedestrian and street culture (not without the aid of a fantastic Metro system), would dedicate more of its resources to benefit the majority of its residents. Although there certainly exists the argument that investing in the public realm will draw more residents out of their cars and onto the streets, it’s completely understandable that planners and city governments may be hesitant to invest in something unproven in the US.

On the second day of my visit, I decided to join my friend as he went to class at the Universided Carlos III de Madrid in a suburb by the name of Getafe, which he described as a quaint little town. With my American attitude I came to expect a little suburb with maybe one main street, but I was met with an absolutely beautiful mid-size city with a variety of shops, restaurants, sculptures, and just an overall fantastic place for one to spend his or her time. Despite the fact that the suburb is home to a great University, the area is actually more of a retirement community catering to a large number of older Spaniards and Madrilenos. My initial reaction to Getafe would be to call it a more organic version of a New Urbanist town, and although it clearly caters to more of an elderly group than Duany seems to want to draw to his developments, I would still look at Getafe as a great model of what New Urbanists would want to accomplish with cities like Seaside or Celebration: wide, clean, beautifully designed sidewalks, generously sized bike lanes, a plethora of shops and restaurants catering to all kinds of economic and social classes, plenty of public art, and lots of street furniture and trees. However, Getafe accomplished this without two important aspects of New Urbanist towns: a clear and distinct downtown, and architectural unity.

Getafe did in fact have a downtown, but in contrast to a place like Celebration, the downtown consisted of a number of main streets as opposed to a single intersection on the lakefront, which made me think that perhaps referring to a downtown core as a path as opposed to a point could be more beneficial. In terms of architecture, New Urbanist towns are frequently criticized by giving off too much of creepy, Pleasantville vibe, or as my cousin referred to Celebration, a “bit too much like Stepford Wives.” Getafe, however, was certainly more organic and less rigid and repetitive in terms of the facades that one would see walking down the streets. This certainly made me think much more about what we are trying to accomplish with our suburban areas and mid-size cities, and what organic development can accomplish in terms of affecting the public realm.

The next part that perplexed me was the difference between our retirement communities and this one. When one reaches retirement and begins to age in America, where do they go? An all-inclusive retirement home in Florida or Arizona, where the resident has very little need to ever leave. In Getafe, however, these residents woke up, got dressed, and went outside to experience the beauty of the area in which they live. They’re far enough out of the core so as not to be overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle, but are still given enough stimulation to stay happy and active. Again, my initial reaction was that we should have our elders live in place like THIS, but after coming to my senses, I realized this couldn’t work in America, or at least not yet. The elderly residents of Getafe were likely born and raised in Madrid, or if not in Madrid somewhere in Spain, or if not somewhere in Spain somewhere in Europe, where the private automobile is far less of a necessity. Thus, their adjustment to living in an urban area like Getafe isn’t difficult. Walking three or four blocks to eat breakfast isn’t a big deal. However, in America where the car still reigns, our older residents have had their bodies ravaged by the health detriments of an auto-centric culture. A number of them have diabetes from lack of physical activity, asthma issues from the amount of pollution in our air, or other issues. For those who have been lucky enough to get to where they are without ailments of these sorts, they still have the mindset of using their legs as only a last resort when it comes to transportation. It takes years and years, perhaps whole generations, for a population to change their mindsets of how they should live their lives and accomplish their daily duties. For American planners, this means that we must have patience and understand that the policies that we implement must be flexible to accommodate for significant demographic changes.

Finally, I’d like to note that on my fifth day in Madrid, I heard a car horn, and it actually caught my attention. Think about that for a moment: I had been in Madrid for five full days, and I had yet to hear a honk. How long would it take for me to hear one in Los Angeles? Atlanta? Even our most walkable cities like San Francisco or New York still have a pretty tough struggle between drivers and pedestrians/bicyclists. Furthermore, I rarely saw anyone jaywalking in Madrid, even across very thin one-ways with no cars coming soon. Pedestrians and drivers are somehow able to respect the rights of each other, even in such a dense city with such a variety of people and personalities. For American planners, the driver is a villain, plain and simple. But as Speck discusses in Walkable City, the American city will always, or at least for the foreseeable future, have plenty of drivers, and angering drivers by swiftly and abruptly taking away the rights that they’re used to will do nothing but enhance the issues in our cities. Planners tend to think in terms of winners and losers, and for many aspects of the city there needs to be a winner and a loser. But for the big picture, it’s important to try to nurture a happy medium in which each class of people is given rights that are respected by everyone else. I don’t know how this is accomplished, but not unlike the factors that contributed to the beauty and success of Getafe, I assume it took a number of years and important decisions for Madrid to get where it is now.

Obviously this is far from a comprehensive planning and design review of Madrid, but rather these are just some of my immediate thoughts upon returning to the US. For years I had thought that city planning was easy. By now we know what works and what doesn’t, so lets take what works and put it where we’ve had problems. I’ve finally come to recognize how vastly different urban landscapes are and the close, close relationship between culture and the built environment. I can’t wait to continue to travel and see what other cities have done to find success in their own situations, and examine which of their decisions could be replicated to find success in other cities.


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Design Critique of Pershing Square

In Who’s Your City, urban economist Richard Florida notes a significant result of his Place and Happiness Survey; of five major categories that had a correlation with one’s satisfaction with his or her community, the strongest was aesthetics, ranking more important than physical and economic security, leadership, openness, and a close second, basic services. In other words, aesthetics matter. As the survey showed, aesthetic beauty leads to happier people, which in turn leads to more creative, innovative, and generally productive people. Thus, Pershing Square’s well-deserved reputation as a home to drug dealers (and their clients), bums, and homeless people can no longer continue if Los Angeles hopes to have its dreams of a revitalized downtown realized. The view that the square’s current design leaves much to be desired is widespread, and perhaps more noteworthy is the fact that this view is held not only by trained designers or architects but rather average, everyday Angelenos. This supports my belief that good planning or design is something that everybody knows when they see it, though it may be hard to pinpoint why. In this post, I plan to do just that by examining the details of Pershing Square’s design, how they affect the park’s success as a whole, and how they could be improved.

The square as it currently stands was designed by the team of Ricardo Legorreta and opened in 1994. It was set up to reflect a number of notable characteristics of California. The café tables are shaded by orange trees, the park’s only water feature is a fountain that allows the water to drift out to ground level to imitate waves on the beach, and a large zig-zag carries from the middle of this fountain all the way out to the street to represent the fault lines that riddle the state. This is all well and good, but the organization of these features doesn’t help the park in terms of safety and usage.

First and foremost, the designer simply tries to accomplish too much in terms of what they intended for people to do in the park. A small portion of the park is green while the majority is slated in concrete or granite materials, providing for a plaza-like atmosphere. This seems great at first glance—it provides room for both those who’d like to play on the grass as well as the business lunch or shopping crowds that just want somewhere to hang out and eat during the day. However, the square just isn’t big enough to satisfy the two. The grassy area of the square is divided multiple times by random paths of concrete, essentially prohibiting any kind of active recreation as well as forbidding large groups from gathering together on the grass. Perhaps even more problematic is the transition between the two areas. Slabs of concrete jut into the grass, leaving those who would be crazy enough to try to use the grass for recreation feeling unsafe and confused. Pershing Square is only the size of one city block, and this provides an example in which the designer should’ve picked one type of area to define the park and stuck to it.

Pershing Square from Above

Pershing Square from Above

A next issue that must be addressed is seating. William H. Whyte, a great urbanist who wrote quite a bit about the use of public space in cities, abhorred the overuse of benches as street or park furniture because they are too rigid and don’t provide people the opportunities they want to sit how and where they feel comfortable. This is clear in essentially any street or park bench around the country. When they are being used, there’s one person on one side of the bench and perhaps another on the complete opposite side. No one feels comfortable sitting in the middle, and since everybody is facing the same way they prove to be horrible venues for social interaction. However, Pershing Square’s architects seemed to have read Whyte’s analysis and thrown it out the window, providing along the southern periphery of the fountain one huge, immovable concrete bench with iron armrests every few feet. Not surprisingly, the bench is usually used by the homeless and very rarely anyone else for a substantial period of time.

Seating could also be improved when it comes to the fountain and the stairs in the plaza area. Fountains and stairs have both proven to be incredibly successful in urban parks across the country. Fountains tend to be a meeting point or social node within the space, and this designation of the fountain as a meeting space is only aided by people having the ability to sit on the ledge of the fountain as they relax and to read, eat, or speak to each other—the fountain of Bryant Park in New York City serves as a great example of this. However, as mentioned above, the fountain collects water at ground level and provides only a small ledge on which people can sit and gather.

Outdoor stairs have also proven to serve as a great meeting place because they allow people the opportunity to sit and converse with others while providing footrests on the stairs below and backrests on the stairs above. Perhaps a more important aspect of the steps is that they provide a bit of a theater-like experience in which you can always see above the head of the people beneath you onto the ground below, and what could be better for watching what Jane Jacobs dubbed the “sidewalk ballet” of urban life than a theater seat? A good example of stairs being used for seating and social interaction is the series of steps in Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square. Unfortunately for Pershing Square, the steps are far too shallow to provide a legitimate backrest and push the legs up too far, as if riding a miniature bicycle. Moreover, where there are steps, there just aren’t enough of them to provide any kind of theater-like experience, even if there was anything worth watching going on below.

Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland, Oregon

Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland, Oregon

However, a more critical issue than all these put together is the fact that the plaza is built atop a large parking garage, thus causing it to be raised several feet above the level of the adjacent sidewalks. Here’s to hoping that Pershing Square is the final example of urban public spaces not being at the level of the streets around them. Pushing the plaza so far above the eye level of one walking along an adjacent street essentially cuts it off from the outside. When pedestrians can’t see what’s going on inside a park, not only are they unable to see its appeal but they are naturally repelled from it due to an inherent fear of the unknown. This would be problematic enough by itself, but of course the designers chose to emphasize this issue by surrounding the park with large trees, sculptures and structures that ensure that nobody at street level could have a clear view of what was going on inside the park. The history of Bryant Park proves this point fantastically; until 1988, it was also raised several feet above street level and was known as a seedy place full of drug dealers and prostitutes. But lo and behold, after a revitalization effort aided by none other than William H. Whyte himself, the park was lowered to near-street level and has been vibrant and successful ever since.

View "into" Pershing Square from Olive Street

View “into” Pershing Square from Olive Street

As for providing parking, Angelenos are aware that LA is an auto-centric city, but providing more room for parking won’t alleviate the problem—if anything, it’s negative reinforcement. Keeping the number of parking spaces in downtown LA stagnant can only help the area as it tries to become more pedestrian-friendly, as well as gain ridership for the metro system. It’s unlikely that the designers were aware of LA’s aggressive metro expansion some 20 years later and so it may not be fair to blame them for providing extra parking, but the issue remains nonetheless.

Pershing Square doesn’t need a touch-up, but rather a full makeover. It would benefit greatly from lowering the grade to street level, perhaps at the expense of parking underneath, and removing the trees and structures that block the view of pedestrians outside the park. The fountain should be remodeled to be perhaps a bit more traditional, offering ledge seating for people to gather during the day. As for additional seating, the huge concrete bench should be completely removed (it also blocks views across the space), replaced instead by movable chairs so visitors can have more control over where they want to sit and in what orientation. Steps should be totally eliminated—although they can often be beneficial in public spaces, Pershing Square is relatively flat, and implementing a set of stairs large enough to benefit the park would serve as a nuisance and eyesore, as well as limit visibility. Improving these elements as well as increasing lighting so people can feel safe in the park around the clock would ensure not only that the plaza itself is well-used, but would more than likely aid downtown economic development and make it once again a hub of commerce and activity.

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