Times Square Overrun by Corporate Events Amid City Confusion, Critics Say

By Alan Neuhauser on November 21, 2013 8:59am 

 The world's largest marshmallow sculpture was among the attractions at the "Guinness World Records Unleashed" Arena Nov. 6, 2013, an event that members of Community Board 5 thought had been cancelled.
The world's largest marshmallow sculpture was among the attractions at the "Guinness World Records Unleashed" Arena Nov. 6, 2013, an event that members of Community Board 5 thought had been cancelled.
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TruTV

TIMES SQUARE — Corporate promoters are taking over Midtown's public spaces by exploiting confusion between city agencies tasked with regulating the areas, critics say.

The corporations have gone largely unchecked, despite the best efforts of community board members trying to control them.

On Nov. 6 alone, Times Square was overrun with three stages, a catwalk and a giant marshmallow sculpture for a TruTV Guinness World Records event — taking community board organizers completely by surprise because they had been under the impression that it had been canceled.

"Current regulations are not successfully protecting the public nature of these spaces," said Raju Mann, acting chairman of Community Board 5's Land Use and Zoning Committee.

Frustrated officials blame a disconnect between city agencies in charge of public plazas and parkspace — the Parks Department, the Department of Transportation and the Street Activity Permit Office.

Groups seeking to hold events in park spaces have to request permission from the Parks Department 21 days in advance, which gives the community board the opportunity to take an advisory vote on the event, officials said.

But pedestrian plazas, including the stretch of Broadway that spans 46th to 47th streets, are overseen by the Department of Transportation and the Mayor's Street Activity Permit Office and require virtually no advance notice and no notification of the community board, the officials said.

The event fees are also multiple times lower. 

As a result, groups that want to do an end run around Parks Department regulations — or simply want to save money — are going to the less-grueling DOT and SAPO regulators to steamroll their event into Times Square or other pedestrian plazas along Broadway, critics said.

"We do not believe that commercial activities and events are fundamentally at odds with public space, but nonetheless strongly assert that the balance has tipped far too much towards commercialization of these spaces with limited public benefit," Community Board 5 wrote in a Nov. 15 letter to City Planning Commission chairwoman Amanda Burden.

 The Guinness World Records Unleashed Arena, a promotion for a new TruTV series, brought hundreds of people to Times Square Nov. 6, 2013, to try their hand at breaking four world records.
The Guinness World Records Unleashed Arena, a promotion for a new TruTV series, brought hundreds of people to Times Square Nov. 6, 2013, to try their hand at breaking four world records.
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TruTV

The letter added that CB5 had voted on a resolution to overhaul how the city regulates public events in its parks and plazas.

Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance, did not disagree.

"The amount of activity happening in Times Square has increased and is only going to increase on the plazas," Tompkins told DNAinfo New York.

"This is an important time to clarify what the right balance is between commercial and civic events, and just regular public use of the plaza."

CB5 voted last Thursday to deny an application that would expand the area of street concessions overseen by the Times Square Alliance, and said they want the Department of City Planning to consider the issue more broadly by updating how the DOT and SAPO review events.

In addition to overcrowding public spaces, they said, the conflicting control of public space has cost the city money on the projects, since the Parks Department charges higher fees that take into account how parkland will be affected by the event, while DOT and SAPO simply charge the bare minimum needed to recoup security, maintenance and sanitation expenses.

The Parks Department, in a statement, said it "has not been presented with any proposal to amend our special event permit regulations."

The Department of City Planning referred questions to the DOT, which confirmed it was reviewing the community board's resolution. The Mayor's Office did not return requests for comment regarding SAPO.

"This isn't the 1970s and New York doesn't desperately need the attention or to be splashed on TV," Mann said. "We should be charging events what they should actually pay to be here."

Organizers said they discovered that TruTV had applied to hold a promotion for its new show, "Guinness World Records Unleashed," in Union Square Park several weeks ago.

Days later, it abruptly withdrew the application — a routine matter that attracted little notice.

But on Nov. 6, "much to our surprise," Board 5 Parks Committee chairman Clayton Smith said, local officials — on their way to a meeting about making this kind of commercial event more transparent — discovered that tents and loudspeakers had been set up on the Broadway pedestrian plaza in Times Square.

TruTV did not return requests for comment.

"The only time we see it or know about it is when someone physically comes across it in the plaza," Smith said. "This was just the most recent example."

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