MIDTOWN — On a recent night in a pedestrian square close to Penn Plaza, a group of intimidating looking men drink beer from brown paper bags, swearing loudly. Close by, police cuff a suspect and haul him away.
Those who work near Penn Station say the space that's part of One Penn Plaza, has become an increasingly popular hangout spot for vagrants and other unsavory characters who, they say, are scaring away business.
“I definitely keep my guard up, hold my bag tighter and try not to make eye contact,” said Kristen Ruisi, 34, who works in Midtown and commutes through Penn Station every day, often passing through the plaza space at night.
Craig Mancino, an accountant who’s worked on 34th Street for more than a decade, said he and his co-workers have nicknamed the stretch “Midtown’s Skid Row” because it’s so bad.
“It’s definitely an eyesore for the neighborhood,” said Mancino, 36, who added the concrete benches that line the plaza between West 33rd and 34th streets, just west of Seventh Avenue, are constantly filled with people who appear to him to be homeless or high.
Others have dubbed the stretch “Crack Alley” and report frequent fighting and arrests.
Like Downtown’s once-occupied Zuccotti Park, the area is a privately-owned public plaza, managed by Vornado Realty Trust, which is responsible for its design, policing and upkeep.
The space technically closes nightly between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. , and loitering, sleeping and panhandling are against the rules.
"Any person who enters during this prohibited time is trespassing and is subject to arrest and prosecution," read large signs at the entrances.
Police did not respond to requests for comment about the number of incidents that have occurred in the plaza over recent months.
But one officer in the area said that while there’s rarely serious violence, the stretch is a hot spot for criminal activity, especially for people selling fake tickets to events at Madison Square Garden, which is less than a block away.
For the handful of stores with entrances leading directly onto the plaza, the situation is an especially big problem.
At one major store, employees said they believe the activity in the plaza “definitely” cuts into potential business because customers are afraid.
"One customer asked me if there was a back entrance into this location so she could avoid leaving through the courtyard," said one employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the store.
"It would be great if it could get cleaned up. That would help us. That would help the neighborhood," he said, adding that it's only "once in a blue moon" that he sees Vornado security policing the space.
But others were less concerned.
Jose Bravo, 18, who works at Lenny's sandwich shop, said that while he, too, sometimes hears complaints from customers, and has seen arrests, the people who hang out outside are relatively harmless and part of living in New York.
"People are scared, yes, but there's nothing to be scared about," he said. "It's just annoying when they come inside."
A Vornado spokesman declined to comment on conditions in the space or respond to complaints.
But Dan Biederman, president of the 34th Street Partnership, which helps to maintain the neighborhood, said the concerns are on Vornado’s radar and the two are working together for a fix.
"It’s got some real challenges," he said of the plaza, noting its location a block from Penn Station, where homelessness is a chronic issue, and near St. Francis breadline on West 31st Street.
He said the fact the space is a public plaza also makes changes more challenging, since Vornado has to coordinate with various city agencies and get changes approved before they can happen.
"Vornado has a lot of ideas about what they want to do, but they don’t have a lot of power," he explained.
Biederman also blamed the lack of action on the fact that the plaza had long been expected to be razed to build one of the entrances to Access to the Region’s Core, a major train expansion project killed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in October 2010.
Now that the project appears unlikely to be resurrected, Vornado is reconsidering some of its earlier plans, such as transforming the plaza into the type of park that now exists at Greeley and Herald squares.
"I think that there will be change there for the better in the next couple of years," Biederman said. "I’m predicting good things."