A. Pre-Project Research
In August 2018, Design Trust, in collaboration with the Neighborhood Plaza Program (NPP) at the Horticultural Society of New York and Uptown Grand Central, conducted foundational “pre-project” research with distinguished Harvard Loeb Fellows to inform Neighborhood Commons.

The research included a day-long workshop, co-sponsored by City Council Member Diana Ayala and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, at the National Black Theatre in East Harlem. Design Trust, with support from the Harvard Loeb Fellowship, brought Damon Rich, Marc Norman, Jennifer Siegal, and Susan Chin to convene a cross-sector group of 50 stakeholders: community organizations, Plaza Partners, BIDs, local businesses, developers, numerous organizations that support people experiencing homelessness, and public agencies, including NYC DOT, the Mayor’s Community Affairs Unit, the Department of Homeless Services, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Department of Small Business Services, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the NYPD, the Department of Consumer Affairs, the Department of Cultural Affairs, and the Department of Parks and Recreation. The workshop participants framed the project by clarifying the language often used in discussions of public plazas in New York City, envisioning “better” plazas from the perspectives of different user experiences, and crafting a research agenda for the future Design Trust initiative. he research and lessons we learned from the 2018 workshop informed Design Trust and SBS’s scope of work for Neighborhood Commons.

B. Pilot Planning in Jamaica (2021)

Goals of the Pilot
︎ Testing out coalition-building, how to replicate in neighborhoods without large BIDs

︎ Testing out role for home-based vendors and licensed vendors in public space

︎ Providing best practices for community-based programming, testing its impact on perception of ownership and perception of belonging

︎ Testing how to amplify businesses that aren’t immediately located on an adjacent public space


We originally started off with three locations in Downtown Jamaica: Parsons Public Space, The 165th Street Mall, and a block at 149th street, off of Jamaica Avenue for a potential Open Street. We worked with Jamaica Center BID, Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, King Manor, The 165th Street Mall, Queens Public Library, Cultural Collaborative Jamaica, and A Better Jamaica to identify priority locations and needs. We heard from these groups on the ground that:

︎ There is a history of outside projects in the public realm being disconnected from the Jamaica community.

︎ Residents can be wary of entering into spaces.

︎ There are local budding entrepreneurs whose work could benefit from public vending.

︎ There is a desire to protect small businesses, particularly those facing danger from development pressures.

︎ Parsons could be a brilliant town square and presents an opportunity to show what Jamaica has to offer, but there’s no formal network to maintain the plaza once the plaza is built.

With these points in mind, we began to craft activations that could take place at each location. We brainstormed with our collective group of partners about fitness classes, performances, a passport program encouraging users to visit local businesses, and infrastructure to support local vendors. We ran into obstacles with 149th Street as a potential Open Street location when it became clear that no organization had the capacity to run and coordinate an Open Street multiple days of the week. The 165th Street Mall became the future location for a photo exhibit, and we shifted our primary focus to Parsons. Permitting processes for both programming and concessions took weeks as we finalized details for SAPO and the DOT’s Public Space Unit. We were crunched for time and days away from the pilot launch when we heard from Queens DOT office that the Parsons space was moving into the construction phase of becoming a permanent plaza and would not be available for us to use at the time of our pilot.*

Lessons Learned

It’s very hard to test new processes within a system that has so many regulatory procedures in place. We wanted to give our partners more freedom to activate these spaces, but received pushback from SBS about using our funding for this pilot as a pass-through to support the organizational capacity for our partners. We wanted to be able to showcase a successful example of a coalition of organizations being able to manage spaces but there is no current permit that allows for that type of resource sharing.

Interagency communication is slow, and communication within agencies is siloed. While we were working with the DOT Public Space unit on CaribBeing’s concession agreement, we had not been regularly updating the Queens DOT office on our timeline for the pilot. While both offices tried to discuss alternate locations with us, the damage to the trust between us and our partners had already been done.

*Although we were told the plaza would be under construction, one of our partners still had his permits approved by SAPO and was able to successfully program three concerts well before any construction started.