Could Times Square's pedestrian plazas disappear to get rid of panhandlers?

Mayor Bill de Blasio has created a task force to address the panhandling topless women and costumed characters swarming Times Square. One possible solution is to get rid of the popular pedestrian plazas.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters
A woman who poses for tips wearing body paint and underwear has body paint applied in Times Square in New York, August 19, 2015. New York officials including Governor Andrew Cuomo are considering measures to curtail the activity, according to local media.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has launched a multiagency task force to address what he calls the "growing problem" of panhandling topless women and costumed characters in Times Square and said that one option under consideration is removing the famed intersection's pedestrian plazas.

The plazas are widely popular with tourists, theatergoers and office workers who throng Times Square daily and are a signature accomplishment of de Blasio's predecessor, Michael Bloomberg. They have been widely hailed by urban planners as an innovation in city design.

But the popular spots have also become favored stomping grounds for aggressive panhandlers dressed as characters like Elmo and Batman and, more recently, for topless women wearing body paint and thongs and seeking money to pose for photographs. The painted ladies' presence has become a tabloid sensation during the sleepy end of summer, with editorial pages warning that they foreshadow a return to Times Square's seedy past and demanding their removal.

Elected officials have followed along.

"I don't think it's appropriate in one of the busiest squares in New York City for women to display themselves that way," de Blasio said Thursday.

Among the women who accept tips for their photos, Saira Nicole doesn't believe the practice should be an issue.

"People are having fun. There's no problem," she said.

But the mayor has acknowledged that because both public toplessness and panhandling are legal in New York, the city's immediate recourse is currently limited. He has suggested that because the women are engaging in a business transaction, they should be subject to city regulation, so he commissioned a task force — led by Police Commissioner William Bratton and City Planning Commissioner Carl Weisbrod — to explore other options.

One possibility being considered is a separate zone just for the women. Another is to require them to obtain a license. And then Bratton shocked the civic-minded by suggesting that the city do away with the pedestrian plazas.

"I'd prefer to just dig the whole damn thing up and put it back the way it was," he said in a radio interview Thursday morning.

When de Blasio was asked about Bratton's comments a short time later, he confirmed that it was an option the task force has discussed.

"That's a very big endeavor and like every other option, comes with pros and cons," said the mayor, who added that the plazas would be given "a fresh look." ''You could argue that those plazas have had some very positive impacts. You could also argue they come with a lot of problems."

Criticism of the proposal was swift and fierce.

A spokesman for City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, normally a reliable de Blasio ally, said she "believes in and supports pedestrian plazas." Comptroller Scott Stringer called the idea "a serious overreaction." Transportation Alternatives said the plan would "be harmful to New York's quality of life."

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