NEW YORK -- 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 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 hailed by urban planners as an innovation in city design.
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 the Times Squares' seedy past and demanding their removal.
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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,
the mayor acknowledges public toplessness and panhandling are legal in New York so the city's immediate recourse is limited. He has suggested 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.
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.
Another, Angel Bunting, said she doesn't aggressively panhandle.
"Some of the girls are maybe a little more aggressive, but we do not work that way," said the 32-year-old. "We wouldn't want somebody touching us. We also wouldn't want somebody touching our child. Absolutely not."
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 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.
When de Blasio was asked about Bratton's comments, he confirmed 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," the mayor said.
Criticism of the proposal was swift and fierce.
A spokesman for City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito 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."
And Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance, sarcastically shredded the plan.
"Sure, let's tear up Broadway," he said. "We can't govern, manage or police our public spaces so we should just tear them up. That's not a solution. It's a surrender."
The task force is to make recommendations by Oct. 1.