In Chapter 9, The Need for Small Blocks of Jane Jacobs’ 1961 The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she decries the Upper West Side’s Columbus Avenue for “its own kind of monotony—endless stores and a depressing predominance of commercial standardization” which, in her opinion creates the “Great Blight of Dullness, with an abrupt garish gash at long intervals.” Nicole Paynter, the executive director of the Columbus Avenue BID would politely disagree.  

Always interested in architecture, she came to New York by way of Texas (and London), where she began an immersive summer course in learning to read buildings, and better understand urbanism. After working in marketing and executive assistant capacities for 1100 Architect, she discovered the Columbus Avenue BID

One of the few Business Improvement Districts fully within a NYC Landmark Historic District (the 1990 Upper West Side/Central Park West Historic District), Paynter recently relocated the BID office to 101 West 70th Street.  

Of course—as with all BIDs—there is the usual guidance to businesses and landlords for navigating the City’s many regulations and agencies, but given so many of the buildings are long-held family-owned properties, there is a continuity of care, respect, and knowledge that help keep the neighborhood on track. This is not to say things run on autopilot. Paynter oversees a clean team that care for the streets, tidy planting beds, remove graffiti and empty waste receptacles. The challenge becomes balancing wanting to “do it all, and do it well,” and in the ways that “are most impactful to the businesses and residents who make the community.”

One key initiative has been the popular Open Streets program. Introduced by the City as an opportunity for neighborhoods, it is one way that Paynter has helped Columbus evolve after the height of the pandemic. “We’ve run three great seasons of Open Streets—we bring music, art, circus acts, children’s activities to the corridor, and it really brings the community together, like a big block party.” She explains that many BID businesses participate and while there are some questions about rerouted bus lines, overall people really love the way it builds community, draws foot traffic and adds vibrancy to the street. The program is also quite malleable.  In the year ahead Paynter is already working on leveraging the architecture of the strip for walking tours and more cultural activities. 

Paynter has also engaged the Columbus Avenue BID in another pilot project of the Department of Transportation called “Smart Curbs,” part of the agency’s Curb Management Action Plan. This DOT program that kicks off in January claims to reflect “a new neighborhood-first approach to redesigning the city’s curb space” to address issues like availability of parking, and problems with double parked vehicles and delivery trucks, the latter of which have dampened the many positive outcomes of the Covid-era.  

The aforementioned traffic is most often from online retailers whose vans and box trucks block traffic lanes as well their hand carts that block pedestrians on the sidewalk. While there is a very low vacancy rate on Columbus, the irony of a successful retail street physically stifled at times by the logistics of online shopping is hard to miss. 

Yet, Paynter has many reasons to be excited about the year ahead. “With the opening of the AMNH’s Gilder Center, we hope to take advantage of all the new visitors to the area—we have sidewalks restored and construction complete so we are excited to see how people engage with that space.” And engage they do.  

Foot traffic is up and the holiday spirit is in the air with snowflakes adding additional shine to the lampposts along the avenue. 

What’s the long-term goal for Paynter? She loves small businesses—things that are creative and different that define New York. The recent outposts of Friend of a Farmer and Two Boots–New York mainstays reflect that approach. A missing element on the Avenue for her might be a mid-tier casual bar—perhaps an elevated beer hall. Her hope is to keep Columbus Avenue as a hot-spot destination, recalling an anemoia for the renaissance days of a bustling Saturday date night at Nikki & Kelly, perhaps dressed in the latest from Charivari and stepping out in heels from To Boot, one contends we have an even better array today.  It may not be that time, but this is that place. Come visit!  

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