City Council holding public hearing on proposed changes to pedestrian plazas

TIMES SQUARE (WABC) -- Costumed superheroes and villains found common ground at a New York City council hearing on Wednesday, with the likes of Spider-Man, Penguin and the Joker all testifying against proposed rules designed to limit run-ins with tourists in pedestrian plazas including Times Square.

The legislation to allow the city's Department of Transportation to create regulations for plazas comes after scores of complaints in recent years over aggressive panhandling behavior, primarily from the costumed characters pushing onlookers for tips.

Keith Albahae, with his Joker-green hair and purple suit, told members of the council's committee on transportation that he was the one who had experienced harassment. "I've been spit on, and I defended myself by spitting back," the 49-year-old from Brooklyn said.

"It is not right, this is apartheid, what's being proposed here," he said. "We provide an immense entertainment. The only people who are upset basically are people who want free pictures. Otherwise, you just don't get the pictures. Nobody forces you to take pictures and if somebody does then that's on them."

The legislation would restrict costumed characters, naked painted ladies and bus tour ticket sellers to a specific zone in Times Square.

The Times Square Alliance is demanding changes to the pedestrian plazas.

"These are totally unsolicited tweets and posts that we get all the time everyday from people who have negative experiences in Times Square," said Times Square Alliance President Tim Tompkins.

At a rally outside City Hall, dozens gathered to express their support for the bill that would limit Elmo, Batman, and the topless women to dedicated zones monitored by the Department of Transportation and police.

City officials say this isn't about eliminating people's job, it's about stopping unwarranted and aggressive solicitation.

"The pedestrian plazas have helped to protect people from the crush of traffic but they also have increased the space for solicitors of every type to simply take over Times Square," said City Councilman Daniel Garodnick.

"We really look forward to having a public dialogue with all the affected parties," said Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg. "We will also be having a public hearing I'm sure. We will be talking to the vendors, the characters, council members etc."

The City Council says it hopes to pass the bill by summer. They don't want to change the character of Times Square; they just want it to be quirky, not creepy.

The City Council recently introduced new legislation to regulate the 70 pedestrian plazas across the city.

Monday, they began the public relations campaign to get it done; blasting what they say has become commercial chaos.

One Times Square employee wrote, "A friend's son was grabbed by one of the costumed characters to solicit a photo op. The mother was told to give $10 and (the character) would not let go of the child until the money changed hands."

Susan, a Manhattan resident, said, "I have been aggressively approached multiple times by the cd and picture hawkers who don't much like the answer 'no.' it makes it highly unpleasant and time-consuming to walk through the area."

These are just a few samples from a long list of testimonials given out today by city leaders looking to reign in commercial activity in New York's pedestrian plazas.

The new law would give the city's Transportation Department the power to regulate the plazas, including the creation of zones that would be the only areas where commercial activity would be allowed.

It's a move designed to give people the option of avoiding the costumed characters and topless women who have generated so much controversy in recent months.

City Council members and Times Square Alliance leaders surrounded themselves with supporters of the law on Monday, including even "The Naked Cowboy".

Leaders stressed that this not any kind of ban, just an effort to try to better contain the chaos.

In a recent survey, 61% of Times Square employees reported experiencing a negative encounter with a costumed character or commercial solicitor, with 51% of those respondents saying that interaction made them feel unsafe, the Alliance said.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

Copyright © 2022 WABC-TV. All Rights Reserved.