Florent Morellet knows everybody.
As the proprietor of the legendary Restaurant Florent from 1985 until its closing in 2008, the affectionately dubbed “Queen of the Meat Market” became one of New York City’s most prominent and well-connected personalities. His restaurant was a hub of progressive activism, a safe haven for the gay community at the height of the AIDS crisis, and a gathering place for famed artists and designers like Roy Lichtenstein and Diane Von Furstenberg – and its staggering popularity ultimately launched the transformation of the entire Meatpacking District.
But Florent would much rather talk to you about parking spots.
“Free parking is a nightmare,” he says bluntly. “The streets belong to all of us, and they’re some of the most expensive real estate in the world, and we give it away for free so that people can store their cars on the street! When I explain it this way… calmly…” he laughs, “people just go like, ‘I’ve never thought about it like that!’ But with some people, there is nothing you can say, it’s amazing. I went to a community board meeting in Bushwick last year for a presentation on a new pedestrian plaza at Myrtle-Wykoff, and the ferocity of the board members against it was just appalling. It was nothing but ‘Don’t you touch those precious parking spaces!’”
Those who know of Florent Morellet only through his restaurant and his gay rights activism may be surprised to hear him speak about parking with so much passion. But long before Restaurant Florent opened, Florent had begun his lifelong obsession with city planning. He began drawing maps when he was still in grade school in France, and went on to study city planning at Central London Polytechnic before moving to America. Though he never formally worked in planning, the subject was never far from his mind, even at the height of Restaurant Florent’s popularity. As a key player in the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, he helped secure landmark status for much of the Meatpacking District.
Then, in the early 2000s, Florent met Paul Steely White.
Paul has been the executive director of Transportation Alternatives for almost fifteen years, but back then, he was one of our activists. As Paul tells it, he and a group of other cycling activists were finishing up a long day of collecting abandoned bicycles for donation and were looking for a place to grab a drink and a bite to eat. When Paul walked into Restaurant Florent and saw pro-cycling, anti-car flyers plastering the walls, he knew he had to meet the owner. Florent soon became a TransAlt member and supporter – and a few years later, he played a key role in one of the most transformational projects in TransAlt’s history.
In 2005, shortly after Paul took the reins at TransAlt, he collaborated with the Project for Public Spaces and the Open Planning Project to launch the New York City Streets Renaissance campaign, which aimed to develop a new, grassroots-driven model for transportation reform. The campaign drew together a coalition of community groups, elected officials, business leaders, and concerned citizens to challenge the city’s traditionally top-down, car-focused approach to planning by working collaboratively to develop radical proposals for transforming streets in their neighborhoods.
One such proposal was developed by the Greater Gansevoort Urban Improvement Project, a Streets Renaissance initiative launched by Florent and local preservationist Jo Hamilton. The Gansevoort Project proposed that the wide and chaotic intersection of Ninth Avenue and Gansevoort Street be transformed into a pedestrian plaza. “Our project was the most advanced proposal the DOT had seen,” says Florent – and after then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg hired the reform-minded Janette Sadik-Khan as his new Transportation Commissioner in 2007, the Gansevoort Project was the first Streets Renaissance project to be adopted and implemented by the city. The new Gansevoort Plaza featured simplified pedestrian crossings and traffic configurations, and it became the southern terminus of the city’s first-ever protected bike lane.
Florent had completely reshaped his neighborhood’s streets and helped usher in a new era in New York City’s urban planning. And that was only the beginning of his work with TransAlt.
Faced with a newly receptive DOT after 2007, TransAlt had begun proposing yet more radical street transformations. Public sentiment was behind the movement – but the political connections necessary to turn proposals into public policy were still unformed. It was then that Florent, with his seemingly endless network, proved truly invaluable. “It was really great to help TransAlt figure out how to ‘make the sausage’ to get things passed,” he says.
First, there was the Eighth Avenue protected bike lane. In 2008, after winning the city’s first protected bike lane on Ninth Avenue the previous year, TransAlt was hoping to expand the use of protected bike lanes to other streets, including Eighth Avenue. Thanks to TransAlt’s advocacy, the transportation committee of Manhattan Community Board (CB) 4 passed a resolution calling for a protected bike lane in their district. But when the resolution came to the full board for a vote, it failed. “There was such a big to-do,” says Florent. “Restaurants and businesses went crazy, like ‘we can’t lose the parking, it’s going to kill the business!’”
So Florent called up a good friend who sat on the board of CB4 and invited him to lunch. “I told him, this is insane, those businesses don’t need parking. In the Meatpacking District, nobody could park by my restaurant, and the less parking there was, the more business I did!” He published an op-ed in the Chelsea News to the same effect and helped rally local businesses in support of the bike lane. One month later, the resolution came before the board again. This time, it passed.
Then, there was the 2009 Bicycle Access to Buildings Bill. TransAlt was working to pass legislation which would require office buildings to allow people to bring their bikes inside. The bill had been drafted, but it was languishing in committee and hadn’t been brought to the floor for a vote despite widespread support. While TransAlt rallied hundreds of cyclists to send messages of support for the bill to the City Council, Florent contacted Speaker Christine Quinn, his councilwoman and friend. “We arranged a big meeting at the council building on Broadway,” he says, “and they worked up draft legislation which was finally brought to the floor and passed.”
In 2008, Florent was appointed a Public Member of the Traffic & Transportation Committee of his local community board, Manhattan CB2. He became a full board member in 2010 and served a total of five years. “CB2 was the avant-garde of everything – bike lanes, Citi Bike, pedestrian improvements,” he says. But with his restaurant closed and the Manhattan of his earlier years vanishing, he was getting restless. In 2013, he left Manhattan behind and moved to Bushwick, where he now volunteers with TransAlt’s North Brooklyn Activist Committee. He’s also become an avid Citi Bike user. “I don’t own a bicycle anymore now that there’s a Citi Bike station by me,” he says. “I’ve done 1,400 miles on Citi Bike. It’s very good for me.”
Right now, Florent is focused on advocacy around the upcoming L train shutdown. In order to compensate for the loss of the L train, TransAlt is pushing for a complete street redesign of 14th Street in Manhattan which would eliminate private cars and prioritize bus rapid transit. “What is amazing to me,” says Florent, “are the comfortable liberals north and south of 14th Street in the Village and Chelsea. I go to them and tell them about the PeopleWay, and it’s ‘over our dead bodies!’ – but they have cars, and they have no idea what the traffic on the L train is! At all hours of the day there are packed trains arriving in Union Square. 14th Street has to become a massive busway in order to absorb that amount of traffic. We have to take over many precious parking spots for bus rapid transit. But, you know, they’re very entitled, of course they don’t see it.”
When asked about his ideal vision for the future of New York City, Florent is quick to say, “There is no ideal. Cities are organic. Like humans, like coral reefs, they are lots of little pieces that expand or shrink and make up the whole.” But the one ideal he’ll happily admit to is that cities ought to change. “If you stop having a city that grows and changes, that’s self-defeating; it’s a depressing concept of what cities are. Unless you want to make a historical city like Paris that is pretty,” he says dismissively. “After the end of the nineteenth century, everybody decided that Paris should stop changing, stop building, and stay exactly the same way for hundreds of years. It’s so boring!
“Some people will always get up in arms when anything changes in New York City – I think it’s fantastic, what can I say? The way it’s been since Robert Moses, it has to stay like that forever? That’s why, for me, the closing of the L train – I say, this is great! This is a fantastic opportunity!
“I look forward, now that the city has presented its plan, to testifying at the community boards in Manhattan,” Florent says. “They know me, and I know them. But I know the L train.”
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Over the past few months, Florent has been helping to prepare for a major exhibition of his late father’s artwork at Dia Art Foundation’s exhibition spaces in New York City and Beacon, NY. François Morellet was among the most renowned French artists of his time, and his paintings, sculptures, and installations are major works in the history of geometrical abstract art. Florent would love for you to visit the exhibition, which is now open and will run through June 2018. And if you’d like to speak to him in person, you might try stopping by a meeting of TransAlt’s North Brooklyn Committee.