Jeffrey LeFrancois moved to New York City from Southeastern Connecticut to attend Pace University 20 years ago and never looked back. As executive director for the Meatpacking District Management Association for about the last five years, LeFrancois has worked to ensure that the business improvement district is more walkable and pedestrian-oriented. He also has become a leading voice in the effort to build pedestrian-first streetscapes. Even through the organization’s most challenging moments during the coronavirus pandemic, LeFrancois helped create a vision for the BID that allowed New Yorkers to celebrate the neighborhood’s culture and vibrancy.
New York Nonprofit Media sat down with LeFrancois to talk about his journey before becoming ED of the Meatpacking District, leading the organization through COVID-19, and what he hopes for the Manhattan neighborhood moving forward.
Tell me more about your journey in becoming a leading voice in the effort to build pedestrian-first streetscapes.
I love being a part of the fabric of the city and making a real difference on the ground for New Yorkers and for visitors. I did that first by working in government, both for state elected officials and for city officials because I'm a believer that governments are good for making a positive change in people's lives, as difficult as that is to say today. And so, as I spent the early part of my career in constituent services and being a liaison between city agencies and constituencies and communities on the West Side, I realized I sort of discovered my way to the placemaking world through the business improvement district here in Meatpacking. I started as the director of community affairs and operations [about nine years ago], dealing directly with local constituents, everybody from the businesses, to the community boards, to other stakeholders and then dealing with the operations. I oversaw the sanitation team and really just got a lay of the land. Then when the opportunity to become executive director opened up almost five years ago now, I jumped at it and could not be more delighted to be in this role today.
What was one of the first things that you tackled as ED that got you excited?
It was early 2019. We were six years into significant capital construction across the neighborhood, all the streets were getting ripped up and 30,000 square feet of plazas were being installed. And in August, we cut the ribbon on those plazas, which was incredible, because like I said, for the five or six years of construction prior it was a nightmare that the neighborhood had to endure. And now what that did was really unleash tremendous opportunity as it relates to the public realm and public space outside. So like I said, 30,000 square feet of beautiful pedestrian plaza is really the backbone of the district, running from Gansevoort Street up to 15th Street, all along Ninth Avenue. That was late 2019. Then we all know what happened in March of 2020. I'm now coming up on a split of pandemic management and regular life management, or sort of post pandemic management in my time and career here as executive director. The day-to-day on the ground today is obviously radically different than it was two or three years ago, but I've never been a person to talk about going back to 2019. The new normal that we have established is really exciting. I mentioned how those plazas really are the backbone or sort of the green bone of the neighborhood and because of that, we've been able to manage an open streets program across a number of streets in our district. We have several other pedestrian-improvement and place-thinking improvement projects planned over the next couple of years. Last fall, we announced our Western Gateway vision plan and in less than a year, we executed on one of the first projects as a part of that plan – a new plaza that we just opened with a crosswalk. That's really incredible and quite remarkable.
What was it like running the BID during COVID-19?
One of the things we did during the height of the pandemic was we worked with engineers to develop what has really become the framework for how we think about managing the neighborhood. We released what's called our pod plan, which is about creating a pedestrian oriented district, which is a series of strategic steps, not just about the pedestrian experience, but from everything from trash to delivery and movement of goods to pick up and drop off zones in the neighborhood. A real comprehensive approach to thinking about place management. And while that is our umbrella plan, that's helped to inform a lot of the smaller strategic projects we've established around the district in a way. I get a little PTSD, frankly, because I was here in the city throughout [the pandemic] and I live in Hell's Kitchen. I would walk my dog down here, check in on the sanitation team and try to be present, but it was eerie in those early days and odd. How do we turn a district back on when everything had been shut down? We very aggressively were improving the space outside and making sure that as New Yorkers made themselves more comfortable co-mingling with friends and non-friends, that the experience they had, had an impact. It was appealing. It felt safe. It was inviting. We really expanded our footprint in terms of open streets, in terms of leveraging the space outside as you're going from A to B. It's a really good experience and that continues to be our guiding post for how we manage the space outside today. When you come to the neighborhood, whether you're bringing your own coffee, you're buying a cup of bodega coffee or from a fancy coffee shop, when you have it on the plaza, it's an amazing experience no matter what.
What are some projects you’re working on right now?
We just opened Gansevoort Landing and we consider this to be a distinct space because it's on the edge of the West Side Highway right by the Whitney Museum. We call it a landing because it's a layover zone. Folks are either coming out of the Whitney Museum, pausing on the landing for a second and then going over to Hudson River Park with the new crosswalk that we just had installed, or they're coming into Meatpacking from the park and they find this beautiful new plaza with a Whitney Museum curated mural, beautiful landscape design and furniture to literally take five minutes or 10 minutes to just pause and then figure out where they're going next. That was such an important realization that the spaces that you create can have a different use. You need to think through what the use is actually going to be for an effective space to take shape. Some additional projects coming down the pike include looking at expanding the pedestrian experience on 14th Street. It is a wide and busy corridor between Ninth Avenue and 10th Avenue, and [we’re looking at] how we can extend the sidewalk program onto the road beds. We want corrals and trash corrals and proper places for pickup, loading and drop off. We're thinking about various – I call them vignettes – various different pedestrian treatments down the block. So in one space, maybe it's on the north side of the street, it's really sunny. So we're thinking about a sunny experience. We are a big fan of incorporating trees into all that we do and really refining our landscaping vocabulary and so obviously bringing a greater tree canopy and bringing more human scale to the block is really important, in part because we really think 14th Street is prime for being a series of cafes, have a really beautiful sort of boulevard like experience even for that one block. That's a major focus of ours in terms of what’s next and we're talking to the city about potentially standing up a program ideally next summer.
What is your vision for the future of the Meatpacking District and New York City?
I never once have hesitated from betting it all on New York City and I am not worried one bit about the future of this town. During the pandemic, everybody wrote our obituary. And I often point to the fact that we have a housing crisis and rent is through the roof because demand is so high and people still want to be here. There will always be people that want to be here. And no matter how many people say they're leaving New York, there's always going be people coming and there's always going to be the diehards as well. And so to me, the future of the Meatpacking District really is the fact that it's a neighborhood that has always really had a distinct segment of evolution and change. When you think about the past three decades, you can kind of break out into branches. What happened in the 90s? What happened in the arts? What happened this past decade? In the teens? And I really see us in a sort of state of maturity now as we've sort of gone through all of that. We're much more family-friendly than we used to be. I don't think that's going away. In three years, as many new parks have opened on the edge of our district in Hudson River Park, those are incredible resources that are not going away. I think more than anything, the Meatpacking District will continue to be a destination for New Yorkers, and a destination for those folks who are from out of town because, as we continue to do the good work here, it's all about that experience in the space outside. And that is what we were invested in because also at the end of the day, that's good for business, and as the executive director of a business improvement district. If you know there's a good quality of life for everything, theoretically, business is excelling in that environment. And that's really what it's all about.