Downtown divided over West St.

By Josh Rogers

State D.O.T. drawing of what West St. would look like near the World Trade Center site with a tunnel underneath.

The State Dept. of Transportation last week released new details about the proposal to build an $860 million tunnel under West St. while Downtowners remained divided over whether it is the best option for the six-lane roadway.

The issue has gotten the most attention in Battery Park City, the only place along the roadway where residents live between the highway and the Hudson River.

A recent poll of Lower Manhattan residents showed that people living in B.P.C. were the most likely to say they were against building the tunnel, 42 percent, but a third of the residents either said building the vehicular tunnel between Vesey and Liberty Sts. is very important or should be a top priority. The one-third figure matched the numbers for the rest of Downtown.

It was easy to find B.P.C. residents on both sides of the issue during unscientific street interviews last week.

D.O.T. drawing of what the Morris St. area would like south of the proposed tunnel area.
Two friends and mothers pushing strollers who were opposed to the tunnel, both cited a reason that some tunnel proponents suspect is the real reason for the B.P.C. opposition — namely that reducing the number of lanes along West St. will encourage more visitors to the neighborhood.

Karen Picciani, who lives in the southern part of B.P.C., volunteered that she doesn’t want to do anything to encourage more people to cross the highway. “We like being isolated,” she said. “[The tunnel] will open us up to the rest of Downtown.”

Her friend, Trish Baumann, added, “I do like the highway as a barrier. Right now it’s so different on the other side.”

Battery Park City is often likened to the closest thing to suburban living in Manhattan and the two mothers said they felt more protected with the highway.

Picciani said she is somewhat relieved that the state has abandoned plans to build a longer tunnel from Chambers St. down to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, but her preference would be no tunnel at all. “I’ve resigned myself that they’re going to do it regardless of what we think,” she said.

Indeed, Gov. George Pataki has said he clearly wants to build the tunnel adjacent to the World Trade Center site, although most other politicians are either lukewarm or opposed to the idea.

And certainly many of the opponents dispute the notion that the tunnel will make it easier to cross the highway.

John Dellaportas, chairperson of the Save West St. Coalition, formed last year to stop the tunnel, said the tunnel’s proposed exit and entrance ramps near Murray and Albany Sts. will make the situation more unsafe. “There will be two horrific tunnel ramps that will get people run over,” he said in a telephone interview.

He says the diagrams released last week heightened his concerns about the ramps when he saw how close they were to the entrance to the Battery Tunnel. Southbound motorists exiting the West St. tunnel looking to turn into B.P.C. at Albany St. will be shifting to the right lanes at the same time motorists looking to take the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel will be shifting to the left from the local through lanes, said Dellaportas.

He said the cheaper option of at-grade improvements at a cost of $175 million would be a step in the right direction. Under this scenario, the state would add some, but not as much green space to the highway area, and pave the major pedestrian crosswalks including Vesey, Liberty and Albany Sts. in special ways to calm the traffic. Transportation officials at an all-day meeting last week acknowledged that the concept pavement drawings would have to be altered to include lane lines for vehicular traffic. D.O.T., as of now, is not proposing adding more pedestrian bridges over the highway permanently. Dellaportas said if the state connected bridges to interior buildings they would be well-used.

The agency is planning to begin building a temporary pedestrian bridge over Vesey St. next week. The bridge, at a still unspecified cost, would open by November and allow commuters exiting the PATH W.T.C. station to walk west into Battery Park City when the station reopens, also in November. It would not connect to a building although it could be built to lead into 3 World Financial Center and architect Daniel Libeskind’s proposed Freedom Tower at Fulton and West Sts.

Regardless of which option is chosen, D.O.T. plans to create a $140 million boulevard along West St. The sidewalk would be widened to as much as 40 feet in some places and a deck would be built over the Brooklyn Batter-Tunnel ramp to create a new park leading into Battery Park at the south end of West St. Unlike the tunnel, the idea has the strong support of both the governor and Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

Tim Carey, the president and C.E.O. of the Battery Park City Authority, which manages the 92-acre neighborhood of 9,000 people, said the tunnel is the only way to make it safer for neighborhood residents and the millions of people expected to visit the W.T.C. memorial. “It’s going to get worse if we don’t improve it,” he said. “I don’t want to see people killed.”

Carey cited Pearl Scher, a fairly-well known senior citizen in the neighborhood who was hit by a car on West St. last year.

Scher, 88, said in a telephone interview that she broke her ribs and still has dizzy spells and aches from last year’s accident .She would love to see a tunnel start at Chambers St. closer to her home, but the shorter tunnel is worth doing, she thinks, because it will add park space and make it easier for the elderly, handicapped, and stroller-pushers to cross.

Of the long tunnel, she said, “We would have loved it. It would be wonderful.” The shorter tunnel would “add a lot to the community,” she said.

Randy Schmidt said he bought his B.P.C. condo this year because he liked the overall Libeskind plan and the tunnel idea in particular. “I think it will be great idea to have a park there. It will help all of the people who will be strolling there.” Schmidt, who works in Jersey City, said he moved to B.P.C. from Queens to shorten his commute, but he followed the rebuilding plans closely before investing in the neighborhood.

As for the politicians, there is little enthusiasm for the tunnel other than from Pataki, and much opposition locally. U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler is the most recent to come out against it. His aide, Linda Rosenthal, said Nadler is concerned about the costs of the tunnel and also well-aware that he has received hundreds of e-mails opposing it. Assmblymember Deborah Glick is opposed, and Councilmember Alan Gerson is leaning against.

Several weeks ago, Gerson put out a strongly-worded statement opposing the tunnel, but in a telephone interview, said the statement was designed to halt Pataki’s plan and he remained open to the possibility that a different tunnel plan could work. “We had to issue a strong statement to get the governor to back off,” Gerson said at the end of May.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, the local politician with the most amount of leverage with Pataki, said he has not taken a position on the matter. He said he is not at all concerned about the costs, but it is not clear to him what his constituency wants to see.

“If that’s what the community wants, it’s not a lot,” of money, Silver told Downtown Express last week.

Two people who are concerned about the costs are Dep. Mayor Daniel Doctoroff and Madelyn Wils, chairperson of Community Board 1 and a board member of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. Both say the tunnel would improve pedestrian crossings but that it is probably not as high a priority as other projects such as building a link to J.F.K. Airport and the Long Island Rail Road.

Wils has said that the tunnel would clearly not be worth it if there were no street-level pedestrian access over Libeskind’s sunken memorial area, as she has proposed adding.

State D.O.T. officials say they have ruled out building a deck —which would be significantly cheaper than the tunnel — over the highway because of the sunken memorial idea.

A D.O.T. official who was answering questions at last week’s meeting said, “If [the memorial] came up, the deck may come back into the picture.”

This official agreed with some other architects who have said that the decision to extend Greenwich St. through the W.T.C. site, effectively ruled out the easiest way to build a deck leading to the second floor lobbies of the World Financial Center, since Church St. is significantly higher than Greenwich. “If they had done that, it would have been easy and you wouldn’t have a pit,” he said, referring to Libeskind’s memorial area.


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