Chinatown looks for roadblock to city’s new Park Row plans
By Skye H. McFarlane
The row over Park Row continued last week, as community groups from both sides of Police Plaza raised objections to the city’s new proposal to decongest and beautify the area.
For some neighborhood advocates, the mitigation plan offers too little, too late, while others believe the city is rushing to make changes without considering community input.
“Mitigation is supposed to make things better. It’s not supposed to make things worse,” said Danny Chen of the Civic Center Residents Coalition during an interview Monday. “We think some aspects of this plan are worth pursuing, but other parts of the mitigation need mitigation.”
The mitigation plan is a joint proposal by the city’s Economic Development Corp., Dept. of Transportation and Police Dept. to ameliorate the impact of the street closures and security barriers around 1 Police Plaza. A significant portion of Park Row, as well as parts of other streets, were closed to non-emergency traffic after 9/11. Various forms of bollards and security barriers were also installed in the area, all with the intent of protecting Police Headquarters from a potential terrorist attack.
Local residents and businesspeople argued that the security measures were unnecessary and harmful to quality of life in the neighborhood creating traffic nightmares and driving customers away from Chinatown’s small businesses. A group of advocates sued the N.Y.P.D., forcing the department to conduct an environmental impact statement. The final E.I.S., released in early August, admitted that the security measures have had a negative impact on traffic and neighborhood character, but argued that the street closure was still necessary to protect police operations.
Instead of reopening the street, the E.I.S. suggested a variety of lesser mitigations, which the city subsequently flushed out and began presenting to local community groups a few weeks ago. The major component of the plan would be a complete reworking of Chatham Square an idea first proposed in a 2004 Lower Manhattan Development Corp. study on the area.
The D.O.T. would replace the current five-way intersection with two smaller crossings, aligning the Bowery with St. James Pl. and flowing Worth St. directly into E. Broadway. New green plazas on either side of Worth St. would replace the current square. The plan also calls for improved streetscapes along St. James Place. Along Park Row, one of the now-unused traffic lanes would be converted into a wide pedestrian esplanade, which would slowly ramp up to give pedestrians direct access to Police Plaza. The N.Y.P.D. would also replace its “off-the-shelf” security barriers with more attractive, custom-made devices.
“I’m not going to say this is a panacea,” Josh Kraus of the D.O.T. said during an Oct. 9 presentation to the Community Board 1 Civic Center Committee. “This is a difficult intersection that doesn’t function well now and what we are proposing is a significant, significant improvement.”
Kraus said the city hopes to begin making the changes this year and finish at the end of 2009.
The C.B. 1 committee members, who represent the Seaport and other areas just south of Police Plaza, raised several points that echoed the concerns of Chinatown advocates and other Community Board 3 residents to the north of the plaza.
Both groups agreed that better pedestrian access, shorter crossing times and nicer streetscapes would be a boon for the neighborhood. They each suggested that the city should extend the Park Row esplanade to the south of Police Plaza, to replace a steep, narrow staircase and create better connections between the Seaport and Chinatown. They also agreed that the D.O.T. needed to take a harder look at other traffic problems in the area that impact, or are impacted by, the Chatham Square intersection including the reconstruction of Fulton St. and bottlenecks around the Brooklyn Bridge.
The groups had differing views, however, on the proposed realignment of Chatham Square.
“Anything is better than what it is now,” said C.B. 1 member Paul Hovitz upon seeing the presentation Oct. 9. At Tuesday night’s full board meeting, he reiterated his support for that aspect of the plan, saying, “Opening Chatham Square will be a benefit down here and to folks traveling through.”
The Civic Center Residents Coalition agreed that aligning St. James Pl. with the Bowery will help northbound traffic flow more smoothly. They also think it will improve access to the eastern part of Chinatown, via E. Broadway. However, they fear that southbound traffic may become much worse. By forcing city buses to make a sharp right turn onto Worth St., they said, the city will jam up both Bowery and Worth which is already clogged with government cars, tourists and delivery trucks.
“This is a recipe for a big toxic disaster,” said Jeanie Chin, who joined Chen in the interview Monday. “They want Worth St. to be all things to all people.”
The Coalition would like the D.O.T. to consider splitting the Bowery to align the northbound lanes with St. James and connect the southbound lanes directly to Worth St., with a traffic island in the center. At the very least, Chin said, the group would like to see current traffic counts (rather than the 2004 data) and detailed drawings that show the exact number and width of lanes in the D.O.T.’s plan. Kraus said Oct. 9 that those aspects of the plan had not yet been finalized.
After making suggestions at several public meetings, the Coalition members became frustrated when the city’s presentation did not change to address their concerns. Kraus argued that the city owed it to each community group to let them see the same presentation, but the Chinatown advocates were not convinced.
“Our feeling is that they are not really going to take community input,” Chen said. “This is just a dotting ‘i’s, crossing ‘t’s kind of thing.”
Another concern among the advocates is the proposed esplanade along Park Row. While they agree with the concept of a green walkway, they believe that an esplanade could be created without taking over a lane of Park Row. Since it is nearly impossible to turn green spaces in the city back into asphalt, they fear that the lane closure is a ploy by the Police Dept. to make the “temporary” street closure irreversible.
“The N.Y.P.D. wants this project over as fast as they can so they can keep Park Row permanently closed,” said Coalition member Jan Lee during a telephone interview.
Fearing ulterior motives and feeling that their concerns were being dismissed, the Coalition on Wednesday sent a letter to the E.D.C., demanding that the mitigation plan undergo its own environmental review process. City representatives have argued that no separate review is necessary because the mitigation plan was included in the Police Plaza E.I.S.
However, Chen and Chin said Monday that the potential impacts on traffic, as well as the change in the city map created by realigning the intersection, could make the project eligible for both an E.I.S. and a city land-use review. Both processes would require formal public input and each takes months or years to complete. If a delay could force the city to come up with a better, more comprehensive plan, though, the advocates said it would be worth the wait.
“We’re not obstructionists,” insisted Chen. “We just want to make the best out of a bad situation.”