Allen St. ‘Champs-Élysées’ starting to take shape
By Matt Townsend
The city calls the 25-foot-wide slabs of concrete that divide the north- and southbound lanes of Allen St. on the Lower East Side a pedestrian mall. But these wouldn’t remind anyone of the grassy fields between the U.S. Capitol and Washington Monument or the landscaped islands in the middle of Park Ave.
For 13 blocks from Houston St. all the way down to a block from the East River where Allen St. turns into Pike St. this so-called mall is filled with garbage, rusted bicycles chained to rusty fences, cracked walking paths and few, if any, people. In a neighborhood that has experienced so much gentrification and population growth over the past decade, the Allen and Pike St. Malls have stood out as decrepit strips of cement that are rarely used. Even more troubling, the Lower East Side has one of the worst ratios of people to open space in the city, and these unused spaces have long left community leaders dismayed at their very sight.
“People have lived too long with the eyesore,” said City Councilmember Alan Gerson, who represents the neighborhood. “It’s a blight. It’s decrepit. It’s dangerous. It’s detrimental.”
This past spring, the city finished the renovation of a one-block stretch of the mall between Delancey and Broome Sts. as a demonstration of what could and might be done in the future with the Allen and Pike St. Malls. The refurbished block now has a brick path lined with benches, shrubs and sculptures. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation has supplied $5 million in funding for additional renovations to the mall, according to the city’s Parks Department.
The city has hired landscape architect Donna Walcavage of Edaw design firm. The Parks Department, which isn’t funding any of the renovations, said the design should be finished this fall and construction started by next year. The department has taken input from community groups, to be incorporated into the design.
“It’s exciting to finally see it happen,” said Anne Frederick, excecutive directory of the Hester Street Collaborative, which has spearheaded community involvement in the mall renovations.
Parks wouldn’t say which blocks or how many of them would be renovated. But people in the community involved with the project said they believed five of the remaining 12 blocks will next be beautified, and it would probably be the portion of the mall closest to the river, because that is a higher priority for the L.M.D.C., which has given the city $150 million to revamp the East River waterfront.
“We’re excited about what these malls can do,” said Roberto Ragone, executive director of the Lower East Side Business Improvement District. “We think it will create important leisure space and solitude space.”
When city planners widened Allen St. in the 1930s, they envisioned a thoroughfare that would bring more shoppers and their cars from outside Manhattan to the neighborhood’s bakeries, food stores and clothing shops a sort of Champs-Élysées of the Lower East Side that would lead to the waterfront. But that never happened as crime and urban decay stopped Allen St. from reaching its potential. The neighborhood, as anyone who’s walked through it in the past decade knows, has become wealthier and safer with an explosion in white-collar tenants and the trendy restaurants and luxury housing that have followed them. Allen St. has changed at a slower pace than other parts of the neighborhood, but the initial hope for it still remains.
“This is part of the Lower East Side renaissance,” said Gerson, who has helped organize the mall renovation effort and secured $500,000 in funding from the City Council. “There’s a lot of potential on the Lower East Side.”
During a lunch hour last week, people filled seven of the 10 benches in the mall’s renovated section, as others walked their dogs and strolled through. Don Light, an elderly man from Brooklyn, sat on a bench and filled out a crossword puzzle as cabs and buses whizzed uptown or rode their brakes to stop at the Delancey St. traffic light.
“I used to never come over here [the mall], but now I do,” said Light, who visits the neighborhood a few times a week.
Josh Peter, 27, of Brooklyn, scarfed down Chinese dumplings and noodles with friend Todd Kahler, 25, of Chelsea, on the next bench. Peter, who works at Dickson Hairshop just north on Allen St., said he often ate his lunch on vacant doorsteps before he discovered the mall.
“It’s pretty. I wouldn’t have set foot over here before,” Peter said.