Volume 21, Number 51 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | May 8 - 14, 2009
Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert
East River jogger runs past the buses.
With no place to move buses, city slows waterfront project
By Julie Shapiro
Tribecans breathed a collective sigh of relief last month when the city backed off its plan to dump 18 buses on West St., but the problem is far from solved.
In fact, the problem may be bigger than the community realized. The city Dept. of Transportation is still struggling to find an acceptable spot to park the 18 buses, but they will also have to find room soon for an additional 74 buses, bringing the total to 92 buses that need a home.
The 92 commuter and tour buses currently park beneath the F.D.R. Dr., where work on the East River Waterfront is about to start. As construction on the esplanade moves forward over the next couple years, all 92 buses will have to move.
“Ninety-two buses? Wow,” said Andy Neale, a member of the Tribeca Community Association who fought against the city moving the buses to West St. in Tribeca. “So this is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Neale is not exaggerating. Lower Manhattan is already overrun with both commuter and tour buses, which clog traffic and idle, polluting the neighborhood, many residents say. And now, the impasse on the 18 buses under the F.D.R. is also delaying the long-awaited East River Waterfront construction, which was scheduled to start April 27, the same day the buses were supposed to be moved to West St. before the community objected.
Janel Patterson, spokesperson for the city Economic Development Corp., said work on the esplanade could not have started April 27 because the city’s construction manager had not registered with the comptroller. But the city has cleared that up and can now only do preliminary work while waiting for the buses to move.
Community members appear more concerned about where the buses will go than about potential delays to the East River Waterfront project.
Compounding the larger bus problem, in addition to the 92 buses from the East Side, Downtown can expect at least another 200 tour buses a day when the 9/11 memorial opens, the Port Authority estimated several years ago.
“We always raise this issue of the buses time and time again,” said Julie Menin, chairperson of Community Board 1. “A solution has to be worked out.”
Carl Weisbrod, president of Trinity Real Estate and a member of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. board, called the buses a “plague” at an L.M.D.C. meeting last summer.
Avi Schick, the L.M.D.C.’s chairperson, said with 5 million visiters a year predicted to visit the memorial, a tour bus garage was essential.
“If we don’t starting thinking now about how to address it, we’re really going to have a mess on our hands Downtown,” Schick said then.
A partial solution will come when the World Trade Center’s underground bus garage opens as part of the Vehicle Security Center. That garage will hold about 80 buses, but it’s not supposed to open until 2012, nearly a year after the 9/11 memorial is scheduled to open. While all the World Trade Center projects are subject to delays, the bus garage is particularly vulnerable because the disaster-prone Deutsche Bank building has to come down before the bus garage can take shape.
Menin and others say more space for buses is needed, and soon. The best solution, she said, is the garage near the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel entrance, an option that has garnered much discussion but little action over the past several years, mostly because it needs money.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority currently owns the garage, and both commuters and residents park there. The plan Menin supports, formulated by the L.M.D.C., would be for the L.M.D.C. or the city to buy half of the garage and rebuild it so it can house 120 buses. A new residential tower atop the garage would help generate revenue.
The L.M.D.C.’s plan for the site shows either a five-story or a seven-story garage, with either a 41-story or 31-story residential tower on top of it. The development can total nearly 1 million square feet, based on available air rights, according to the L.M.D.C. plan.
Money is the chief obstacle. The L.M.D.C. was once expected to fund the garage, but spokesperson Mike Murphy said there is no money allocated. Money for the garage could have come from a $29 million economic development fund, but that fund is nearly empty after $5 million went to help small businesses and $22 million went to cost overruns at the Deutsche Bank building.
“It’s very, very important this gets funded,” Menin, also an L.M.D.C. board member, said of the garage. “I would be really hesitant to give up on this idea and come up with something else. We have a very viable idea on the table — let’s figure out how to get it funded and make it happen.”
The L.M.D.C. has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on Lower Manhattan, including a $150 million contribution to the East River Waterfront project, which, ironically, will displace buses, increasing the need for a garage.
The L.M.D.C. would not say how much they expect the garage to cost, but the first step would be to buy the space and its associated air rights from the M.T.A.
M.T.A. spokesperson Aaron Donovan said the entire garage, of which the L.M.D.C. would take only part, generates $9 million a year.
“We’d be willing to entertain any ideas at a fair price,” Donovan said, though he did not name figures.
In an executive budget document released last week, the city said the money for the project would have to come from the L.M.D.C.
“D.O.T. continues to consider strategies to address bus parking in Lower Manhattan, including the possibility of a garage and will support solutions that address the need for bus parking, are financially viable and take into account community concerns,” D.O.T. spokesperson Scott Gastel said in a statement.
When the L.M.D.C. discussed the garage at the meeting last June, Weisbrod worried that the garage would not be big enough.
“We all know that the demand and the problem far exceeds 125 buses,” Weisbrod said. “And there aren’t going to be that many places where buses can go.”
Weisbrod declined to comment this week.
David Emil, president of the L.M.D.C., said at that meeting that he had first looked at a garage that would hold 175 buses, with elevators moving the buses up and down to store them, but the technology proved too complex. In an ordinary garage with ramps, the L.M.D.C. is limited to 120 buses because otherwise it would take too long for the buses to get in and out of the garage, Emil said.
He added that the reason the L.M.D.C. is pushing the bus garage, though it may not be a perfect solution, is because it appears to be the only viable option. A city consultant did a survey to try to find another solution, and “The news isn’t good,” Emil said. “They really looked at it and they tried to figure out what can be done with these buses. And the answer is it’s not so obvious. So we need to figure out a place, a way to deal with these buses.”
Liz Berger, president of the Downtown Alliance, did not want to comment on the Battery garage but said the solution did not have to be in Lower Manhattan.
“Our pre-grid street plan, which is further compromised by construction and security closings, just isn’t made for bus parking,” Berger said. “We need to think about whether the buses that bring people here to work and to visit need to stay here.”
Berger did not have any specific suggestions but said she would like to see a plan that doesn’t “turn Lower Manhattan into a permanent bus depot.”
If the bus garage cannot get funding, Catherine McVay Hughes, chairperson of C.B. 1’s W.T.C. Redevelopment Committee, mentioned several alternatives. One that has gained particular support in the community is for tour buses to park in New Jersey, with the tourists taking the PATH train in to see the World Trade Center site. That proposal has not gained much political traction, but Hughes said several 9/11 family members support it as well.
Another idea would be for the buses to take the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel to Red Hook after dropping people off in Lower Manhattan, just a short ride away, Hughes said. Joyce Mulvaney, spokesperson for M.T.A.’s Bridges and Tunnels, said commuter buses would fit through the tunnel but double-decker tour buses might not meet the 12-foot height cutoff.
Neale suggested parking buses on Pier 76, the city’s tow pound, which has large floor plates and could handle the weight of buses, he said.
As the community looks for solutions to the larger bus problem in the future, the D.O.T. is still looking for a place to immediately move the 18 buses for the East River Waterfront Project. The D.O.T. had one meeting with several community leaders and is planning another soon, Menin said.