Volume 22, Number 20 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | September 25 - October 1, 2009

Chatham Sq. work appears to be on hold for two years

By Julie Shapiro

The unpopular reconfiguration of Chatham Square will not begin for at least two years, a city Dept. of Transportation official said earlier this month.

The city cannot rip up Chatham Square now because work on the Brooklyn Bridge is about to begin, and having both projects going at once would create traffic problems, Luis Sanchez, D.O.T.’s Lower Manhattan borough commissioner, told Community Board 3’s Transportation Committee Sept. 9, according to attendees.

Three people who attended the public meeting gave similar accounts of Sanchez’s comments, but a D.O.T. spokesperson refused to confirm or deny the two-year figure after the meeting.

Anne Johnson, a C.B. 3 member, said she was happy to hear Sanchez say the street reconfiguration would be delayed for so long.

“I never wanted the project to happen in the first place,” she said.

The D.O.T. has long planned to realign the streets in Chatham Square’s complicated seven-way intersection, connecting E. Broadway to Worth St. and Bowery to St. James Pl. The $50 million project effectively cuts Park Row out of the intersection and replaces its unused lanes with a pedestrian promenade. Park Row has been closed to traffic since 9/11 because of its proximity to police headquarters, and though residents often call for the street to reopen, the city wants to keep it closed.

Those who oppose the Chatham Square plan are concerned that it will not improve traffic flow and pedestrian safety, and they also worry that ripping up the streets will hurt small businesses.

While the street reconfiguration will have to wait two years to begin, the city plans to start sooner on the tree-lined Park Row promenade and an adjacent pedestrian bridge connecting Chinatown to the Civic Center, C.B. 3 members said. Those pieces of the project are less controversial, and the pedestrian bridge is generally seen as an amenity. Monty Dean, D.O.T. spokesperson, would not give a timeline on this piece of the project either, but he confirmed that the Park Row work would likely begin before the street reconfiguration.

The street reconfiguration has to wait because the Brooklyn Bridge will be closed to Manhattan-bound traffic on some nights and weekends over the next several years while the bridge’s roadway and supports are repaired. The closures will funnel extra traffic over the Manhattan Bridge into Chatham Square, which will have to be in good condition to handle the influx. The city had been citing the pending bridge work as a reason to rush the Chatham Square project, but now the city has concluded that the intersection would not be ready for the extra traffic if work began soon.

Jan Lee, a Chinatown activist and business owner who has fought the city’s Chatham Square plan, said it made sense to delay the work for traffic reasons, but he thinks the biggest reason the city is delaying the project is to short-circuit community protests in an election year.

Still, regardless of the city’s motivation, Lee hopes that the extra time will give the community another chance to influence the design.

“The community now has time to thoroughly analyze the alternatives,” Lee said.

Susan Stetzer, district manager of C.B. 3, pointed out that the city has not been amenable to changing the plan so far. She does not see the delay as a sign that D.O.T. is backing off.

“We’ve always known they were going to do it,” she said.

Beyond just delaying Chatham Square, the Brooklyn Bridge reconstruction will have a large impact on Lower Manhattan traffic once work starts this December. The $300 million project will last until 2014 and includes widening the approach ramps, painting the bridge, waterproofing the roadway and repairing the bridge’s supports.

Some parts of the bridge, including the railing, have not been upgraded since the bridge’s opening 125 years ago.

“If we don’t do something about it, we’re going to have a huge problem,” said Rajendra Navalurkar, project manager for D.O.T.

The bridge will remain open on weekdays, but will close to Manhattan-bound vehicles on some nights and on 24 weekends starting sometime in December, D.O.T. said. The Manhattan Bridge will easily handle most of the overflow traffic, Navalurkar said, “But the issue is once you get off the bridge, where do you go?”

The city will change some local parking regulations to widen streets and will post traffic agents at key intersections. The Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center will coordinate the effort, though the agency usually does not work so far to the north, Stetzer said.

After Navalurkar presented the plans to Community Board 1 earlier in the month, board members asked if tolls on the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel could be waived during the Brooklyn Bridge’s closures. Joannene Kidder, with D.O.T.’s bridges division, said that would be difficult because of the bureaucracy involved, but D.O.T. was meeting with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to discuss it.

“It’s not as crazy as it sounds,” Kidder said.

Board members also asked about the noise of the work, and Kidder said the contractor would install pre-cut panels for the roadway, a method that reduces the need for jackhammers.

Still, she concluded, “There’s no such thing as silent construction.”



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